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March 30, 2010

A Cherry Flavored Fleeting Beauty

Bread line statue at FDR Memorial on March 30The cherry trees are in full bloom. It is hard to recall that snow was on the ground just a few weeks ago. Some pictures are included with the post.  The picture at the side shows the bread line from the FDR Memorial. I went down to the cherry trees and visited Roosevelt on the way back.

Cherry blossoms are precious because they are ephemeral.  We know that they will not be there for a long time and we have to enjoy them while we can. We revel in the passing and should not wish the moment to linger beyond its time. They are beautiful precisely because they will not last.

We try to preserve too much. A report this morning on NPR talked about people worried that the world of the Mario Brothers (Donkey Kong) was disappearing. They want to preserve and protect the classic world of games. Just let it go.  We should let a lot of things go. Let them become stuff of memory and then let them slip quietly into oblivion. Nothing lasts forever.

I was reading a book called “False Economy.” The author talked about dead-end strategies and how some things just don’t make it. The example he used was the panda bear.  Besides being cute, they don't have much going for them. They eat only low nutrition bamboo, which they evidently cannot properly digest, so they have to eat a lot but don’t get much bang for the bite.  Mating is a chore they don't enjoy and on those rare occasions when they do muster up energy and the urge, there is a good chance nothing will come of it. What is amazing is not that they are endangered but that there are any of them still around at all. A less cute animal would have gone the way of the dodo a century ago.  But pandas have a constituency.  People cried a few weeks ago at the National Zoo when the Chinese took their panda back.

Cherry trees at FDR Memorial on March 30 

I remember seeing them at the zoo. Well actually, I am not sure I saw them at the zoo. They don’t  move very much. You could just put a fur there and claim it was a panda and nobody would know the difference. They are an evolutionary dead end. People have perhaps hastened their demise, but didn’t change the direction. I tried to think of why it wasn’t true, but I couldn’t. 

Jefferson Memorial and cherry trees on March 30 

BTW - The pictures are much bigger scale. If you want to see more detail, you can go to the source and look at the bigger versions. 

Magnolia blooms against darker pines near Korean War Memorial on March 30 

March 29, 2010

Decent Folks

 I don’t make a fetish of equality. In fact, I usually value diversity over equality and believe a good system is one that provides opportunities for most people to live meaningful lives in line with their aspirations and talents. This is along the lines enabling the pursuit of happiness, not actually providing happiness or even significantly facilitating it.

One reason we cannot advocate ”providing” happiness is that we don’t know what happiness is. Nor can we know, since each person defines it somewhat differently. One thing we do know is that happiness comes from believing your life has some meaning and a meaningful life is often not an easy one. Meaning in life comes from making choices and living with the consequences of them. If you cannot or do not make choices, you are an object and most people don’t want that, no matter how comfortable they might be.

So a good government is one that enables most people to make meaningful choices and create meaningful places for themselves in society. A good society enables most people just to be decent folks. I think we are slipping up on this.

What I don’t like is an increasing tournament mentality, maybe even a lottery mentality. This is a specific type of completion, which is unusually pernicious since it not only features a winner take all (or almost all) finish, but also tolerates or even encourages sabotage and subterfuge.

Competition usually carries with it the notions of winners and losers, but in a broad society base with continuous diverse, you can have different sets of winners based on different skill sets, luck or time. If you find that your skills are not particularly suited to one field, you might go into another. It is possible to have whole different sets of criteria. In a balanced life you will win some and lose some and in a reasonably open opportunity society you can benefit from the innovation and techniques of the winners even when you don’t yourself win. The challenge and response are important. The “final” outcome is less crucial because there is not final outcome. (While competition underlies all human societies (and all animal and plant species as per Darwin) we have modified out some of the more destructive aspects.)

A tournament competition is not like that. In a tournament you go directly against other competitors. Your goal need not to be better in general, you just have to be better than the competition. This is great for games and game shows (like American Idol) but it is hell in real life. Most of us don’t like to be on our game all the time and few of us really like head to head competition. But society is becoming more like a tournament all the time. If I am right that most people don’t want to be involved in a constant tournament, why are we in them more often?

One reason is that some people really DO like the tournament model and they can sometimes force this kind of competition on others. But there have always been such people. Why do the dominate at some times and not others?

IMO they are enabled by several conditions. The first is technological. It is possible for a person to cast a much longer shadow. There is a program out now about life on earth. Oprah Winfield narrates. Why is she narrating this program? Because she can. Oprah does almost everything. She is an actress, a narrator, an editor, a commentator, a talk show host, and she also is just very-very rich. Oprah has beat out the competition in so many areas because technology allows her to be virtually in many places at the same time. She has displaced hundreds or thousands of other narrators, commentators etc in a way that would have not been possible a century ago, when such things usually required actual physical presence and time spent.

The "March King" John Phillip Sousa opposed the rapid spread of phonographs. He feared it would hurt live-performances and virtually kill the “production” of music in the home and he was right. In days past it was common for family members to perform musical programs for guests and each other. Probably most of them were “bad,” but if you rarely heard a “good” one, it was okay. Today your poor little sister has to compete with the world’s best musicians available on recordings that sound even better than the live show. It is no wonder we have all retreated becoming passive listeners, each of us equipped with our own I-Pods. Most of us have lost the tournament, AND we know it.

This goes for arts & performances. It goes for business too and it has gone way beyond mass production. Goods have become more ethereal and sometimes contain almost no physical component. Software is like that. It can be duplicated at almost no cost and sold for significant profits. Beyond that, it true tournament fashion, one software system will come to dominate. There is a “market” for pirated copies of successful software, but there really is no market for a myriad of alternatives. Many people dream of knocking off and replacing Google, but nobody thinks there will be thousands of little locally produced Googles. In the tag line from “Highlander”, there can be only one.

Another driver of this tournament is globalization. This is not the first time the world has seen his. The first globalization I know much about came at the end of the Greek dark ages, around 700BC. Of course, I am using the globalization term generically to say that beginning around that time the Greek world encompassed THE world as far as they cared. There problems were remarkably similar to ours.

One of the biggest problems was growing inequality. Great inequality is impossible as long as you live in a poor, localized environment. There just is not enough total wealth nor the means to accumulate or preserve it. In other words, even if the king owns everything, there is not that much available to own and his capacity to use it is limited. A human can only physically consume so much and it is not possible for the richest guy to eat or drink much more than the poorest ones (presuming they eat enough to stay alive) and besides fat, you really cannot accumulate eating. Globalization brought in luxury goods and changed the equation. Suddenly eating goat meat and drinking goat milk was no longer enough.

What globalization provides is scale. The big fish can grow bigger in a bigger pond. You can see this in the modern world in languages. English the most widespread language in the world, so an author who writes in English can access hundreds of millions of readers with not much variable cost. (More than half the world’s technical and scientific publications are in English, not because they are all written by native English speakers, but because it is the international language. If a Japanese scientist wants to communicate with a German scientist, he does it in English.) An author writing in a language like Norwegian is just out of luck. Even if he becomes “world famous” in Norway, he probably cannot sell more than a half a million copies of his book. The market is just too small. It is just not possible for a writer in Norwegian to become a mega-best seller. But if he taps into the global market, it is possible. That is one reason why so many people write in English. There is a significant network effect. But globalization also leads to the tournament effect.

I don’t think there is much we can do about those things I mentioned above. The ancient Greeks wrested with the problem. There was the example of the Spartans, who successfully localized themselves and kept the changes at bay for a couple of centuries, but while we can admire Spartan martial spirit and vigor, I don’t think we want to pay the price they did. We have to live with a world where Oprah can take the place of thousands of us. But there are things that are within our control.

Most of us are never going to do anything great and almost none of us will be famous for being great because greatness is a zero sum game. Technology and science can give us more stuff, but it cannot give us more greatness in the famous sense. There can be only a limited number of famous people. It is the nature of being famous that the club is very exclusive.

We can go back to the concept of “decent folks.” Being decent doesn’t imply anything extraordinary. It is possible for almost everybody to achieve “decent” status. And you don’t have to be famous, but you do have to have some standards and that requires some “judging.”

I think we have abandoned or even tried to destroy the idea of decency because we have been loath to judge those who didn’t live up to it and we have fallen into the perfection trap. A decent person is not a perfect person. I consider myself a decent person, yet I know I have done or sometimes failed to do some of the decent things. When I realized my error, I sometimes tried to make up for them, but I didn’t always succeed. Nevertheless, on balance I am decent.

Am I hypocritical? Sometimes I am. But I like it that we have hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice plays to virtue and being hypocritical implies that we do indeed have a standard that many of us do not attain, but believe is valuable.

If you apply a standard of decency to fallible humans, you will indeed have some hypocrisy. But consider the alternatives. Do we want the kind of world where a man can cheat on his wife while she is fighting cancer, lie about fathering a child, treat everybody he knows poorly AND not feel he should be ashamed to let people find out about all of this?

BTW – there is a hilarious South Park episode that addresses this kind of thing.

Most people can do the decent thing most of the time. AND most people know what that is most of the time, although there will be some variation among individuals and groups.

I think that happiness comes from self respect – not this self esteem thing we try to “build” among people who might not otherwise have earned it – and self respect comes from having choices and making the decent choices most of the time. Many of those star athletes and wacky celebrities we so often see on their way to detox or apologizing for their latest escapade are rich in self esteem, but lacking totally in self respect. The decent choice is the one you feel good about, even if other people don’t praise you for it. It often means doing the right thing that is hard, rather than the pleasurable thing that you can excuse later.

Unearned success is spiritually corrupting. Who among us would want to be Paris Hilton if you had to BE Paris Hilton in all her goofy glory? When people look back on the good times in their lives, they almost never reminisce about the fat times when somebody gave them something for nothing. It is rather the challenges met and mastered that make us happy. The actual rewards of the accomplishments are often secondary to the choices made. Happiness is earned, not given.

Few of us can be famous and most of us cannot be rich, but all of us have the choice to be decent folks … or not. All of us can pursue happiness and lots of us can catch it. But nobody else can do it for us.

March 25, 2010

Brazilian Days of Future Past

I have been reading clips from Brazilian newspapers. The Embassy put me on their electronic distribution network and gave me SharePoint access. I get daily PDF files of articles about environment, energy, politics, culture and security. My Portuguese is coming back very nicely, at least reading. I can read most of the articles fairly rapidly and I can do it well enough that I actually enjoy it, i.e. I can get the news and views from the article rather than just treat it as a language lesson.

It is a lot easier to read contemporary articles and easy if you can follow the news narrative.  Since I know what to expect, I can often understand unfamiliar words and phrases from the context.   I am learning a lot about cotton subsidies, foreign military sales in Brazil, renewable energy and the Brazilian government’s attitude about Iran.

Naturally, it is easier to relearn a language than to start from scratch.  I used to reach the Brazilian newspapers every day when I was assigned there. The funny thing is that I think I am actually better now than I was back then.  It doesn’t seem possible. The intervening quarter century should have wiped out much of my Portuguese and it had, but the reading came back very fast.  I don’t remember being able to sight read articles as I can now.  Maybe my standards are lower, but I think my general ability to comprehend and figure out written foreign languages just go better with practice, even if the practice was in Polish or Norwegian and not Portuguese. I will see how good I really am when they give me the test before I start formal study.

My comprehension of spoken Portuguese is not good at all. I got several Brazilian movies.  I couldn’t tell what was going on w/o the subtitles, although I am not entirely sure it is only the language because even with the subtitles I sometimes cannot follow every plot line.  There is a lot of cultural context in film.  Sometimes I cannot follow British television shows, even though I understand most of the language.  I never understood the attraction of Benny Hill, for example.  

I used to watch the Brazilian news every night when I was working there and I recall understanding it well-enough.   But news is familiar.  Maybe that is why I can understand the newspaper articles so well.  I wouldn’t want to tackle a Brazilian novel. 

New technologies are making it easier to study language. I can get the Brazilian news on the same day.  I remember when I first learned Portuguese.  I had to page through copies of very old magazines and newspapers on that ultra thin airmail paper.

I am really motivated to get the language right. I want to be precise. My Portuguese used to be fluent, but I don’t think it was really good. This time I will do better. 

Brazil was my first post. I learned a lot and made a lot of mistakes.  I learned some lessons so that I won’t make the same mistakes again. I suppose I will come up with a whole new set of them.

Brazil is a very interesting country and I can't think of a better place for me at this time.

The Irrational World of Persuasion

I am making a presentation about public affairs at FSI in a few weeks.  It is a short presentation to mid-level officers. Below is some of the raw material thinking I have been doing about irrationality and reciprocity in persuasion. I figure that all of the stuff below will distill into one or two short paragraphs, but thinking it through is useful and I think better when I can write and ramble.  Since I have it written out, I figured I would post it.   

We like to think the truth will always come out, but isn’t necessarily so. Similarly, people are often not persuaded by facts or even their own experience. Persuasion just is not logical in the way we want. 

If people do not always (or even usually) respond rationally to arguments and persuasion, they do tend to respond in recognizable patterns. Marketers and salesmen have known this intuitively – and used it effectively - for many years. Only recently has science or at least academics, recognized and tried to explain the phenomenon. Here are some of the books that talk about that. There is some overlap with a list I made earlier about decision making that you can see at this link

I won’t try to convey all the information in all those books on the lists above. Suffice to say that people respond differently to identical sets of propositions or incentives depending on how they are stated, framed or presented and that people’s preexisting predilections, prejudices and perceptions determine not only which arguments are most persuasive but also which facts are considered salient or even heard at all. That is why attempts to “set the record straight” usually only work with those already inclined to believe you. If the bad news is that people do not make decisions rationally, the good news is that they make their irrational* decisions in patterns that can be understood if not perfectly predicted. The bad news that comes after the good news is that these patterns can also be manipulated by those whose motives and goals we abhor, so the lesson is that we are playing this game, whether we like it or not. 

So if we are talking about actual persuasion, it probably won’t help just to make information available. Providing information was a key to our success in the Cold War because accurate information was in very short supply. Today in all but the dwindling coterie dictatorships in the world’s most benighted places, information is already available.  It is how that information is put together - the contexts, relationships and the narratives - that counts. As persuaders we need to acknowledge what we know, what salesmen and marketers have long understood and what even science is beginning to explain. We are not in the information business. Information and facts are part of our raw material, but our business involves persuasion that is less like a library and more like a negotiation paradigm and rational decision making is not enough to achieve success. 

The first persuasion decision you have to make is whether or not to engage at all. No matter how urgent a problem, you should not engage unless you have a reasonable chance of success.   There are times for aggressive action, times for more passive approaches and times when you just have to hunker down until conditions improve. It is hard to know when the times or right and even harder to manage the transitions among them, which is why people who are good at knowing make the big bucks and are sought after or reviled (depending on which side they are on). 

There are some folks who say that you should be out there always and they are right that you should never fold entirely if it is something you care about and you have the capacity to stay.  But standing in front of an irresistible wave not only depletes your resources but also makes you less able to fight again another day. It is much better to let the wave expend its energy and then come back in.

Once you are engaged, think of it in a negotiation paradigm, not usually a negotiation between you and an adversary, but more of the win-win with you among a large number of participants.  Most people involved are not direct participants, but they are often the ones you want to persuade.   The committed radicals are not the targets of your persuasion.  There is no argument you can use and no concession you can make that will persuade them.  Your job is to talk over, around or through them.  Luckily, few people are really committed radicals and you can find some common ground with almost anybody.

Let’s talk about common ground. What if you have some monumental disagreement with somebody?  You might think that you cannot make any progress until the big thing is solved and then lament that the big thing is unsolvable. This is the wrong way of looking at it. In negotiations, it might be possible to set aside the big thing and work on a series of mutually beneficial smaller one.   Sometimes the momentum from successfully addressing the little issues makes solving the big one possible.  Just as often, it makes the big issue less relevant.  Most big problems are never “solved” in the context in which they were created. They are just overtaken by events. The situation might change so that it just doesn’t matter.    

Some families have a rule that you cannot discuss religion or politics. They know that agreement on these issues is nearly impossible, that a dialogue will just create more tension and that they can be safely avoided at family gatherings. 

Denial and avoidance are perfectly good tactics. Many things really do not need to be talked through and resolved and much diplomacy involved making sure sleeping dogs are not disturbed.  Not everybody likes this strategy and there will be persistent calls to “get it out in the open”.   There may be a time for this kind of frontal assault, but if dialogue will merely sharpen differences without resolving them and entrench individuals in their positions it is pernicious.  In the case of any contentious issue, there are also always a fair number of people who are professionally aggrieved.  Their goal is to keep the dialogue alive and fresh as long as possible.  In a rational world, dialogue would almost always produce better outcomes, but we don’t live in a perfectly rational world (see above).

If we are wise to avoid the frontal assault, what do we do about hard issues? When possible go around them, avoid the grievance professionals when possible and deny them a forum when you can. In public affairs, as in negotiation, you never want to be stuck on one issue where you cannot divert or make tradeoffs. One of the strengths of diversity is that it waters down grievances. If you have two opposing groups with one intransigent issue, you have a problem. But you have an interesting community if you have a dozen such groups.   

So in addition to denial, add dilution to your public affairs tool box.

Some people think it is naive to talk about win-win negotiation.  They say that somebody has got to come out on top. Avoid such people if possible because working with them will often lead to such an unhappy result. For most other things, however, we can all get more of what we want.  That is the whole basis of free exchange and cooperation in general. People all do not want the same things most things you get from a free exchange will be worth more to you than what you gave up.  The same goes for the guys on the other side and the same goes in persuasion as in negotiation.

The problem comes with the natural and good human desire to be generous. Win-win doesn’t mean giving away more than you should.  It doesn’t mean sacrifice. Those things are lose-win. It means that you get what you want AND I get what I want. Nobody should go into an engagement unless he/she believes that. But we do.

One of the dumbest things you can do is to make needless concessions.  It is not generous to give away your important positions. It is just dumb and it makes nobody really happy. Everybody will think that you are insincere. Either you didn’t really believe in your own position in the first place or you are lying about your concession, or –even worse – you are patronizing. There are to be a mutuality, a reciprocity.

The basis of almost all human relationships is reciprocity. All human societies believe in reciprocity. It has survival value. You want to be able to give to your fellow man and expect that he will do the same when you are in need. When that breaks down, so does civil society. It is probably a good idea to be SEEN to get something in return anyway, since if you don’t others will impute an ulterior motive anyway.

I know that this sounds crassly materialistic, but the reciprocity need not be material. You might help a person in the “pay it forward” mode, assuming that when he gets the opportunity he will help somebody else. The reciprocity might just be gratitude. But when a recipient is left w/o some way to reciprocate, a good person feels disrespected.  At first they are happy to get something for nothings, but they soon learn to despise their benefactor.  And maybe they should, since his “generosity” is taking their human dignity.

A simple rule in persuasion is that it is often better to receive than to give.  Let the other parties feel that they have discharged their social obligations, maybe even that THEY are the generous ones. You notice that the most popular individuals are rarely those who need or want nothing from others, even if they are very generous. And one of the most valuable gifts you can receive is advice and knowledge.  Let others share their culture and experience.

I have had my biggest successes in public affairs when I genuinely wanted to learn something. My first assignment when I got to Poland a few years back was to write a report on the Polish media. I interviewed dozens of reporters, editors and academics and they became my best contacts, often sending me updates or referring to my questions even months and years later. The most influential thing you can often do with an individual is listen carefully to what they tell you and come back a while later being honestly able to say, “I was thinking about what you said and you were right.” This interest cannot be easily faked.  I have been “played” by people who have taken the course and try to feign interest in my esoteric pursuits or ask my advice. When they praise the insights, but repeatedly fail to act on them, trust disappears. Of course, maybe I have run into people who are just so good at it that I couldn’t tell.  I suppose that would be successful persuasion.


*   I use the term “irrational” cautiously. “Rational” decision making is overrated and under examined. We make decisions based on a variety of preferences and emotional factors, some of which we cannot state. When they are reduced to their “rational” components, they may no longer make sense. There are things that really cannot be reduced to rational parts. The lyrics to “Some Enchanted Evening” actually sum it up well, “Who can explain it, who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.” Or we can quote GK Chesterton “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. He is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” If we seek only rational decisions, a computer can do it for us much better than we can.

March 24, 2010

Various Facts About Foresty around the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge

Skid trails during forestry operation 

I drove with Frank Sherwood to the Virginia tree farm of the year and got a chance to talk to him as we walked around on the ground. Frank has been doing forestry in Virginia for thirty-five years and I got some good information on drive down from Winchester. 

This area of Virginia features a lot of mixed hardwoods and white pines. I was very familiar with white pines form Wisconsin, but I really had a lot to learn about them. For example, white pine wood is light and not as hard or strong as loblolly.  It is good for fence rails (it doesn’t twist) and it is used in log cabins, but it is not as much use as structural timber.  Frank lamented that there is not much of a market for white pine saw timber in the immediate area, besides in those two limited uses. A lot of the local white pine had not grown straight and un-branched.   The newer plantations are doing better.


White pines have not been developed genetically as well as loblolly and it is less likely to be planted, since natural regeneration works very well.   A white pine rotation is around fifty years (15-18 years longer than loblolly) with two possible thinning. 

Pulp prices have remained steady over the years, Frank told me.   Some people are a little concerned about biofuels, which would compete with pulp and drive the prices up (good for landowners), but there currently is not a biofuels market in the Winchester region.  You can make ethanol from cellulous, but it is not worth it with today’s technologies.   That means that effective biofuels for wood is to burn it directly and for that you need local facilities that burn it.   The alternative is to make wood pellets, but that industry is also not present locally.

Landowners have a couple options for timber selling.  The one you get the most money for is saw timber.  Saw timber will yield $150-400 per 1000 board feet.  Pulp is the cheapest, maybe biofuels in the near future.  Pulp yields $5-7 a ton for pine and $2-3 for hardwood.  In between is scragwood.  These are small diameter but straight trees that can be sawed into rough boards used in crates and pallets.

Frank feeds the mill in Luke, Maryland.  He says that the mill’s catchment area is getting bigger because it is harder to find wood in local areas.  Development and forest fragmentation are the causes.  You can do forestry on small tracts, but at some point it gets to be economically unviable.  You probably need around forty acres to do decent management. Development has been taking forestry out of business. Although the recent economic downturn has stopped much of it, development will resume when the good times roll again. Too bad.

Frank doesn’t know of anybody using biosolids or animal manure on forest lands in this part of the Shenandoah valley or around.  There are several chicken operations (we drove past a Perdue operation) that produce a fair amount of chickenshit, but Frank didn’t know what they did with it.  Chickenshit is a powerful fertilizer, high in potassium, but as I understand it, chickenshit has to be left to decompose a little otherwise it can burn out the crops.  IMO forest lands would be a good place to dispose of some of these farm wastes.  There is a lot of forest and they could absorb and use the nitrogen and phosphate w/o letting it slip into the Chesapeake Bay. Of course, the problem is transportation. Manure is bulky, heavy and stinky.

The problem is concentration.  These large animal operations concentrate the crap. That changes it from a valuable fertilizer into a potential pollution problem. The difference between a life-giving medicine and a deadly poison is often the dosage.

Anyway, those are some of the things I learned from Frank.  The biggest benefit of writing the tree farm of the year article is getting to talk to people like him while actually setting foot on the forests.

March 23, 2010

2010 Virginia Tree Farm of the Year Visit

American Tree Farm system sign 

Noble Laesch, the father of the current owner Judith Gontis, bought this acreage in the late 1960s and it has been a certified tree farm for the last twenty-eight years. Laesch and Gontis did not live on the land and so for the last twenty-eight years it has been forester Frank Sherwood’s business and pleasure to look after these 927 acres of hilly mixed forest just inside the Rockingham County line.

White pine understory with mixed hardwoods on top

It is a tree farm with great diversity in terms of species composition, topography, soils and microclimates. The ridges are still dominated by mixed hardwoods, although gradually white pines are taking over, both through natural processes and forestry practices. We looked at a logging operations and examined some of the recently cut stumps during a recent visit. The partially shade tolerant white pines had seeded in naturally under an older stand of mixed hardwood, mostly scarlet oak, but were suppressed until released by the forestry operation. 

 We counted 130 rings on a scarlet oak stump. For the first sixty years of life, the tree grew slowly and crookedly. It is clear that there were too many trees here competing for sun, nutrients and water. We have no record of how the neighboring trees were thinned, but the tree started to grow much faster at around sixty until it slowed in older age. Unfortunately, although very big, this scarlet oak, like most of the others in the stand, had begun to rot in the middle. It was past time to remove them and give the white pines their time in the sun. Within a few years this will be an almost pure stand of white pine.

Cutover grown up after around five years.

Farther down the hill was a recently thinned plantation, a total of 126 acres of twenty-year-old white pine and a clear cut left to regenerate naturally in white pine. The trees were vigorous but widely spaced. The blueberries had come in very thickly and perhaps they just outran the pine seedlings.   The plantation was clearly better for timber production, but the naturally regenerated area had cost nothing to plant and the widely spaced trees were providing excellent openings for wildlife.   As with any management plan, it depends on what the landowner wants and it was interesting to see the side-by-side comparison of different choices.


The tulip-poplars that grow so profusely on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge do well here too, but only in coves or bowls that have deeper soil than the rocky and sometimes sandy slopes.   In these places you find towering tulip poplars that can be harvested at regular intervals and regenerated naturally.

The rest of the tree farm is mixed hardwoods, especially white and red oak, plus some maples, as well as white pine.  This is white pine country. Although loblolly can be grown here too, the white pines do it naturally. With Frank Sherwood’s advice, Mrs. Gontis, as her father before her, manages for pulp and saw timber mostly through selective cuttings.  

Like all well-managed tree farms, this one provides a home for wildlife, a place for recreation and protection for water resources. The farm is drained by Runion Creek, whose waters find their way into the Shenandoah and the Potomac and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. Although there is some development in the region, it looks like this tree farm and its 927 acres will continue to provide these kinds of ecological services for years to come. 

March 22, 2010

130 +/- Years

Tree rings on a 130 +/- scarlet oak from Rockingham Co VA taken on March 22, 2010The stump is from a scarlet oak that started life sometime around 1870 up the hills just over the northern boundary of Rockingham County, where I was visiting this year's tree farm of the year. I didn’t count all the rings, but it is close. I sharpened a little on the picture so you can see the pattern. It tells a little about Virginia history.

You can see that it grew hardly at all for the first sixty years. This is probably because it was severely overcrowded. This area was almost completely cut over in the decades before the Civil War. Some of the wood was used for building, mining supports & staves, but mostly for charcoal for little foundries and lime kilns in the region. The trees grew back after the industries moved along and they came back thick and for about sixty years, roughly from 1870-1930 there wasn’t enough sun or water to go around. (In those days there weren’t as many deer and other varmints around. These days, they would browse down some of the trees.) Our tree was also leaning a little. You can see that it grew as a reaction more on one side.

But something happened around 1930. Somebody probably cut down some of the trees.  Or it could have been a fire or insect infestation, but that seems less likely, since whatever it was didn’t harm our tree here. In fact, it started to grow a lot faster, until it slowed again down because of its age.

Scarlet oaks are part of the red oak family, but they are among the worst members. They wood is not as good northern or southern red oaks and scarlet oaks tend to rot in the heart or have other irregularities. The logger said that the logs in the pile shown in the picture were probably not up to saw timber standards because of this.

Stacking logs 

All members of the red oaks family have open pores, which is why they cannot be used for barrels and generally do not do well when exposed to water. Even as seasoned firewood, they can hiss when burned, since they absorb water easily and a little rain will soak in. The oak whiskey barrels used for Bourbon whiskey are always white oak. White oak also makes better firewood. 

There were mostly scarlet oaks on this ridge, mixed with white pines. White pines are partially shade tolerant when they are young, so they will come in under the oaks. The loggers cut out the scarlet oaks and the forest will come back as mostly pine. The scarlet oaks were almost done anyway. Many were already rotting in the centers and they were well past prime as timber trees.

yellow poplars in cove with deep soil in Rockingham County VA 

This part of Virginia is white pine country, at least on the hillsides. In the coves, where the soil is deeper, the yellow-poplars do very well. The picture above shows some of them. They grow very fast. This stand has been harvested twice since the late 1970s and it is ready for a third cut, as you can see.

Yellow-poplar is good for furniture inside drawers and cabinets with veneer of oak or other high quality wood on the outside. Yellow-poplar doesn't shrink or swell very much, so it is good for that purpose. 

I will write more about this subject tomorrow. 

March 21, 2010

Alex & Mariza

Cook at Kyoto Japanese Restaurant in Harrisonburg, VA on March 21 (Alex's birthday) 

I drove up to Harrisonburg for Alex’s birthday.  He is doing okay, but is still having some loneliness problems. We didn’t do anything extraordinary, mostly talked. We did go to lunch and supper together and went got a few necessities at Walmart. Lunch was at Kyoto, one of those Japanese steak houses where they do the grill show with the food. 

Mariza’s birthday was a couple days ago. She came down from Baltimore for it.  We had some cake, but we aren’t very big on the party things.

I wrote the birthday stuff last year and nobody feels comfortable about too much recent information being divulged. There is a kind of declassification period that must be respected.   

Suffice to say that I am proud of the adults they have become and I enjoy their company, but I miss the children they were. These are the times that I feel that most acutely.

Thoughts on Cars and Trucks

boltsI was part of a new car design survey today. I think that they chose me as part of the control group that knew nothing about cars. I filled out a survey about the kinds of criteria I would use in buying a new car. 

Then I went in and saw about a dozen new car designs.   Evidently they were Volkswagens, Hondas, Toyotas and Chryslers.   We were asked to evaluate each car in terms of looks, interiors etc.   Most of the cars were too small inside, IMO.  I like the feeling of my Honda Civic.  Although the car is small, it has a lot of room in the driver’s seat.  A lot of the bigger cars don’t really have that feel.

I don’t really care much about cars.  I want one that is reasonably safe and comfortable and one that gets good mileage.   Other than that, I cannot tell much about them.   As part of the survey I had to guess what kind of car we were looking at.  I don’t think I did very well. 

I watched an old movie “Convoy” with Kris Kristofferson. It was made in 1978 when the price of gas had gone up and the 55 MPH speed limits were imposed.  There were a few movies like this that portrayed the anger associated with the perceived loss of the freedom of the open road.  “Smokey and the Bandit” was another one like this, a lot of law breaking and destruction of property. 

I wanted to be a long-distance truck driver once. I was an indifferent student when I started college and didn’t see much future in that.  When I worked a Medusa Cement, the truck drivers seemed to have it best.  They got out on the road, while we just loaded the bags of cement on their trucks. I would not have been a good truck driver. It is a subset of the general driving thing and my lack of love of cars (mentioned above) is probably an indicator that it is not one of my strengths.  

The 1970s were the tail end of the trucker golden age anyway.  Traffic was getting worse.  Speed limits were coming down and generally the open road was disappearing.  Everything is a lot more organized now and much less of an adventure.

The 1970s was also the time when containerized cargo changed shipping in general.  It put a lot of truckers and longshoremen out of jobs.   That really revolutionized commerce. 

March 19, 2010

Arlington Cemetery

Arlington Cemetary on March 18, 2010 

I have been riding my bike to work again through Arlington Cemetery, as I wrote in yesterday’s post. Daily exposure to something can desensitize you to its details, but it can also help you see and appreciate it more. I am not sure which side I fall on most of the time. Maybe I see it new again each season. Anyway, I took a couple of pictures.  

Horses pulling caison in Arlington Cemetary 

Marching band at Arlington Cemetary 

March 18, 2010

Like Riding a Bike

Bikes locked up outside hearing re bike lanes in Washington 

Today I got all the way to work w/o getting a flat tire or crashing into anything.   It was a great first (well second) day for my bike-to-work season.  It is true that you never forget how to ride a bike.  The old muscle memories jump back into line – just not as efficiently as the end of last season.  I expect to be a little stiff tomorrow because I am already a little stiff today.

Below is the almost done building at Waterfront Mall.

Allmost completed buildings at Waterfront Mall in Washington on March 18, 2010 

There have been suggestions at State Department that we should subsidize bike riding.  It is a silly idea. Frankly, I don’t want to share my bike path with anybody who has to be paid to be there.  It is a joy to bike.  You just need bike friendly facilities.  My building is very good.  We have a locker room with showers.   You really don’t want to sit all day at work after riding an hour on a bike w/o a shower, nor do you want to sit next to anybody else who has done it.  Modern technology has made looking neat easy.  I bring along a wrinkle free shirt.  These things are great.  100% cotton, comfortable and always pressed.  Even if you stuff it into a bag, and I literally stuff it into a Ziploc freezer bag, all you need do to make them look a pressed as the best iron could made them is to put them on while you are still damp. 

I cut through Fort Meyer and Arlington Cemetery. I also ride past the Lincoln Memorial, in sight of the Washington Memorial and the Capitol.  It is a very patriotic bike ride.

Our operation at work is in stand down mode.  President Obama has postponed his trip to Indonesia, originally scheduled for March 19, then March 21 and now sometime in June. (He has to stick around for the heath care final act.) There were lots of plans and preparations and people had cleared their calendars for the visit. Now, for a brief time, there will be … nothing. It is like the scene in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” where everybody works at top speed and then they get to the end of the road and there is nothing left to do.  I wasn’t much involved with it, actually, but my colleagues were working full-out. They deserve the rest.

Our business is like that.  We spend a lot of our time in frenetic activity that is overtaken by later events. I guess life is like that sometimes in general, a tale, told by an idiot, fully of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But who cares if you can bike to work in the pleasant warm air and sunshine, preferably with a little tail wind. This is going to be a glorious spring. Spring is always nice around there, but usually we get a few flowers at a time. They kind of ration their beauty.  But atypical cold and snowy winter has held back the flowers, which will now burst forth at once in a rare display of unity.

March 17, 2010

Stuck in a Dead End

Sandburg St in Fairfax Co VA 

I tried to start my bike season today and ended up with a flat tire. It was my own fault.  After many years of riding my bike, I still cannot properly change a tire. I "fixed" my bike yesterday and I think I just got the inner tube caught on the rim. It just needed a little pressure to blow out. I wasn’t too far from home, so I could walk back in around a half hour. It was not a complete loss. The walk was really nice and I had a chance to think about a few things.

What I thought about was Nash equilibrium. I can't say I am an expert on the details, but as I understand the simple version, Nash proved mathematically what we perceive intuitively but imperfectly. It is possible to have stability at a situation that is bad and everyone agrees is bad.  However, each person makes perfectly logical choices that lead to this outcome.    

The way that it works is that if almost everybody makes the “good” choice (call it choice A), they are all better off.   But if not enough people make that choice (they choose choice B), those that choose A suffer more than those who make the bad choice (B).  So everybody tries to figure out what the majority will do, while complaining about the stupidity of the herd. These sorts of equilibria have tipping points.  If enough people come to think others will choose outcome A, they all will pile on. The same goes for the other option.

Nash, BTW, is the guy played by Russell Crowe in the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” The real Nash won the Noble Prize for his work in mathematical economics. If you study game theory, you have to study Nash.

The example of a Nash equilibrium I thought about on my morning walk was traffic and blocked roads.  Northern Virginia has horrible traffic problems. Many of them result from the stupid way streets are laid out.  Unlike a logical grid layout you find in many cities, Northern Virginia’s road system looks more like a river drainage basin, with dead end tributaries flowing into larger and larger streets. There might be only one – usually winding – road that you can use to get where you want to go. Parallel streets, if they exist at all, are blocked or dead ended.

I think that the original road system was based on cow paths and Indian trails. We have Braddock Road, which is the course that General Braddock took to Pennsylvania during the French and Indian wars. Since he insisted on building a road, the French and Indians saw him coming and wiped him out.  George Washington saved some of the troops and it was the start of his good reputation.

Onto the cow path system was appended a system of cul-de-sacs and dead end streets.  This is where the Nash equilibrium starts to play. People prefer to live on quiet streets and the best way to ensure a quiet street it to make sure that it doesn’t go anywhere. So builders and planners create neighborhoods with no-through streets. This means that you might have to drive ten miles to travel one mile if you could go straight. It also throws all the traffic onto a few overcrowded roads.  

I walked home along Sandburg Street. It parallels Gallows Road, which is gridlocked at the time I was walking.But there were no cars on Sandburg. That is because you cannot get there from here in a car.  Sandburg has a dead end right in the middle. This is what you see on the picture. The wide and well paved road comes to an end in a patch of grass around five yards wide. It has been this way a long time, because some trees have grown in. Then it starts again. I am sure this was originally a real dead end.  Now they cannot make it grow through because the local residents will complain. There are lots of place like this in Northern Virginia.  Everybody agrees that we would all be better off if we could spread the traffic and drive the shorter distances. But nobody wants to give up his own quiet street.

BTW - Did you hear the story about the guy asking for directions? He asked an old man, "Does this road go to Chicago?" They old man replied, "No. I have lived here all my life and I have never seen it go anywhere."

So the State keeps on widening the roads. The irony is that they widen the empty roads too.  As you can see in the picture, Sandburg is a fairly wide road, considering it doesn’t really go anyplace.  At least this road has a place where pedestrians and bikes can get through. Most don’t even do that because everybody wants privacy.

There is no way out of this equilibrium. You might say that we have reached a dead end.

March 16, 2010

Work-Life Balance


Balancing work and the rest of your life is never easy. An NPR story on results-only work environments reminded of that.  I once ran a unit with around forty-five professionals, most of whom telecommuted a couple days a week and since my current staff and I enjoy flexible work arrangements, I think I can add something to the debate.  

Telecommuting and flexible hours can work well and increase productivity and morale at the same time, always a plus, but whether or not you can have flexible hours or work at home first of all depends on what you do.  Of course, if you work in a factory or a construction site, if you are a farmer or a fireman, you have to go to a specific work site.  We are mainly talking about jobs connected using Internet. 

One of my challenges in managing ROWE (I will call it by NPR’s term, which is better and more inclusive) was perceived fairness.  Jobs where people can work by themselves or collaborate online are easy candidates for ROWE.  But some jobs require actual physical presence.  In most offices, those jobs tend to fall near the top and the bottom of the organizational chart.  Let’s start near the top.

A big part of management and leadership is just being there and being seen.  Another is making personal connections, sometimes through the simple serendipity of being there. The now classic business book, “In Search of Excellence,” talked about management by walking around.   All great leaders know this intuitively and most good managers want to do it. Leaders also know that if they are not seen, they may not be heard from again. But sometimes when you promote an excellent worker to a management position he/she thinks it is unfair to ask him/her give up the ROWE.  Actually, leaders are always living in a ROWE and their results generally are produced in person.

On the other end, you have people who must do actually physical work.  Most obvious are people who clean things or set things up.  In my case, I had people who had to physically assemble outreach packets etc.  They complained that they could not telecommute, mentioning the injustice of it all.  You can see the problem from their point of view.  They are often paid less than average and have difficult time juggling work and family responsibilities. But there is nothing you can do for them except encourage them to try to get one of the jobs that has ROWE.   I found, however, that some don’t want those jobs either, because of the added responsibility, which leads me to the next aspect – responsibly.

ROWE requires greater self discipline on the part of the worker.  There are some people who just cannot handle it and I had to suspend some privileges.  But perhaps the trickier problem comes from those who work TOO hard.  They never really clock off.  For a while, I used to check my blackberry before bed and send off a few messages.  I was often surprised to get immediate responses from people still working.  Maybe they were just doing what I was doing, but I suspect not, since my inquiries were unusually one line reminders, while the responses I got for them took real work.  I used to have to tell them to stop working to avoid burn out.  AND I had to stop sending messages after 7pm or before 7am and tell others to do the same.  If people think the boss is working, some of them will work too, no matter what you tell them. 

The irony is that you have to lead by lazy example.  I “work” around ten hours a day, but in the middle of that day, I usually find time to run or take a walk. I find that it actually increases my effectiveness and not only because it makes me feel better. So much of our work is now online collaboration. It makes sense to sent something out and then get lost so that others can do their parts in peace.  You often don’t add value by hanging around and can actually subtract some.

ROWE has some interesting social and organizational implications. I am not sure if it strengthens or weakens the power of the employee or the power of the organization. A bad boss can become a tyrant by demanding 24/7 responses. On the other hand, employees can more easily ignore him. I suppose a lot depends on the relative power of each going in. 

It will save companies some money. I thought of using “hotelling” where ROWE employees share office space on the assumption that everybody won’t be there at any one time. I didn’t get very far with this and had to back off.  But it will come. It doesn’t make sense to have a whole suite of empty offices. Future office buildings will feature more open and common space to handle the surges, but less daily personal space.

I believe in ROWE for myself and others.   

But not all mangers like ROWE.  Some personality types just like to have people around to boss. I have to admit that I sometimes feel a little lonely when I walk past empty offices, but it is the way more and more firms will be organized in future.

People will do things in a decentralized way.  In fact, we have already outsourced many of our routine tasks, such as most copying and compiling.  FedEx, UPS or the Post Office can now do most of your logistics. Cloud computing will take care of your data processing and there are firms that will handle all your HR functions.  Maybe we will all become firms of one or two people, teaming up with others on an ad-hoc basis and cooperating and connecting via communications technologies.

I remember more than twenty-five years ago I heard a motivational speaker say that everybody was in business for himself.   He explained that nobody takes care of you as well as you take care of yourself.  You had the responsibility to keep yourself current and trained by seeking education.  You had to make sure your skills were up to date and that you have access to everything you need.  You couldn’t count on your employer to do that, he said.  We were effectively our own company that sold our serviced to our employer(s).  I thought he meant it metaphorically, but he was right in very concrete ways.  We should all think of ourselves as a company that we own and manage and ask whether we would buy stock in ourselves and whether our work-life balance makes it the kind of place we want to live and work. 

If not, maybe a little R&D is in order.

BTW - the picture on top shows the first magnolias blooming near the Red Cross. 

March 15, 2010

The American Nation is Greater than the American Government


A valid criticisms of traditional history writing is that it personifies & treats countries as if they are individuals. You might read, “France was angry with Prussia over its actions.”  What does that mean?  Was everybody in France angry? How much does a government represent, really represent the society it governs?  For most of history the answer has been - not much. The rulers decided w/o asking most other people. It is true even in a democracy.  People making decisions are always removed and different from "the people."

Of course, when writing history we have to simplify. Beyond that, notions of sovereignty indicate that the government speaks for the country. This is true even for dictatorships where we know that most people do not support the current government.

But the whole idea of public diplomacy is based on the contrary idea, i.e. that “the people” are more than their current government and that we should talk to the people of the world beyond and sometimes in spite of their regimes.  In the old days, we reached out with Radio Free Europe or VOA. Today there are proposals to provide Internet to get around despots in places like Iran. 

In reasonably free countries, most important things happen outside the direct purview of government. A good government stays out of the way when possible and when it does get involved it facilitates but does not manage. This means that in a country like America we can live most of our daily lives w/o having to make overt political calculations. This is a great advantage and one that people like Americans, long accustomed to freedom, take for granted and often undervalue.

Freedom is like good health, something you don’t properly value until you no longer have it.

But understanding that public diplomacy should reach out to people of other countries, beyond the tradition diplomatic outreach to their leaders doesn’t always stop us from not understanding that many of the same things apply on our side. Even we sometimes fail to appreciate that the American people are greater than the American government. 

We often hear comments/complaints that official USG public diplomacy efforts are inadequate.  This may sometimes be true, but what usually follows this thought is more problematic.  After the initial complaints and listings of problems, we usually hear that somehow the USG has failed to but should “harness” the power of the American people, private business, educational institutions etc.   Whether or not you should (or can) do these things depends on what you are proposing to do.

First a little background.  The American nation is indeed greater than the American government and it is frustrating to American officials that all that power cannot be harnessed for what they consider good or that we/they cannot get credit for reaching out.  But the American nation is already reaching out.  

Private American “foreign aid” already dwarfs programs officially run by our government.   If you add in remittances and private capital flows, the USG “investment” is only 9% of the total.   This 9% is still $21.8 billion dollars and makes up around 20% of the total official government aid given by all the countries in the world, so it is still a really big number.  So how should those contributing 9% harness those who contribute 91%? Maybe things are going okay without the harnessing. 

The same goes for our educational system. Our universities are the best in the world.   Last year 671,616 foreign students were studying at U.S. universities. Our USG Fulbright program is something we can be really proud of. It helps some of the best and the brightest improve their educations. But each year only around 6000 students get those scholarships.  

The same goes for … I could go through a whole list of American artists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and groups of all kinds. I never cease to be amazed by my fellow Americans, but you get the picture.

The American nation is already in the game. The American government has a crucial role to play but it is a leadership role of pointing the way and removing barriers rather than a management role of specifying how things should be done or working through details.

I wrote a post a few days ago about how America’s de-facto cultural policy works because it decentralizes decision making and rather than harnessing the energy of the American people, it allows them to express their ideas and innovation. If anything, the American government is the one that is harnessed to the plans and aspirations of the American people, and in a democracy that is fitting and proper.

Maybe that is what is going on internationally too.  (Recall that because of the nature of our tax system a lot of that “private” charity has a USG component.)  The essence of the so-called soft power is that it is dispersed and not always exercised by the same people who possess the hard power.  One reason why American cultural products are so influential is that they are not produced by the American government. People trust that they are not propaganda or even attempts at honest messaging.  The close embrace of government, even when it is loving,  is not always healthy for artists and writers and it can be downright suffocating for entrepreneurs.  Governments work best as consumers of their products, not co-creators.   

It is great for public diplomats to be able to “represent” the phenomenal vitality of the American nation. However, the scope for overlap and cooperation may be very broad, but it should not very deep. Public diplomacy professionals should certainly be consumers and enthusiasts of the best our country offers. That doesn’t mean that we can or should work in close partnership to guide or be guided by particular individuals or groups over the long term. *

Being broadly representative of America is what public diplomacy officers do best and what we should continue to do, but we need to recall that we work for the government, which is only a part of the nation, and there are not very many of us.  

We can bring attention to what is best in our country. We can explain U.S.  policies and advocate them.  We can make friends and nurture relationships.  But we have to be really careful when we try to “harness” the power of the American nation for our (perhaps ephemeral) particular programming needs. In many cases it is best for us to facilitate contact among those who truly know and care about an issue and then get out of the way.  Opportunities for cooperation should always be explored but with the considerations mentioned above always in mind.  Particular partnerships can come and go, but the core task of representing the American nation abides.  

To paraphrase Matthew, maybe we should render onto Caesar (government) that which is Caesar’s; render onto God that which is God’s and let the American nation take care of the rest.

***** * 

*The most obviously dangerous one is the simple matter of exclusion and inclusion.   Sustaining deep relationships with any particular Americans means that we must exclude most others.  We have limited staff and limited resources. 

I wrote a post last year about the possible conflicts of interests of too close ties with business.  If you are interested enough to read the post please do so, but the point is that if business and government form partnerships, they both hope to gain something from the joint enterprise.  Unless everybody thinks the relationship through, much of what they expect might give the impression of impropriety and sometimes might actually be unethical.

It can be too easy for particular firms to become the “go to” places for U.S. officials.  Pretty soon it looks like the U.S. is endorsing or backing their products.  Even though nobody says so, foreigners might treat them differently because of this. When working in Poland, I found that many people assumed that they could get better treatment for things like visas if they worked with firms somehow associated with the Consulate. We would sometimes have to distance ourselves from a firm that was in fact actively implying such useful connections.

You can also easily envision situations where closeness to the USG would be a negative.  Unfriendly foreign authorities might not be able to effectively harass our diplomats, but they can take out their frustrations on U.S. firms or their local employees.

We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

Wagon train painting from Smithsonian Museum of American History

We cannot patent ideas. Patents can protect only the physical manifestations of ideas, not the ideas themselves. This makes sense from a practical legal point of view. But we think of technology too narrowly when we concentrate on equipment and machines that make our world so different from that of our parents. A technology also refers to the human skills, habits and even cultures that help us solve problems and achieve our goals. These broader aspects of technology often explain why physical technologies sometimes fail to transfer or fail to flower outside their places of origin.  When we sell somebody a computer, we just are not transferring the whole technology, even if we have included the latest software. 

Misunderstanding of the breadth of technologies is an important reason why we fail to understand other contemporary cultures or people of other ages.  We tend to think that they are just like us only wearing funny clothes or that they are so different as to be almost a different type of human. Both these formulations are wrong.  Human nature remains similar, but it is amplified, altered or attenuated by technologies available and used. 

Physical technologies are easy to see.  An ordinary person in a culture that has developed automobiles can move many times faster than the fastest runner of one that has not. Intellectual technologies are harder to see, but can convey similar advantages. For example, the greatest mathematician of 1000 years ago could not pass a high school math course. Many of the quantitative techniques we use were just not invented. There was no calculus back then.  Statistics were in the alchemy stage. Even those calculation tables were not around.  Would it be possible to think as clearly about physics or engineering if you just didn’t have those mathematical and calculation tools? 

If I can indulge a little with my own experience (since this is my blog post), I can explain a growth of technologies and how it affects skills. I graduated with my MBA in 1984.  I am certain that I could not have gotten an MBA at all in 1974 and I believe that by 1994 (or today) I would have an easier time in school.  The reason is the presence and removal of limiting factors.  I cannot do arithmetic.  Arithmetic is not the same as math, but until calculators became common nobody could handle higher math unless he was also passably good at the simple skill of “ciphering.”  In 1974 sophisticated calculators were not available or affordable. Ten years later they were. Calculators are good; computers are better. By 1994, computer programs were commonly available that easily could do regression comparisons and multivariate analysis.   

These improvements in technology removed the tedium and routine repetitive work and allowed us to use our brains in more innovative ways. We used to think of intelligence in terms of ability to remember a lot of facts and do quick calculations. (I call it the Spock trap.)  These are things that machines now do for us most of the time.  In humans we now treasure the kind of intelligence that can make intuitive and creative leaps. Technology removes a limiting factor and makes the next step possible.

There are less obvious advances. One of the most important is in the realm of organization.  The Framers of our constitution studied political systems ancient and (to them) modern, but they found no example of a successful large republic or one with consistently peaceful transitions of executive power over long periods. That is because there weren’t any. Humans had not yet created that experience.  Our Constitution is based on Greek and Roman models leavened by the practical experience of British practices supplemented by examples from elsewhere.  (A big failing of the Romans is that they never solved the chief executive succession problem. We were forewarned and did a good job with that.)

James Madison’s or Alexander Hamilton’s reading list was impressive, but all the experience of the 19th and 20th Centuries, when many new forms of governance were tested in real world situations was unavailable to them since it still was in the future. (A good book about the thinking that went into the U.S. Constitution is Novus Ordo Seclorum by Forest MacDonald) Imagine trying to explain political theory w/o being able to reference anything that happened after 1787 and you will begin to understand their handicap.

How about economics?  The guys who wrote the Constitution could have read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but all the economic theory and experience with markets on which we now depend were still in the future.  It is amazing how well Hamilton did w/o those things or examples. In my own lifetime, we have seen a revolution in our understanding of economics, with various intellectual technologies, such as behavior economics and new means of measurement.  It is now much easier to understand what and why people are acting in the economic realm.  

We all stand on the shoulders of giants of the past and it is no disrespect to them or foolish pride on our parts to acknowledge that our position gives us greater vision than they enjoyed.  I am always struck by the incongruous combination of sophistication and short-sightedness among the masters of the past.  Plato and Aristotle struggled with concepts that we can easily address because they and others have shown us the way.  It is churlish of us to look down on their mistakes but silly to ignore them.  No intelligent modern man could base his philosophy on Plato any more than a modern doctor could stop his study with Hippocrates or a physicist could understand the universe by studying Thales. But we owe much of our modern understanding to the starts they gave us.

So,  we can talk about physical, intellectual, scientific, cultural and organizational technologies. But I think there have also been improvements in moral technology. I know this is controversial and I am not saying that most people have become morality better; I am saying that ordinary people have access to a better “moral technology," which give even ordinary people access to moral power that only the most fortunate had in the past.  That is not to say they use the power wisely any more than a driver of a fast car necessarily puts all the horsepower to good use. 

As somebody who loves the classics, I treasure the ancient texts. I know that people will remind me that Aristotle addressed ethics, almost 2400 years ago and we have had access to the Bible for nearly 2000 years.  What has improved?   Most important, IMO, is that more people can think about these issues.  We have greater literacy and much greater access to the great books. We have also expanded our experience to include the wisdom of a greater variety of cultures. We also have the benefit of thousands of years of experience. We could claim that the clash of cultures in the Roman world was every bit as real as we face today, but never before has the contact been so rapid or intimate. In times before significantly before our own, news and people moved only as fast as a horse could walk or at best a ship could sail with a good wind. Most people lived their entire lives within a few miles of the places they were born. People simply did not have the diversity of experiences we do today.  

It is a lot easier to believe a set of morals is THE only truth if you never meet any good or intelligent person with a conflicting or contrary opinion. Moral or ethical awareness improves and develops when challenged to address new experiences, different ideas and diverse people. 

There is also the accumulated effect of experience. The knowledge of the Holocaust and a visit to Auschwitz will certainly affect a moral calculation. Some of the ends justifying the political means or "collective" will so completely overriding the priorities of individuals makes much less moral sense if you know about the Gulags.  

So we have to be realistic. We don’t expect that a man with a hammer and chisel can beat a steam drill (remember the John Henry story). Technology multiplies the power of human muscle. It also can multiply the power of human intelligence and improve human thinking and judgment. This is hard to believe. We like to think that the great thinkers of the past, or of other cultures w/o some of our technologies of thought, would be able to fit right into our intellectual context, but it is unlikely. Besides to obvious historical excitement, I think it an able modern scholar would be disappointed with a technical discussion with Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Pythagoras or Leonardo da Vinci. We have "conversed" with them already through their writings and have developed further their best ideas in light of knowledge and experience they could not have.

I have had this disappointing experience on a smaller and modern scale on several occasions when I have met authors whose work I admire.  Many times, their knowledge of their topic peaked on the day they finished the book I read and loved. It makes sense. They poured themselves into what they wrote and after that forgot some of the details, maybe they moved on to something else.  Of course, it is often very interesting to learn about their subsequent ideas, but that is another story.

Think of it this way. Most of us try to improve ourselves and learn new things. If you take a rigorous course of study, are you better before or after … or are you just the same? If you don’t feel you can improve, you would be foolish to spent the effort. And if you believe you are better after the learning (internalizing the new intellectual technology) you must also understand that someone w/o access to what you learned would be in the same situation you were before you became more enlightened.

March 14, 2010

America at the Museum

http://johnsonmatel.com/2010/March/Museum/turbine.jpgEspen’s professor told him that he could get a few extra credit points if he visited an exhibit on the history of computers at the Museum of American History, so we went down. It turns out the exhibit was no longer there. They took it away more than two years ago when they did renovations.  

We took a picture of Espen at the museum to prove that he went. I find interesting that the exhibit has been gone for two years. Obviously the professor hasn’t visited recently; I wonder how many of his students claimed to have gone in the meantime.

It reminds me of the sleazy journalist’s trick of writing about an event using only the press release.  I have seen stories reporting the comments of guests who never showed up or giving details of events that were canceled and never happened at all. Sometimes nobody really seems to care. The irony is that a bogus story is usually more interesting than the real thing.


I enjoyed the museum. I haven’t really been through it since the renovation. They restored the original “Star Spangled Banner” and put it in a nice exhibit hall and there were lots of nice examples of the machines and technologies that built our country. They had a big a special set of exhibits about electrical generation and a little hagiography for Thomas Edison, who deserves it.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that General Electric was a major sponsor.

Stuffed bison at Museum of American History on March 13, 2010 

March 13, 2010

Where No Man Has Gone Before

There are 120+ little boys for every 100 little girls in China & Northern India. This is because baby girl fetuses are aborted and newborn baby girls are killed in the quest for sons. When the boys get old enough to care, they will find a female shortage. The world has never experienced anything like this before. What will be the social ramifications?

Imbalances in the other direction are common. Men have been killed disproportionately in hazardous occupations and in wars. After a big conflict or in some particularly warlike societies, there might be two or three times as many women as men. This was one of the justifications for polygamy and that adaption meant that within very broad boundaries the smaller number of males made no difference in the reproductive success of the population. In these situations, one man is able and usually willing to do the work or three or five. It doesn’t work like that for women. Young men are responsible for most of the violence in any given society and they don’t settle down until they have established themselves in relationships with females. Evolutionary theory explains this very well. They are wild and crazy because they are competing for reproductive success, even if our modern societies sublimate and mask what is going on. Even if we forget about the Darwinian aspects of this situation, the social ramifications are significant.

In 2020, there will be 30-40 million more Chinese men than women in the age groups when they care about those things. For comparison, there are only 23 million boys below the age of twenty in Germany, France and UK combined. That means that essentially China will have more than the whole young male population of these countries w/o girlfriends. Worldwide the estimate is that there will be something like 90 million more men at the key reproductive ages by 2020.

What happens when there are lots of men and not many women? In Roman history, we have the rape of the Sabine women, where young men of Rome just went out and kidnapped women from neighboring tribes. This, in fact, is the way the problem has been handled until modern times. But in these cases they were talking about local shortages.

There is some hope that this will be a passing trend and in the long run relative scarcity will improve the status of women. Already in India dowry prices are falling. Women may be able to get a better deal if there are many more men available.

In the classic movie, "Casablanca", the French Captain Louis Renault chides Rick Blaine (the Humphrey Bogart character) for not paying proper attention to a female admirer. "How extravagant you are throwing away women like that. Someday they may be scarce," Louis says. Maybe he was right, just a little ahead of the time.

March 10, 2010

Iraq in the Fullness of Time

Memory is never finally fixed. We are constantly editing our memories in the light of subsequent events. Sometimes meaningless event are explained in the fullness of time. Sometimes those events really were meaningless and they take on meaning only because we have jammed them into our narrative of memory.

That is why oral histories are unreliable and even things that are written down are subject to continual revision.Telling any story is always an act of choosing and even if we are being fair and thoughtful, our choices will always be subject to revision. We probably cannot arrive at THE truth, but we usually can come up with something useful or at least something that makes sense to us.

I have been thinking about these things as I prepare to address a class in public diplomacy at USC. They want to know about strategic communications at a PRT in Iraq. Lucky for me my blog provides a lot of contemporary impressions and pictures. I can see the evolution of my own thinking and my blog entries remind me of lots of things I would have forgotten. It seems like I am reading the experiences of someone else, but I know it was me because I can see the pictures.

My time in Iraq was the most meaningful work I have ever done. I am not saying that it was the most enjoyable or even that it was the best work I have ever done, but my job made a difference and my actions made a difference in a way they had not before. I am convinced that my activity saved lives. My PRT contributed to our success in Iraq and that is a world changing accomplishment. America and the coalition beat back terror and chaos, when many in the world and even in our own country had written us off. The alternative would have been horrible.

I don’t think we have told the story very well. Most people I talk to and read about in the papers have it wrong. They think that our success was based on good luck or that it would have happened anyway. This is very ironic, given the fact that back in 2007 most of these same people were convinced that we were so far down that road to perdition that we could never recover.

There is definitely a political dimension to this. Some people are knee jerk anti-war. They don’t want to believe that anything good can come from something is bad as the Iraq conflict. They dislike words like victory or even success. I don’t think anything can be done to change their minds, short of them experiencing what I did. Forget about them. But the broad American public should understand because there are lessons to be learned. We learned how to counter an insurgency. We beat an Islamist terror group right in the heart of their own region, on a battlefield of their choosing. Their growing power is not inevitable. History is not on their side. The future belongs to us, not them.

Iraq is a success story. I read an interesting headline in the paper the other day. It said that the Iraqi election was too close to call right away. When you have an election like that, it means there are actual alternatives. Saddam always got nearly 100% of the vote.

March 09, 2010

Energy: Cheaper in the Long Run

Technology is amazing. In the last few years, new technologies have vastly increased American reserves of natural gas and are making North Dakota a leading oil producer, so much for peak oil. The term “game changers” is thrown around in both these cases. I might paraphrase the Godfather about fossil fuel, “Just when we think we’re out, technology pulls us back in.”

Environmentalists have been predicting the end of the age of hydrocarbons ever since I was a kid. Their predictions have a kind of plaintive, even pathetic tone, sometimes a hopeful one. Actually, the resource depletion prediction is a lot like the old Malthusian predictions and wrong for the same reasons. They have consistently made their predictions by simply projecting past trends forward and assuming limited technological progress.

In other words, they underestimated the power of human intelligence, innovation and imagination. As Yogi Berra used to say, “Predicting is hard, especially about the future.” It is just impossible to predict discontinuous changes but we are usually aware of things that could go wrong with what we already have.

Back in the 1970s experts predicted that by now, or more commonly by around 1980 or 1990. Yet we persist. Usually such successes would be all to the good. We really don’t have to worry about running out of energy and we can probably expect real energy prices to drop in the next decade. What is not to like? Nothing, except the potential problems of global warming.

The problem with switching to alternative energy is price. It has always been price and will always be price. Until people talk about price, it’s only some people talking. As long as fossil fuels are cheaper, they will be preferred. Why would a rational person choose to pay more to get less convenience? Petroleum based fuels such as diesel and gasoline, for example, are nearly perfect fuels for a car. They are very dense (i.e. a lot of energy per gallon. Hydrogen has more energy per pound, but it has such low density that takes up more than three times the space; ethanol is much denser than hydrogen, but not as dense as gasoline and less efficient). Natural gas is great for stationary energy production. It is very clean burning, easily distributed via underground pipes & remarkably efficient.

So let’s be clear. The reason we rely so much on fossil fuels is that they are generally cheaper than the alternatives, convenient to use, easily produced and readily available. When you pit low price, convenience and availability against something that cost more & is harder to use, which do you think wins most of the time?

This is the place for some government intervention in the form of a carbon tax . Prices of carbon based fuels will naturally DECLINE as technology increases exploitable reserves. As the prices of carbon based fuels declines in real dollar terms relative to other products, we should tax them back up. The ratchet is a relatively painless way to phase the tax in.

Lest this become merely another source of tax and government waste, we should make this a revenue neutral venture. A good idea here is tax plus dividend. Whereby ALL of the new taxes collected on carbon would be paid out the individual Americans as dividends. To make it simple, every American man, woman or child alive on Dec 31 would get a check for whatever the tax revenue divided by the population. I would make this clean and honest. Everybody gets an equal piece of the action.  

I  don’t think politicians will go for it, since it cuts out their opportunities to turn the money to their own purposes, but it is a good idea and if we are serious about addressing climate change, raising the price is one of the only things that really work.

March 08, 2010

Death Panels

Tombstone in Boston cemetaryThe medical profession has failed miserably. Almost 2500 years after Hippocrates invented the profession, the human death rate is still 100%. Our ancestors lived more intimately with death than we do. They often did it at home. We make it a clinical process. They understood that death was inevitable and capricious. We are not too sure. We postpone death with our science and pour money into “saving” lives.

Read both the links. The second link in poignant. The first one is in jest, but both speak to both universal truths and our own attitudes that are out of sync with them.

In his Apology, Socrates talked about facing death. When confronted with the option of compromising and “saving” his life, Socrates pointed out that saving his life on this one occasion would not mean that he would live forever. He was already old and he preferred to die with the values by which he had lived. His decision was both practical and principled. End of life decisions have not really changed that much.

We have significant problems understanding health care because we do not want to face the truth of our own decline and mortality. No amount of money can buy back your youth when you’re old and nothing will keep you alive forever. The interesting thing about our extensions of life EXPECTANCY is that LIFE SPAN has not increased in the last 6000 years.

The Pharaoh Pepi II Neferkare reportedly ruled for ninety-four years. We assume he was young when he took the job, but you still have to figure that the man lived around 100 years. While there is reason to question the exactness of the records, SOME people clearly lived to very old ages w/o the benefits of modern medicine and we don’t live significantly longer. The difference is that back then MOST people didn’t live past their childhood. They pulled down the statistics.

Of course, there is also the question of whether or not you want to live to be 100. I see these guys celebrated on TV and it seems like an exclusive club of which I prefer not to become a member.

Pepi lived for a long time because he was lucky enough to avoid things that might have killed him sooner. There was nothing in ancient Egyptian medicine or pharmacology that could have extended his life. Today we can, so we have to start thinking about what we really want. We now have hard choices that generations past didn’t face. 

My second link tells the sad story of a woman trying to save her husband’s life. Modern medicine managed to extend his life – extend his misery – by a few years at the cost of $618,000. My father went out right. He got a medical exam in 1945, when he was discharged from the Army Air Corps and never went to the doctor again except once to remove a sore on his stomach.  At the age of seventy-six, he fell to the floor and couldn’t get up. When asked how he was doing, he said, “I can’t complain” and promptly died. No doubt good medical care could have extended his life, but would that have been a good idea?

No matter what, the decision you make will be wrong in some way.

There has been a lot of loose talk about death panels and medical rationing. Nobody likes the idea, but we – as a society – will indeed need to develop some ethics about end of life issues. Until recently we didn’t have to worry about it but if we apply our medical technology and our big bucks we will have to decide when it is enough. We shouldn't make it political. It is a matter of ethics.

March 07, 2010

Free at Last


Pardon the hyperbole, but the unusually hard (for Virginia) winter has kept me off the running trails and I have been feeling unconnected. This weekend the snow melted off. So I got out yesterday and today running, walking and stopping long enough to take some pictures at what I believe is the end of winter. It is hard to believe there is still this much snow on March 7.


Above is the W&OD full of runners and bikers on this nice spring day. Below are jet streams. I take a break at Navy Federal S&L park grounds. You can just lay on the bench and look at the sky.


The white pine below is a nightmare for foresters, but very interesting to have in your front yard.


Below is a building across from the Metro. 


Below is the bike trail along Gallows Road. Still not really in good form. All that sand and crud will make for an unpleasant ride. But a good rain or a sweeper will take care of it.


Below is one last look at my bike/running trail with snow, not always so crowded. I figure it will all melt off by tomorrow or the next day. The sun is high and the weather is warm. 


March 06, 2010

Changes in Attitudes; Changes in Behaviors

Influence means changing behaviors. Changing attitudes, raising awareness and altering opinions are all important but ONLY to the extent that they lead to changed behaviors. Research shows that the link between most attitudes and behaviors is sometimes weak and sometimes not present at all. (Most of the people who hate us don’t try to harm us and many of the people who try to harm us don’t hate us.)   

Those were some of the surprising things I heard at a presentation yesterdy. The guy said that we have to look for the drivers of behaviors, which may be very different from what we think they are what people say they are or even what the people involved themselves believe they are.

He gave the example of a middle aged man who buys and expensive car. If you ask him why he wants that Corvette or Jaguar, he will probably tell you (and believe) that it is because of the performance, the fine leather seats, the comfort and reliability etc. What he is really doing is trying to impress others.   

Many times the drivers of behaviors involve social inclusion. People want to be part of a group and/or improve their status within it. The reasons they give are often rationalizations.  It is hard to find the accurate reasons by asking the people  involved, since they are often deceiving even themselves, but ask the neighbors and acquaintances. The middle aged owner of a muscle car thinks he is just interested in the vehicle.  His neighbors know that he bought it to show off his wealth or impress women with his still youthful and powerful outlook.  

Our public diplomacy goal is to have deep influence on large groups and this is very hard. Nobody else really does this. When you look to the advertising world, you see that they are usually trying to influence shallow, short term decisions. They want to sell a product or service and that requires little in the way of long term influence. Politics is not much better. The whole campaign culminates in a single transaction, which costs the person nothing and requires no long term commitment.  As politicians learn to their sorrow, the extreme love the voters profess for them on Election Day usually will not translate into long term behavioral change and will not even guarantee a repeat of the same behavior two or four years down the road.

This is why public diplomacy remains an art and not a science. It is complicated by the fact that we are working in other cultures, but knowing the culture is also not enough. (I am always suspicious of those “experts” who claim to know what 1.2 million Muslims or a billions Chinese are really thinking.  Experts like that are a blight that should be avoided.)  We Americans know our own cultures very well, but how many of us can accurately predict, let alone influence the behaviors of our compatriots six month in the future? We have to understand before we can influence, but where to start?

It is good to look at what people have been doing for a long time and accept that they have a good reason for doing what they do. It may not be a correct reason from our point of view.  It may not even be objectively accurate, but it is a driver of behavior because it serves some useful purpose from the point of view of the person doing it.  

So the first task is to identify the driver of behaviors we want to encourage or slow down and then address them, recognizing that the ostensible driver is probably not the real one.   Our confusion about the stated driver and the real ones is a reason why many of our outreach efforts produce the results they do.   

A terrorist might say that he wants to kill to avenge some earlier perceived wrong, but he is not telling the truth (even if he believes it).  Put in a pragmatic way, removing his ostensible grievance would not change his behavior, although it might impel him to revise his grievance list.  I thought of last week’s talk by Ghaffar Hussein on understand radicals.

So … what do we do?

First we admit that it is not easy. Public diplomacy is not a science, but it can benefit from some scientific methods. The first should be to have some firm behavior based objectives. A goal to “change attitudes” or “raise awareness” is not sufficient. I have to admit that it would be hard for me to come up with objectives for many of our general public diplomacy programs, but the task is easier when we are talking about countering radicals.  We might define goals such as “cut donations to radical groups,” “reduce recruitment,” or “eliminate offers of safe havens.” After that, we need to formulate a hypothesis about how this might happen as a result of our work. This would be something we could test.  We don’t do this very often and the speaker  offered that some of our attempts at Muslim engagement don’t really do much of anything, since the real drivers of behavior are not our attitudes toward Islam, and even if they were we would not have the authority or credibility to address them.   

The proliferation of information on the web has proven a wonderful laboratory for social research, since you can see relationships, sometimes literally graphically. The web has shown itself to be a decent measure of non-web behavior, but so far is less useful as a driver.  Some of this has to do with us. Very often we are not present in the places where influence is exerted and if we are there, we are not authoritative enough to make an impact.

Influence and authority are not fungible. This is a bit of a change on the web versus earlier times. You used to have influence or authority because of the influence or authority of the sender. We listened to the official BECAUSE he was the official.  Here the USG is acting from a position of disadvantage. Most of the people we want to influence don’t respect our authority in the subjects at hand. Star power has also greatly diminished. A celebrity can draw a crowd, but influence only follows from having something compelling to say. Now the power lies in the reception of the audience. And it is not only how many listen to you, but more importantly WHO.   Most people are not influential.  You want to get the respect of those who are. You have to appeal to the influencers and to do that you have to have something THEY will consider new or useful. 

Technologies can help us identify the influentials and the links among them. We can see the content, topology (links) and dynamics of networks in ways and detail we never could before.  LES (latent Semantic analysis), the stuff Google uses, does a great job identifying patterns. Language reveals biases and ideologies and so these systems are very useful.  But the computer cannot read.  It just sees a bag of words and sorts them based on their proximity. We need to see or create useful taxonomy and there is no structured or permanent taxonomy, so we just cannot let it go by itself. There is no garden w/o the gardener and nobody has yet invented a perpetual motion device.

Once again we come back to the human factor.  Humans influence humans. Our systems can supplement and enable human expertise, but they cannot replace it. We still have to set the goals and monitor the progress because if we don’t know where we are going, we probably will end up someplace else. Our technologies will help us get to the wrong place faster.

March 05, 2010

Volunteers, Philanthropy & Cultural Policies

Americans are generous people when it comes to both charitable giving and volunteering.    You can find some of it in our cultural roots. Philanthropy and volunteerism are prominent in what you might call the British diaspora. But there is also something in the structure of American society.  Some of it has to do with the absence of the types of government programs we find in many other countries and there is the effect of our tax system. 

American flag at WWII MemorialThe absence of government argument cuts both ways. You can argue that individual Americans must step in because of government neglect, or you could argue that aggressive government intervention crowds out of preempts charities by individuals or groups. Both have some validity. Some of the same things get done everywhere but who does them is different.

Many things done by volunteers in the U.S. are government functions, even government monopolies in other places. Around my house, citizens do a lot of the work to maintain the local parks. In some parts of Europe (and even some American cities with strong unions) they are not allowed to do that. It is a government monopoly and no volunteer or free effort is wanted.   That may be a trivial example, but it also extends to things like volunteer fire departments, hospital volunteers, community watches, after school programs and lots of other things.  

Governments in the U.S. allow or encourage volunteerism in ways many others don’t.   This may be changing, as I will discuss below, but first let’s talk taxes.

I heard a lecture entitled “Why doesn’t the U.S. have a cultural policy?” The speaker from the Smithsonian explained that the title of his lecture was meant to mislead, because American DID have a very strong and effective cultural policy. It was our tax policy.  The citizens put up their own money, demonstrating their own real commitment and the government partnered with them by “spending” through tax breaks.

This kind of arrangement is entirely consistent with the workings of a democracy, since it decentralizes decision making and funds those things citizens throughout the country find most valuable. He contrasted this with the system used in a country like France, where a Paris-based elite decides what, where and who is worthy. This produces great fine arts, but tends to neglect non-elite projects as well as non-established artists and places that are not established cultural centers. In America, some of the most interesting cultural offerings are found in what would be called “provincial” places in other countries. In France with its centralized system, you find great culture in Paris and it tapers off drastically after that. Washington is not the cultural capital of America and, despite its own pretensions, neither is New York. The best orchestras, artists, dance troupes, theaters etc are distributed widely across the country. This is because American cultural policy allows for decentralized decision making and allows funding to follow the preferences of the people.

There is much gnashing of teeth about this cultural policy, but there is even more trouble with the centralized versions. The National Endowments for the Arts, for example, funds some questionable art.  The one I remember best is the "piss Christ" where the “artist” submerged a crucifix in a cup of his own urine. Whether or not you think this guy will go to hell and whether or not you think it is art, the idea that some government official decided that your tax money should go to something like this is odious. However, it would be significantly less controversial if an individual donor had paid for it and then wrote off part on his taxes. In the latter case, it would just be an example of piss poor art rather than pissing on the taxpayers' leg and telling them it is raining.

Our decentralized system allows for a wider variety of offering, even the bad type mentioned above.  It replaces the bureaucracy with volunteers and makes much of the funding part of a public private partnership. In short, it is a great American system.

In some Eastern European languages, the word volunteer has a not entirely good connotation. I know that because I was corrected on several occasions when trying to explain volunteerism in the U.S. It seems that during communist times, the government would force people to volunteer and would organize them into work details. Sometimes they were doing exactly the same sorts of things our real volunteers do in America, but they were under the harsh lash of the communist officials. Governments have a history of commanding “volunteers.”   

The American difference has been that volunteers often “command” government resources.   The people are the senior partner in the government-private partnership.  The people drive the policy, in other words. This is usually good and should be protected.

March 03, 2010

Lifecycle Funds


NPR featured an article about lifecycle funds.  These are mutual fund that are supposed to automatically adjust to your age and time before retirement by balancing your stocks, bonds and other assets.   Conventional wisdom tells us that your portfolio should be “aggressive” when you are younger, so that you can take advantage of the long term growth potential of stocks.   But as you get closer to retirement, you want to get more conservative, since you won’t have a chance to make up a downturn of the kind we recently experienced.    

Stocks will yield better returns in the long run, but in the long run we are all dead, as the famous economist John Maynard Keynes once quipped. Markets are always rational in the long run, but they can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.

The lifecycle fund is simple. You just decide which year you expect to retire and then let the fund do the rest.   The theory is good, but the practice has a couple of flaws. For one thing, a lifecycle fund usually has higher management fees because it is actively managed. People don’t work for nothing and if you give the management to somebody else, you pay for it.  If the market is doing really well, you might not care. The big stock gains may not be the rule of the future, so fees will be a bigger part of your thinking. But the biggest flaw of the lifecycle fund is the psychological trap. 

People buy into these funds and then outsource their brains and judgment to somebody else.  When I talk to colleagues who have put their portfolio into lifestyle funds, they seem to have more certainty than I think is warranted. There is the idea that when they retire, they will have the projected amount of money waiting for them.

Prospectuses always warn that future returns might not resemble the past.   We cannot know the future and we can only predict it imperfectly by trying to project patterns from the past into the future. Lifecycle funds do this too.  Most of us like certainty, especially when thinking about retirement.   The problem is that we cannot have it.  At best we can get ranges of results with different probabilities connected to them.

The good thing about the lifecycle funds is that they might keep you in the market during hard times and keep you from doing silly things during boom times. Many investors do exactly the opposite of what they should. They buy risky investments and stocks when these things are going up and the prices are high. When prices decline, they sell.  That means that they buy high and sell low. If you have confidence that the fund is taking care of the risk for you, you may be less tempted to do this.

I do my own lifecycle investments, sort of.  I don’t think you can really time the market.  I meet lots of people who claim that they can, but they don’t seem to have the piles of money earned by smart investing that you would expect if they really could.  

I just rely mostly on index funds.  I used to think I could pick stocks well, but I was mistaken.

It is not a smart idea to have all your money in financial investments (i.e. stocks, bonds). Real estate is a good thing too, and with the recent decline in prices it might even be a good time to buy.  Of course, I have my own unusual investment in forestry.   You could call forestry a subset of real estate, but since it has the agricultural production aspect, it is significantly different.

Rise & Fall of Great Powers

I cannot really recall if Paul Kennedy came in person or if I “met” him on an electronic program, but I do recall having him for a program on his book the Rise & Fall of the Great Powers.  That was back in 1989 and the general idea then was that the U.S. was about to be overtaken by Japan as the great power.   It seems pretty absurd in retrospect. Japan doesn’t have the resources or the demographic strength to challenge the U.S. in the long-term.  Of course now we talk about China and India, maybe even Brazil.

The decline & fall of the United States was a very popular topic back in the 1980s.  Actually, it is always a popular topic.   Different commentators emphasize different things at different times.   Back in the 1970s when I first became aware of the genre, the favorite danger was ecological collapse.  We have come back to that one somewhat today.   Running out of energy is also a perennial favorite.   But the one that encompasses them all is political-economic failure.   That is the one that Kennedy talks about.

I hadn’t thought much about him in the last decade but I was reminded when I saw him on the PBS Newshour. He explained that the timing of his U.S.decline, replaced by Japan hypothesis was a bit off. Japan was the one that went into decline. The Soviet Union unexpectedly collapsed relieving the U.S. of the superpower competition.  American productivity (and so wealth) jumped as communications technologies began to be applied to business. He didn’t add, but I will, that American business went through revolutionary change and reorganization. The economy he was thinking of in the 1970s was not the same one he was living with when he wrote the book in the late 1980s.

It is easy to miss the dynamism of the American economy and academics who look at the “big trends” are often the ones who miss it the most. One reason is that they are trying to impose patterns, often anthropomorphic patterns, on complex systems.   

It is hard not to view societies or civilizations in human terms of birth, growth, maturity, decline and ultimate death. The depressing German historian Oswald Spengler made an explicit science of this with specific stages of growth and decline.  Each civilization had a life span of 1000 years. He thought that civilizations have as much chance of changing or extending this lifespan as you or I do with our physical bodies. Spengler codified what lots of other people thought but he really hit a rich intellectual vein. Lots of people who never heard of Spengler implicitly follow his ideas. Spengler is compelling and very interesting, as well as being completely wrong.

Countries and civilizations do not have life spans analogous to people. The only reason we think they do is because of the extreme power of the pattern that we see in our own lives. It is true that countries and civilizations have some beginning and ending but they can copy from others and they have almost endless capacity for change and renewal. They also morph and combine.

The U.S. has been declining RELATIVE to the rest of the world since the end of World War II.  This should be a cause for celebration, not fear. After World War II, most of the world was either in ruins as a result of war or just poorly developed. They had to catch up and the general growth of wealth has helped us too, as others have begun to pull their own weight and contribute to the general welfare. In some ways, prosperity is natural if you just stop doing stupid things. The biggest success story of recent decades is China. As they shifted from their benighted communist system, their economy developed. While they are now a rival in a way we never thought possible, they are also a source of wealth for us as well as themselves. Imagine if they had continued along the Maoist lines.  Is it better to face a rapidly developing China that is a good, if over clever trading partner; or would we prefer a communist state near Malthusian collapse and destabilizing the entire world?

We feel a little nostalgia for the good old days, but they weren’t really that good.  We are better off NOT being the sole superpower, or being the only game in town. If we imagine the world 50 years hence, we will be wrong in detail, but you can see some trends.

The U.S. will still be the most important country in the world in 2060, but we will have several peers including China, India, the EU and maybe Brazil.  You can imagine some regional groupings, but there is nothing currently in the cards.  China has enjoyed a fantastic growth rate, but it will hit some ecological and demographic speed bumps soon.   The same goes for India.  Russia is the power of the past.  In 2060, it will have a smaller population than it does today unless it changes fundamentally, in which case it might no longer be Russia.  The EU will also have a smaller population, but since it starts with so much economic and social capital it will still be important. 

The country I am most interested in (besides the U.S.) is Brazil. The old joke was that Brazil was the country of the future and always would be, but reforms, good decisions and some luck have brought the future to us now.  The U.S. and Brazil share an important characteristic – they are American in the New World sense.  Both our countries were built by immigrants and have been very open to outside influences, techniques and technologies.   Both Brazil and the U.S. are large, resource rich countries with the demographic weight to be powerful into the future.

But I hope and believe that by 2060 the national power will be less acute in the sense of rivalry and it will matter less which country has the biggest economy or the most powerful military. Paul Kennedy talked about the “Concert of Europe” where the great powers more or less cooperated or at least coexisted.  Of course, there were lots of problems with that specific formulation.  Historians can and have written whole books talking about them and of course, we can do better now with our improved technologies and the benefit of the experience that our ancestors didn’t have. 

Having one single country as the “leader” is not the only way there is.  From the fall of the Roman Empire until the end of World War II, there wasn’t really a predominant power in the Western World.   We can have diverse and dispersed power centers within a globalized network.

March 02, 2010

Intellectual Property


I finished the first module of the distance learning course on intellectual property rights today and I thought I might put make a short write up of some of the take-aways. 

Intellectual property rights give the holders the exclusive rights through things like patents, trademarks, geographical indications, copyright, trade secrets and other undisclosed information.

The idea is to increase sharing of ideas and innovations, while protecting the rights of those who came up with them for specified amounts of time.  Without protections, most people either will not work very hard to come up with new things or they will try to keep their innovations a secret.   This is exactly what happened in times past and still happens in places where intellectual property protections are weak.   

The U.S. was an early leader in the specific protection of intellectual property.   It is written into the first article of our Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, and Clause 8) and it is one of the contributing factors to our nation’s rapid progress in the sciences and practical technologies.   Ben Franklin, a prolific inventor, was at the Constitutional Convention.    He invented (or perfected) bifocals, the lighting rod and the Franklin stove, among other things, but he refused to patent any of them, preferring to share them with all of mankind.  He had already made enough money by then and was devoting himself to public service.  However, he and others clearly saw that most inventors and innovators would not find themselves in Franklin’s happy condition or mindset.

The dual need to share and protect is reflected in patent law.   A patent give the holder the exclusive right to structures and methods that result from his idea, but only for a specific time and only on the condition that the inventor publicize the specifications.   Beyond that, the patent protects the physical manifestations, not the idea itself.

Copyright refers to the rights of authors and composers to control their work and it is under a lot of strain these days.    You have always been allowed “fair use”.  That means I can quote or take ideas from an author’s work if it is used as part of a new work and it not just copying the whole thing.   This worked well enough until it became easier to copy with Xerox and got even worse with the easy cut and paste or computers.  Now we have a whole new artistic/literary/musical genre of “mash-up.”  It is hard to tell where one work leaves off and another starts.  Beyond that, some artists don’t like their work to be altered.   The details of this are beyond my expertise (and frankly generally beyond my interest) but it makes a difference to some people.   Some countries give authors & artists the rights to control their work long after it has left their hands.   They often call these “moral rights.”  That was part of the controversy when Ted Turner wanted to colorize the classics.  I can see both sides in this case.  It is more fun to watch a movie in color and many of the kids will not even look at one in black and white.  But the techniques of color are different from those of black and white.   It may become a significantly different work when it is colorized.

Trademarks and trade secrets are a little different.  These things usually are not very profound, although they are the things most familiar to us.   You have the golden arches, Colonel Sanders’ face, or the unique way Coca-Cola is written.  They are meant only as a means to differentiate products.  The most famous trade secret is the formula for Coca-Cola.    As much as l like the stuff, the world would not end if it was disclosed, but it would make it a lot harder to know I was getting something I liked to drink or some knockoff.   A trade secret can be held indefinitely. 

I have a little more trouble with geographical indications. The Europeans tend to be much more interested in those things than we are, maybe because they have a lot more geographical distinctions. Many of the foods that we call by ordinary names are actually geographical indications. Champagne or Bordeaux come from a specific place in France. Products from other places should not be called by those names. The same goes for Bologna, Prosciutto, Colby, Munster, Parmesan, or Romano cheese. Lots of things have names that indicate their original region.  Many have become generic and we hardly think of them anymore. But others have retained the geographical protection. That is why you might find something Parmesan or Champagne modified by style. 

A more recently important and even more confusing piece of “intellectual property” is folklore or customs. So far nobody has been able to properly define this, since folklore and customs tend to cross national and regional borders and it is probably impossible to identify the original sources.   I suppose the Greeks could try to get a cut each time someone mentions a Homeric Hero (e.g. Ajax cleanser) or even Homer Simpson. Of course, the original Homer probably lived in what is now Turkey.  Go back more than a couple generations and it all becomes the common heritage of mankind and that is why I don’t think much good will come of this aspect of intellectual property.

I have five more modules on this particular course.  I suppose they will get harder.

March 01, 2010

Moon Light Drive


I was drove Alex back to Harrisonburg and dreaded making the return trip alone in the dark, but with the full moon providing just the right amount of softly silver light and a good audio program to listen to (I am finishing Donald Kagan’s Greek history series) , it was actually very pleasant.

Old fashioned candy at Cracker Barrel in Woodstock, VA along I-81 

Alex is doing well at college, but it is a tough transition for him. He started in the spring semester, as a junior and got stuck in the dorm farthest away from campus.  It is an overflow dorm.  It used to be a hotel and is not actually on the JMU campus at all.    These types of things make a big difference and he just had bad luck with all of them.   He is doing well in classes, however, and I think he will adapt all right.  I think what he really misses is his job at Home Depot.   That gave him contact with people and something useful to work on.   They really seemed to like him there.  I hope he can get the job back for the summer.  

The picture up top shows Alex at Cracker Barrel, where we stopped in Woodstock along I-81. They sell good old fashioned food. I had a good pot roast with mushrooms.  Alex had sirloin steak. It feels like home.  They had a wood fire burning in the fireplace.  It is a nice smell. They sell that old fashioned candy shown in the middle picture. 

At the bottom is the sushi shop at Tysons.  It is not related to the other pictures or text.  The conveyor is in constant motion.  I don't know how they can tell who takes what and how much they should pay.  It reminds me of those old cartoons portraying modern times.

Sushi shop at Tysons Corner Mall, VA. 

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