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April 30, 2010

Joshua Trees & the High Deserts

Joshua trees 

The only place Joshua trees grow is in parts of the Mojave Desert, on elevations from 2000-6000 feet, and their highest concentration is where they are protected in the Joshua Tree National Park. This is high desert and cooler than the Sonora Deserts lower down and farther south. You pass through the transition zone between these two biomes as you drive south across the park. From the north you cross a vast expanse of Joshua tree savanna.  


Joshua trees are a type of yucca. They don’t grow like ordinary trees, with rings marking each year’s growth, so it is hard to tell how old individuals are. They don’t get very tall. They look sort of like crazy people waving at you. This seems to confirm one of the stories about how they got their names. The story goes that early Mormon settlers thought the trees looked like Joshua welcoming them to the Promised Land.  They were also sometimes called desert oranges.  This story says that land sellers wanted to entice settlers to this barren land, so they not only implied that these were productive fruit trees, but even went around and tied some oranges to the trees near the roads. It evidently didn’t fool anybody.

Joshua tree specimenThe landscape is beautiful in that harsh sort of way, a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here. We were seeing it at its best time. Spring rains have made it greener than usual.  The day was very windy, which I understand is fairly common. That is why they have all those windmills nearby.  It also explains the sculptured roundness of the rock outcroppings: natural sandblasting smooths off the rough edges.  

The Joshua trees dominate the open spaces, but in among the rock outcroppings you find pinion pine, California juniper and scrub oak. These communities are under some stress, however. The climate was wetter until the 1930s. The same hot and dry conditions that provoked the dust bowl affected the local climate. I couldn’t find out details about this, but evidently the previous relatively more verdant environment did not return. There are hot/dry and cool/moist cycles in climatic patterns and this could not have been anything new to the plant and animal communities. 

scrub oak and pinion pines at Joshua Tree NP 

The difference may have been human development. Cattle grazing took out some of the natural cover and made it less resistant to the changes.  But the bigger problem seems to be invasive species, such as cheatgrass. These things deliver a double punch.   During wetter periods, they fill in below and among the pines and oak. In drier times, they die back, but don’t quickly decompose. This makes wildfires hotter and more destructive, which kills some of the trees that would have otherwise survived. When the area regenerates, these non-native grasses form a thick layer of turf that makes it harder for the pine and oak seedlings to get a roothold. This is not a very generous environment and there are not that many second chances.  

Cactus flowers at Joshua Tree NP 

IMO, the native environment is better than what we will get if we let the invasive take over, but it will be sustainable only with a little human intervention and probably chemical warfare. BasF makes a good herbicide that can take out cheat-grass and its ilk, while leaving the oaks and pines intact.  This should probably be done periodically. I don’t know if it is. I would get more involved if I lived nearby.  This is certainly an environment worth saving. Doing nothing is not a good option.

Rock climbers at Joshua Tree NP on April 28, 2010 

Above - Joshua Tree NP is a favorite for rock climbers. Below is a lake made by ranchers for cattle by building a dam at a runoff point.

Barker Dam at Joshua Tree NP

Below is the dam holding back the water. The little lake has become a major wildlife attraction, as one of the only steady water sources in this arid place.

Barker Dam at Joshua Tree NP 

What is Art

Palm Springs Art Museum building 

I wasn’t allowed to take a picture of the most interesting part at the Palm Springs Art Museum.  The guard literally stopped me just before I pushed the button.  He claimed it was because the artist has not given permission and I can well understand why. If I produced art like that I also would not want to allow evidence.  It was a stack of black garbage bags.  I have seen such installations before, but never in a museum.  This guy evidently got paid for putting them there. Usually they only pay when somebody takes them away.

Cowboy statue at Palm Springs Art Museum 

Some of the other art was very good, like the cowboy sculpture in the picture.  These places are nice to have in a town.  It adds a certain spiritual/artistic dimension.  But sometimes we suffer from the “Emperor’s New Clothes” phenomenon.  Garbage bags are interesting, but they are not art.

Art museum in Palm Springs courtyard 

Below is a statue of a chameleon at Marriott. This is nice art, but not considered "fine" since it is inexpensive and common.

Chameleon at Marriotts 

Below is a street in Palm Springs.  Some of the stores and restaurants have some misting. In a dry climate, it really cools it down at street level. 

Misting on a Palm Spring Street 

Below is real art. This is a man-made landscape set in nature's valley. Very nice. Notice the way to clouds sit on the mountains. I think those are the Santa Rosa Mountains.  The moist air cannot make it over the summits, so on the one side it is wet, cooler and cloudy.  On the other side, it is dry, hot and clear deserts.

Marriott Resort looking at the mountains 

April 29, 2010

Windy Energy Alternatives

windmills on road to Palm 

It has been very windy today and I can understand why they built all the windmills as we drove through the forests of them to get from the coast to Palm Springs. 

Wind power was the topic of NPR’s Science Friday a few weeks ago, this time from Oklahoma. If you read between the lines, you understand why alternative power is still alternative. When one of the producers of wind turbines was asked why he wasn’t selling more in windy Oklahoma, he honestly responded that electricity rates were too low. His turbines couldn’t compete with the stuff from the grid. There’s more.


I generally favor a diverse portfolio of energy. I am especially fond of biomass fuel, specifically wood chips. But I recognize that even with this simple and well-known fuel there are problems. The biggest challenge to almost all fuels is that they are not where you need them to be. I have acres of wood literally rotting away, but gathering it up and transporting it cost more than it is worth.

What annoys me about some of the alternative fuel advocates is their unjustifiably smug attitude that they have found some big thing and that the only reason it is not widely used is because everybody else is stupid or “big companies” are too greedy to allow it. Besides overlooking obvious drawbacks in the fuels themselves, they are almost always overlooking costs and troubles of transport and distribution. They sort of assume these are free or should be covered by someone else.

So let’s talk about wind power. Wind is free; capturing it is not and neither is getting it from where the wind is blowing to where the energy it produces will be used. A caller to the NPR program talked about getting off the grid with wind power. The guy who sells the turbines admitted that you really need the grid. Wind is unreliable and if you wanted to be off the grid, you would have to invest around $100,000 for all the back-up systems you would need to keep the lights on. The grid costs money to build and maintain. If you account only for the cost of the turbines, you are missing the biggest investments. It is like the kid who thinks he pays the whole cost of a car by filling up the gas tank on weekends.

Most people will not have their own wind turbines. That means that the turbines will be some distance from the consumers. The wind blows mostly on the plains and in the ocean, far away from cities and factories. So we need transmission lines. But we need more than the kinds of transmission lines we have already. Big power plants need transmission lines, but they are at least coming from the same place. Wind turbines are by necessity spread out. You need transmission lines from the wind farms to the cities, but you also need lines between and among the turbines.

Transmission lines are not free and they are not 100% ecologically benign. Each time you build transmission lines, you also cut through the environment, across streams and migration routes, to build roads to service the line and you build pylons every 100 yards. That’s a lot of rock, steel and concrete when you add it up over many of miles, not to mention lots of gas burned by crews building, checking and maintaining it all. So when anybody tells you that a wind farm takes up only a couple acres, recall the many miles of transmission lines. I personally have eight acres under power lines. I can't grow trees there and while I think it is good to have it as edge community (it can be managed as excellent quail habitat) too many of these kinds things will fragment environments.

The fact is that we use carbon based fuels because they are cheaper, easier to move and more convenient to use than alternatives. When alternatives get to be cheaper, easier and more convenient, they stop being alternatives and just get to be mainstream. That is what it means to be a viable alternative. As long as earnest advocates have to try to convince skeptics about its virtues, it is not viable. Energy consumer really aren't that dumb. When something really is cheaper and easier it won't take earnest advocates; they try very hard to get more of it.

Wind, solar and other alternatives are indeed getting cheaper. When their time comes, there will be no stopping them.  (I assume that the wind turbines we passed make some money.)  Until that time artificially pumping them up won't really make it happen. And we have to remember that no form of energy is trouble free. There are always trade-offs.

April 28, 2010

Parallel Lives

Carlsbad, CA on April 26, 2010 

You can share the same country, the same physical space, with people and live in completely different environments. I focus on historical or natural scenes and I find them wherever I go.  So when I go to crowded California I find the empty beaches, forests and green vistas. That is what I look for, and that is what I find.

Outdoorsman in Ventura CA 

Not everybody sees the things the way I do. I see trees.  Maybe they see buildings or cars.  I saw signs for ethnic areas of LA – Korea town, Philippine Town, Little Armenia … We drove past these things at high speed and never experienced anything other than the signs.  Well, maybe not high speed.

Los Angeles traffic 

Another thing I rarely experience is traffic.  I ride my bike or take the Metro to work, so traffic for me is sometimes a weekend choice.   I thought about this as we inched through the LA traffic – and this wasn’t even during rush hour and it was mostly moving.  This is a daily experience for many people.   The only time I got stuck in traffic regularly was when I lived in New Hampshire and commuted to Tufts University in Medford, MA.  I didn’t like it, although I listened to a lot of audio books.  I found that thoughts of traffic started to dominate my thinking.  Commuting can be an overwhelming experience,

I thought about how different life if you live in a beach community as we walked around our hotel in Ventura.  You can see Ventura just above.  The picture at the very top is Carlsbad. It is more or less a beachfront retirement community. It was founded in the 1880s as a spa and has some Euro-pretensions as a result. Ventura and Carlsbad are very different. 

Ventura CA near beach 

Many of the houses near the beach in Ventura probably started out as shacks or weekend cottages and gradually evolved into homes.  My “baby-boom” generation was probably the pioneers here and many seem to have aged in place.  We saw a couple really old looking hippies.  It was probably really cool to hang out at the beach when they were young.  Add thirty years and thirty pounds and the picture changes. Look at the second picture down and you can see one of the "outdoorsmen" in his temporary camp on the park picnic table. Notice, he has brought along his fishing gear. There was a orderliness to his possessions that implied that he was out there as much by choice as by compulsion.

Palm Springs Street 

The next day we ended up in Palm Springs and another reality.  Palm Springs is an upscale community with lots of ties to celebrities.  We drove along Frank Sinatra Avenue, past streets named for Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Gerald Ford and Gene Autry.   I have never been here before, but it was familiar because of the sixties television.   If you lived here, you could probably play golf and go to shows and galleries every day. That would be another interesting reality.

Chrissy at the Palm Springs Marriott 

Of course, last week I was on the Marine base at Camp Pendleton and we go back to Virginia on Friday.  These lives intersect only occasionally.  Usually they just run parallel. But in the meantime, Chrissy is still having fun with the rental car and I am enjoying the hot whirlpool below. Actually, it was a little too hot at first.  But this is something we haven't done since the kids were little, when it still made a difference if I got my hair wet. Life is good for now.

John in whirpool at Marriott in Palm Springs 

April 27, 2010

Pea Soup, the Wisdom of Crows & Torrey Pines

I have a few odds and ends that are not enough for a whole post, but I don’t want to lose.

Crows at San Simeon 

Wisdom of crows

Crows are among the most intelligent birds.  It is something you notice when you just walk around.  They have a sentry in the tallest trees and they caw differentially as you walk under.  If you are carrying a shotgun, they all fly off.  If you are unarmed, they just ignore you.

Crows at San Simeon 

The job of eating food scraps around people eating lunch outside is usually the job of pigeons but at San Simeon the task belongs to crows.  The crows are scarier and not only because they are shiny black and raven-like.   Unlike pigeon, which are just stupidly annoying, you can see the calculating intelligent in the crows’ black eyes. The pigeons also are little fat-boys; crows look lean and mean.  You don’t want to mess with the crows, especially if you are driving a convertible.  You know that they will forget you never more and maybe come back to retaliate. BTW, Alfred Hitchcock filmed "The Birds" up the coast.

Speaking of bird-brained intelligence, turkeys are really dumb. They used to be thought “elusive” but that was only because there were not many of them.   A couple of them wandered across the road on our farm.  They just stood there in front of the truck. I had to get out and toss stones in their general direction. I am pretty sure that I could have caught them with my bare hands. 

The turkey population has exploded over the past couple of decades and our scientific understanding of them has changed.  We used to think that turkeys needed large ranges and significant protection to survive.  Today we have learned that any decent sized clump of trees will do, whether it is next to a farm field or a suburban street.   We should probably encourage more hunting of these big birds, along with the now ubiquitous Canada geese.   Some people could probably save a lot on food bills.

Chrissy at Andersen's restaurant in Buellton, California 

Pea’s porridge hot

We stopped off at a Danish bakery and pea soup restaurant. The Andersen restaurant claimed to be selling pea soup since 1924. Pea soup was one of my father’s staple menu items (along with bean soup, polish sausage and green tomatoes) and I like pea soup. 

Andersen pea soup restaurant 

I don’t often make it because you have to make big pots of it at a time. The canned varieties just aren’t right, even Progresso, which usually produces good soups. Chrissy and I both got pea soup in a sourdough bread bowl. The bread mixed with the soup made it into pea’s porridge. It was good and worth the stop.

The world’s biggest Torrey pine

World's largest torrey pineWe stopped in Carpinteria to get gas. We didn’t, because the gas station (yes we passed only one) charged a $.45 “convenience fee” for using a credit card.  I can't believe there is still a place that doesn’t have a pay at the pump, much less charging a “convenience fee.”  It was an Arco Station, which I thought was a major company.  

But it was worth the diversion. As we stopped looking for another gas station and decided to turn back to the highway, we noticed a very large pine tree. I got out to take a look and noticed the plaque that claimed that this was the largest Torrey pine in the world.

The Torrey pine is locally endangered in the wild of its own natural range, where few of the species get as big as the one we saw and most are slow-growing and picturesquely twisted. But it is grows fast, tall and straight when used in plantations in Australia and New Zealand. It just doesn’t like it at home.

I bet that if we looked hard enough, we would find that the largest Torrey pine in the world is in Australia or New Zealand - if not now, soon. I read that the tallest California redwoods will soon be the ones planted in New Zealand during the 19th Century. I saw some really beautiful sequoia trees at the Ambassador's house in Geneva and a whole beautiful forest of redwoods growing on the hills near Sintra in Portugal. In fact, Sintra has a castle a lot like a smaller version of San Simeon.

What God Would Build ... if He had the Money

Veranda at San Simeon 

William Randolph Hearst’s   father made big bucks from silver mining in Nevada’s Comstock Lode and then used some of the money to buy thousands of acres rancho along the California coast.  The land was really isolated back then and cheap.   It still is a bit isolated, but it is a fantastically beautiful place. 


William Randolph Hearst went with his mother on the grand tour of Europe and developed an appreciation for European art and culture.  After he made the big fortune he inherited even bigger, the project of his later life was to build this castle on the hill overlooking the Pacific.  George Bernard Shaw commented the castle at San Simeon was the kind of place God would build if he had the money.


I got my impressions of Hearst from “Citizen Kane” and his behavior during the Spanish American War.  Suffice to say that the picture is incomplete and inaccurate and I learned some history on this trip. I won’t bore you with the details, which you can easily find elsewhere.  I will contribute some pictures and comments.  


Above - you couldn't stray off the path except at the point where the guide invited people to sit in the wicker chairs and feel for a few minutes what it is like to be rich.  Below is the indoor pool.  It is ten feet deep throughout the whole pool. The gold color you see is actually gold leaf. The man had the big bucks to spend.

Indoor pool at Hearst castle 

Below is the outdoor Neptune pool. Many of the columns are actually from Roman ruins.  It is nice, but it reminds me of something you might find in Las Vegas.

Neptune pool 

San Simeon has a lot of bona-fide art. Hearst was able to buy much of it inexpensively after World War II.  You couldn't do that today, both because of the prices. There are more rich people today and they have bid up the prices.  And there are also many more restrictions on export of art. 

The practical difference between rich and poor have actually decreased, despite ostensible greater income gaps. A century ago, only the rich could experience these things. Only the rich had telephones, electricity, refrigerator etc. There is a sort of threshold, when you have enough. The difference between refrigerator and having one is much greater than having a cheap version and the top-of-the-line.  Re telephones, everybody can afford phones with more features then they know how to use.


The castle is really cool, but it would have been a lot more impressive to people back then than it is now, at least to anybody who has visited Las Vegas.  We have seen reasonable copies, bigger pools etc.  Frankly, I liked the views and the gardens the most, as you might guess by my pictures. If I lived there, I would spend most of my time sitting outside or wandering the hills.  

April 26, 2010

El Camino Real

http://johnsonmatel.com/2010/April/EL_CAMINO_REAL/Camino_Real_sign_and_bell.jpgThe Spanish established a road, El Camino Real or the royal road, from San Diego to San Francisco to connect and supply their missions and forts.  Today I-5 and U.S. 101 follow the route and we drove along both today on our way from San Diego to the Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

The route is marked with bells suspended from question mark shaped pipes.  These are good promotion and the reason we noticed that we were on the route. 

I originally rented a Chevy Cobalt and I used it to drive up to the botanical garden mentioned in the last post, but it was such a crappy car that I took it back to Alamo before I picked up Chrissy.   Chrissy always said that she wanted to drive a convertible, so I splurged and surprised her with one.  It was fun to drive in the convertible on the coastal highway and we look forward to more fun when we drive inland to Joshua Tree National Park. 

Below is Chrissy with the car.


The coastal highway goes through some beautiful county.   The part I like the best is the oak savanna.  I think they call them oak woodlands out here.  The ones along the coast tend to feature California live oak.  They are similar to oak openings in the Midwest, but the California hills are more majestic, especially when set against the Pacific surf.  The park-like widely spaced oak forests make a truly pleasant environment.  They are maintained by frequent low-intensity fires and are endangered when fires are too carefully prevented by humans.

California oak savanna 

Above is an example of the oak savanna/oak woodland biome.  Below is the road ahead north of San Luis Obispo.



April 25, 2010

Conservation too Conservative becomes Pointless Preservation


Relationships long established should not be changed for light or transient causes.  Everything exists in a complex web of interrelationships and changing any part may bring unexpected systemic changes and unwelcome changes.  But everything is always in the process of becoming something else.  Change is constant and avoiding it is not an option.  The best we can do is work toward sustainable, predictable change.

Citrus groves 

I thought about change and continuity, as I walked through the Quail Botanical Gardens north of San Diego.   The Southern California environment most people know, love and want to preserve is largely man-made, as I wrote in an earlier post.   The local environment has a lot in common with some places in South Africa, the Mediterranean and Australia, so plants from those places tend to do well in Southern California. Below, however, is a familiar tree from Brazil. I never knew what it was called. It is a floss silk tree (weird name).

floss silk tree 

There is some emphasis on trying to reestablish native or nature ecosystems.  IMO, sustainable is important; natural or native really are not. The problem with natural is that the concept is too slippery and unrealistic.  As for native, it all depends. Native plants and animals might be well adapted to the local environment and fit in the overall environment, but sometimes non-native plants and animals can be as good, or better. I am glad that banana, oranges, apples, wheat, potatoes, horses, honeybees etc have spread beyond their narrow native regions ... and improved in the process. 

Sustainable, usually means a decent diversity and some non-native plants can become invasive, obliterating too much of the competition.  It is also possible that invasive species might have undesirable characteristics. But it requires judgment of the whole system.  There is no blanket native = good/non-native bad formula.  Some native species may have become un-viable because of other changes in the environment.   We cannot reestablish “pristine” environment and we have to resist the feeling that “what was, is good.”

With all the changes of the last century, and all that will come in this one, what used to be "natural" will no longer be sustainable.  That is why sustainable is better than natural.

Cork grove 

Above is a grove of cork-oak. The bark can be harvested every ten years or so after they mature.  they live around 150 years.  Cork grows naturally in Spain, Portugal and parts of N. Africa. Below is an old world desert plant landscape.

old world desert 


Bugging Out

Mob at Marine exerciseOur exercise is over. After a mob protested at the embassy and suicide bomber blew himself up, causing a mass casualty event. We evacuated the embassy. The role players did a really good job. The Marines responded well.  It was a good experience for all.

This was literally a "rent a mob". Contractors hired these guys to play angry locals. The same thing happens in real life, both in the U.S. and abroad. Whenever you see "spontaneous" demonstration, you are probably seeing a rent a mob at least in the core.  The professionals do a better job in front of the cameras anyway.

I learned or relearned some lessons about roles.  It is interesting how people play and become the roles assigned them, even if the assignments are mostly arbitrary.  Of course, we did have a artificial environment, but it reminded me that we have to be careful not to become our jobs, because you want to have something left with the playacting is over – in real life too.

Below is the tank wash.  As the amphibious vehicle come out of the salt water, they get washed down.

Tank wash 

Below is the Marine bar "Iron Mike's"  Iron Mike was one of the "real Marines" revered by all. 

Iron Mike 

Below is the obstacle course on the way to the ocean. I walked the course - and AROUND the obstacles - on my way back and forth to the beach cottage.  I did leap over a few of the logs until i skinned my knee. Not as tough as I used to be. 

Obstacle course 

April 24, 2010

El Rancho Grande


The Spanish settled southern California with a network of missions and ranches. These ranches were self sufficient economic and political entities and were very large, the size of a county, with a wide variety of possibilities. Cattle and other livestock raising was the biggest activity, but the ranches were also industrial producers at least on a small scale. Above is the view from the rancho veranda and below show the thick adobe walls that keep temperatures constant.


The model of the rancho was the Roman latifundia. Like the rancho, the latifundia was set up as a type of colonization entity designed pacify the colonial area, produce valuable economic results and give the  rich and powerful but restive individuals something to do far away from the capital.  Spain was colonized in this way by the Romans and it made Spain one of the most important centers of Roman culture, in many ways more thoroughly imperial Roman than Italy itself. It is no surprise if the Spanish employed the system in their own colonies, even if not directly copying the system.  It was in their cultural DNA.  Besides, it fit well with their imperial needs and was well suited to the Mediterranean type environment found in California.

Central garden in ranch house on Camp Pendelton 

The ranch house immediately reminds you of a Roman villa.  It spreads out over a large area with veranda and a beautiful open garden area in the middle. It must have been a really great way of life … at least for the ranch owners.*  Large latifundia type setups in Latin America are sometimes blamed for the class structures and challenges of democracy there.

As in all empires, there was the element of oppression. The workers were not entirely volunteers.  This would include the indentured Iberian colonists and more directly the native Indians, who provided much of the labor as long as they lasted.  Native Californians were not technologically advanced and they were not numerous. California just did not support the kind of advanced societies found in Mexico and parts of the Southwest.

Southern California is an interesting natural environment. It is fantastically rich, but only when developed by human technologies. In its natural state, California provides neither the challenge nor the payoff that historians like Arnold Toynbee credits with stimulating civilization. In other words, it was fairly easy to survive at a low, generally nomadic, level of technical sophistication. But moving beyond that was difficult, requiring technologies that were a couple leaps too far to make it from low level to higher one. As the saying goes, you can't jump a chasm in two hops.

date palm 

The modern Southern California “natural environment” is largely a human creation, from the non-native crops and trees to the vast aqueduct system that brings water from many miles away. You can see the finely shaped, non-native date palm above as just one example. It goes down to the bug level.  Many of California’s most productive crops require pollination by honeybees imported from Europe or Asia. Left on its own, the place is really a semi-desert.

I will keep the rancho and the latifundia in mind when I go to Brazil. Brazil had a similar system of colonization and Portugal shared Spain’s Iberian-Roman heritage. In Brazil they were called fazenda, in much of the rest of Spanish America the system was known as hacienda.

----  -

* This ranch paradigm in the Spanish colonial version is not like what we saw on the old Westerns. This is not the Ponderosa or even the Big Valley (which is in the California setting). If you watch the Cartwrights or the Barkleys, you see that the sons do almost all the work.  It would be amazing is a couple or three young guys could run something as big and complex as the ranch and still have so much time left over for all sorts of adventures.

April 23, 2010



This is my last night on the beach.  I enjoyed being here and I enjoyed being able to walk to the mock Embassy.   One of the things I walked past was the YAT-YAS building. It means “you ain’t tracks; you ain’t shit,” and this Quonset hut is a museum of tracked landing craft.

Inside Track museum YAT-YAS 

The landing craft are well armored and the tracks allow them to come some ways onto the beach.  Nevertheless, you would have to be very even to approach a hostile beach in one of this things, much less leap out when you got there.

April 22, 2010

Ship Visit

Harrier jet landing on the deck of the Peleliu 

We went for a ship visit to the USS Peleliu.  It is named after a World War II battle in the Pacific.  It is a kind of mini-aircraft carrier. Helicopters and Harrier Jets can land on the decks, as you can see in the picture above and below, and it supports Marine operations on shore.   You can see some pictures from the ship up and around this page.

helicopter landed on Peleliu 

This was the first time that I met Marines projecting power from ships.  This was the traditional Marine role, but in recent times they have been deployed in the deserts and mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan.  One of the Marine colonels commented that there are Marines in their second or third tours that have yet to do any real amphibious actions.  This would never happen a generation ago. Marines are supposed to be amphibious.

We were invited on board by the commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the one we were doing the exercise with.  We had a really good lunch.  I sat next to the Commodore.  I remember Commodore Perry, but I didn’t think they still had commodores and they don’t when it concerns the actual rank.  Fuller is a Navy Captain doing the job of the Commodore.  He coordinates the movements of the ships and forces from the three ships involved with the exercise.


Above is the hospital aboard the ship.

April 21, 2010

Making Water


A good lesson is that you should never count on machines.  Luckily, it was only an exercise.   We were supposed to demonstrate how the Marines could make fresh water from sea water.  In the exercise, we were supposed to let the Minister of Health drink the water directly from the desalinization machine.  Of course, the machine didn’t work while she was there.   It evidently worked before and after.  The evidence was that we had a lot of fresh water made.  But there are always breakdowns and hiccups.

Some are just little/big things, like the tide going out farther than the intake pipes can reach.  Other things are systemic, like filters getting clogged.   The better plan is to have the water ready to go, already produced. The machine can be in the background and if it makes water at the time of the visit, we can go down there and watch it.  But the show should never depend on it working at the exact time period.

This also goes, BTW, for web-based presentations.  I have seen it dozens of times.  The person tries to load something up and all we get are those hour glasses that show something is loading, or else it has to buffer so many times that nobody can stand to watch it.  

There is an old saying that one should not watch laws or sausages being made. It is probably good advice not to watch most things being made unless you are especially interested in the process rather than the result.  Most of the time, however, we really just want the finished project. It is tempting, but a little narcissistic, for the creator to want to show the work that went into his creation, but most people don’t care, at least not into the detail the artist himself wants to inflict on his audience.

April 20, 2010

Peaceful Seas & Dark Waters

Pacific Ocean from Camp Pendelton 

I understand why so many people are fascinated by the sea.   Its moods can change in such rapid and interesting ways.  As I watched for just about a half hour, I saw it go from gray and calm to bluer and wilder.  Finally near sundown it became the wine-dark sea of Homeric description, as you can see on the pictures.

Lonely beach 

I was lucky enough to get a little cottage on the Pacific instead of staying at the hotel.  The trade off is that I have to walk up to the mock embassy.  Of course, that is also one of the things l like about being here.   So I guess there is no trade-off, unless you count not having Internet access.  This is why you are reading this post a few days after I wrote it.  This is the off season for these cottages. I would not be able to get a place here otherwise.  It is also unusual in that the beach in almost deserted.   There are not many places along the Southern California coast where you can look out over an empty beach.


The ocean is primal and powerful.  It puts your troubles in their proper place.   I watched the sundown yesterday and today.   I guess it is good that I don’t live here.  I would probably eventually go blind from this sort of contemplation.  I have four nights down here on the shore, until I have to move back to the regular hotel.  I don’t suppose it will hurt me in that short a time.

As a Midwestern landlubber, I didn’t see the ocean until I was twenty-three years old and I am not sure that really counts.  I flew over the Atlantic Ocean from Chicago to Frankfurt, Germany, so I only saw it from very high up.   I didn’t actually touch the ocean until a year later, when we drove down to Florida.  I managed to convince some of my friends to go down.  My motivation was to pick up Chrissy, who was down there with her elderly aunt.  My first ocean touch was in the Gulf of Mexico in Bradenton, Florida.  I was surprised at how clear it was and how salty it tasted.


My previous experience was with Lake Michigan.  It is really not that different.  Lake Michigan is too big to see across too and there are some ocean areas that look a lot like the Lakeshore.  The Baltic Sea near Gdansk, for example, reminds me a lot of home.  Maybe that is why immigrant from that area moved to the shores of the lake.  The lake doesn’t get such big waves as the ocean can, but there are lots of times when the ocean waves are no bigger.  The big difference is the lack of salt and the lack of tides.  This means that it tastes different but also that trees and plants can grow much closer to the edge of the lake.  This gives it a different aspect. 


I find the ocean attractive but a little scary.   I walked a short way into surf to get the picture up top and I was paying a lot more attention to the setting sun than to the oncoming surf.  I was surprised by a wave. It didn’t knock me down, but I did get a little wetter than I expected.  The sea has power.  My mind drifted wildly to tsunamis.  I suppose the chances that a big wave will sweep me and my cottage off this beach are very small, but … I am writing this in the middle of the night.  I just came in from looking out over the dark sea.   There was some light provided by the almost half moon and the man-made lights in the background, but mostly I could just hear and feel the ocean.  Suffice to say that I didn’t walk close enough that I could fall off some unseen edge or in range of an errant waves that could reach out and pull me down to Davy Jones’ locker.  Lots of things seem possible in the middle of the night that look really pretty dumb when seen in the light of day.  But it is dark out there for now.

April 19, 2010

Exercising Marines


HAST - The first two letter stand for humanitarian assistance.  I am not sure what the others are for, but if you just use it as a noun, it means a Marine operation that provides local populations with thinks like food, water and basic medical care.

LCAC taking off 

HAST was part of the exercise, but before the Marines could start doing good, they had to land their equipment.   The hovercraft you see in the picture is called a LCAC.  It skims across the surface of the water and then can also skim across the surface of the beach.  It is much more reliable than those landing craft we remember from John Wayne movies.  You know, the kind that are shaped like long boxes and open in the front.

LCAC approaching shore 

The problem is that the landing craft have to go back and forth to the ships to bring in the materials and that just takes a lot of time and is very dependent on the state of the sea.

One of the keys to relief is clean water. The Marines has a combination filter/desalinization machine that can make fresh water from sea water or clean water from polluted water. We went down to the landing beach to see this thing in action. Unfortunately, sea conditions slowed delivery and it was not ready to do. Maybe tomorrow.

I am playing the DCM (Deputy Chief of Mission) during this exercise. While the exercise is for the Marines and I am just a prop, I am learning some useful things by playing the role. I would like to be more helpful to the Marines, but since this is supposed to be a learning experience for them and a test of their abilities, I have to been less forthcoming. I suppose that makes it more realistic.  In real life I would indeed know more and try to be more helpful. On the other hand, in real life there would be a lot more uncertainty. In the exercise I know or have a very good idea of what the future will be. I could be “helpful” and reveal some things, but that would mess up the whole thing, ruin the game. So I have to let it happen, knowing that around the corner something will happen to ruin their well-laid plans. Of course is the real world most plans don’t work; I just don’t know in advance. It is much better that they learn the lessons here than when they are playing for keeps.

April 18, 2010

Smell of Memory

Marines landing 

The helicopters landed today delivering the Marines for our exercise.  The noise, dust and smell of fuel are unpleasant, but they reminded me of those things in Iraq.  Smell is hard-wired into memory in a way other things are not.  Iraq sucked most of the time, but there were some interesting experiences and lots of great people.   After time has passed, things seem better.   It is much easier to see the joy in something retrospectively than prospectively.  

I can put myself back in that mind set, if I try hard.  I remember when I looked forward to a year of heat, exhaust, dust, boredom and danger.  It was not very inviting.   I remember my friend Reid Smith comparing our predicament to a prison sentence.  “We can't leave & what got us here seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said.  

April 17, 2010

Some Miscellaneous Things about Southern California

Wild flowers in southern California

The stretch of I-5 that goes through Camp Pendleton is named after John Basilone, a hero of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima who won both the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. One of the values of naming things after special people or events, rather than some non-committal thing like “Happy Crest Road,” is that they are remembered. John Basilone was a great hero and I am glad that driving along this road made me think of him.

Hills at Camp Pendleton 

Southern California is semi-arid and the natural vegetation would be scrub and brush.  When you see large trees, they are almost always planted and watered.  This is the best time of year to see the area around San Diego.   The hills are green and flower covered.  When I examined the ground more closely, it is clear that the vegetation is not thick.   It is, as I said, semi-arid.

looking west from my hotel at Mesa Lodge 

The Spanish tried to colonize California using missions. They were founded about a day’s journey apart and there were twenty-one of them.  The San Diego mission, built in 1769, was the first one built.

Camp Pendleton is really big. It is one of the largest de-facto natural preserves in the U.S.   If the Marines didn’t own the place, it certainly would be covered with condos, like the rest of the coast here about.

April 16, 2010


Had to take down the previous sessions.  Send me an email if you want to know why.  Thanks.

Deadly Serious Games

I have never met a young man who doesn’t enjoy shooter games; at least once they have seen one.  But video games are more than just fun.  You can learn a lot from games.  Games implicitly embed various assumptions and incentive particular actions and behaviors. 

The Marines are taking advantage of the possibilities of gaming to help young Marines understand real-life combat situations. I think it will end up saving lives, as Marines will more effectively fight the bad guys and be better able to protect civilians in combat zones.

In this video simulation, Marines get to play both sides.  First they drive a simulated convoy through a dangerous part of Afghanistan.  Next they play the role of the insurgents and compete against their colleagues.  They can respond much more effectively when they see the situation through the eyes of the insurgents. 

We next went into a mock up of a village.  It was like a museum or a scansen. There were actors who played the roles of Afghan civilians and insurgents.  It was a very realistic. They even piped in the smells. I have never been to Afghanistan but I recognized some of them from walking around in Iraqi villages. The most obvious difference I notice was lack of live animals. They had stuffed chickens and goats, but in real life they are running around and getting in the way. I think that probably makes a difference if you are really walking the streets, especially if you are talking about trying to pay attention to subtle movements and sounds around you.

Afghan village 

The goal of these simulations is to make sure Marines can encounter these sights and sounds before they see them in the real-life dangerous situations. They even have an RPG simulation, where the rocket passes over your head and slams into a wall. It scared the crap out of me, even though I know it was going to happen. The shock and the smell is something you cannot properly imagine no matter how many times someone tells you about it. Of course, I can only imagine what it is like when it is a real explosive that could hurt or kill you.

I got to do the simulation handling the 50 caliber machine gun on the gun turret. I have been under the gunner on many occasions but it was different seeing it from the top perspective.   Suffice to say that I would not have done a very good job in the real world. I couldn’t keep track of all the things happening around me and I was especially bad about having a 360 degree perspective.   Even in the safety of the simulation, I developed a kind of tunnel vision.   I was also very clumsy on the reloading.  I suppose with practice I would get better, but I don’t think I could ever develop the alacrity of the Marines I knew.

April 15, 2010

Pacific Sunset

Pacific sunset 

I watched the sun set in the Pacific.  It seems to drop so fast and be so close.  I almost thought I could hear it hiss as it hit the water.

sun set in Pacific Ocean off Camp Pendleton CA 

Below is sunrise on Lake Michigan last September.  I suppose the latitude and the time of year make a difference.  There is a much longer twilight time farther north.

Sunrise on Lake Michigan in September 2009 


April 14, 2010

Alex Update

Alex still has some headaches and body aches and it is hard for him to concentrate, but he seems to be doing okay.  I will drive up to Harrisonburg to see him later today and bring him home if he is still feeling bad.  This will create some troubles for his classes, since papers are due and exam time is here, but I think he has a valid excuse.   His attack made the Harrisonburg papers, although they didn’t mention him by name, so he has some credibility

There is an interest health care debate permutation, however.  Alex has only a few days left on our insurance, since he turned 22 last month and he gets a month of grace time.  We have signed him up for insurance, which will take effect on May 1.  So he will go into eight days of non-insurance.  Even when he gets the insurance, it has a high deductible, so we may end up paying a lot anyway.

The irony here is that if he had been in an accident, if someone had hit him with a car, he would probably had everything paid for by the insurance of the driver.  He would probably get an extra pay out for pain and suffering.  Or if the authorities had acted inappropriately he would have been in line for a huge compensation.   But since he was the victim of random but deliberate violence, he is just on his own.  Well, not on his own since we will take care of him, but you get the irony.

If I accidentally hit a pedestrian while riding my bike, and he sustained injuries similar to Alex’s, I would probably have to pay damages to include the actual medical costs, plus pain and suffering and probably punitive damages.   But if I successfully avoided the crash and the guy fell into the hands of a thug who beat him, he would get nothing.

We have created a system where an honest citizen must fear lawsuits even for things he doesn’t directly control and a legitimate victim of deliberate violence can expect nothing.   Violent perpetrators w/o significant assets can pretty much get away with anything from the civil point of view and even from the criminal one.   We are also more likely to take seriously a bent bumper on a car than a bump on somebody’s head. 

April 11, 2010

Hate Crime

Alex at his dorm windowWe got a call last night that Alex was in the hospital in Harrisonburg and would be soon having a CAT scan to see if he had any damage to his brain. He was transferred to UVA hospital in Charlottesville. We drove through the early morning darkness to get him. It is not good, but it looks like he will make a full & rapid recovery, fortunately, although he will have some scars and will be in pain for a while. We hope follow up exams find nothing new. The story that we learned between that call and now is troubling. I don't know if I have all the details down right, but let me try.

Alex was attacked by six young men in what evidently was an act of random hateful violence. They hit him over the head by a beer bottle, so Alex doesn’t remember much about the attack.  What we learned came from witnesses, the police & the perpetrators themselves.    

Alex remembers someone running past him and then he was on the ground being kicked by six guys. What happened, according to witnesses, is that these guys  wanted to beat somebody up. Their first victim was the guy that ran past Alex, but as they chased him they decided Alex would do just as well.  So one of them hit Alex with a beer bottle from behind and the others joined in the beating. The original victim called the police, who were already in the area and quickly arrived; this and bystanders scared the perpetrators off before they did lasting damage.

The police told Alex that they caught the guys who did it and that they would probably be charged with felony assault. Alex and the running kid were not the only ones they attacked last night.  This was not a simple case of drunk and disorderly.  These guys were looking for someone to hurt. They didn’t know Alex; they didn’t try to rob him, ask him anything at all or even look him in the face before smashing him over the head and commencing the beating.  The motivation was simply atavistic hatred, based on nothing, nothing at all, maybe a lust to do violence.

How do you deal with someone who wants nothing from you except to do you harm? We look for motivations.  We might feel more at ease if they had tried to steal Alex’s wallet or if we could discover how he antagonized them in even a trivial way.  But there is no comfort there. 

Chrissy is staying with Alex in Harrisonburg tonight and maybe tomorrow to make sure he is okay.  Espen had been up there visiting one of his old HS friends who also attends school up there.  He didn’t know about Alex until we told him this morning. I drove back with Espen and we talked along the way.  It seems the block party got out of hand generally. People were throwing beer bottles.   

Espen and his friend headed toward his friend’s dorm room and Alex went toward his, which was only a short distance from where he was attacked. Unfortunately for Alex, his dorm was right in the middle of a place where lots of rowdy people were gathering and Alex had to walk through the crowds.  Fortunately, the police were there too and that is probably what ended up saving him from a more severe beating.

The cops interviewed Alex. They took pictures of his various injuries and examined his bloody clothes, but he couldn’t tell them much that was helpful, but there are lots of witnesses and the perpetrators are evidently talking. I am interested to see how this case plays out and I want to learn more.  I don’t know anything about the perpetrators and I will admit that I am more than a little angry at them for hurting my boy. But I think there also is a rational argument for making sure this does not get passed along. I don’t think the attackers are hardened criminals but the kind of hatred and violence that went into this attack is dangerous. It is not something we can ignore or forgive.  Letting the attackers too easily off the hook would do them no favors if the lesson they learn is that what they did is no big deal.  It is something we have to confront.

April 09, 2010

Public Diplomacy Persuasion

Another FSI lecture is below.   I am doing this one on Monday.   The PowerPoint is available at this link.  It has a lot of the same themes as the last one, but is significantly different.

Everything is always becoming something else

Πάντα ε  - everything flows. That is what the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said more than two and half millennia ago and he was right. But the fact that he said it around 500 BC indicates that the concept has been around and talked about for a long time. Yet it seems to be a concept that each generation discovers for itself and then thinks that it is the most afflicted – ever – by change.

We always have and always will live in a dynamic environment.  What is more, our attempts to understand and act within it alter it, so that we never really face the same challenges twice.  (Heraclitus also said that you can never step twice into the same river – and he was right about that too.)  There is no finish line; there is no stable end goal.  Success means sustainable change.
So I don’t think my reference to Heraclitus is as obscure as it might seem in the context of something as dynamic as public diplomacy and the media. Our job as public affairs professions is to understand the ebbs and flows of events, to take advantage when things are flowing in the right direction, help direct them when we can and know when to get out of the way of the big waves.

Portfolio or Toolbox Strategy (for an uncertain world)

No technique or media tool will work in all situations.  That is why we need to deploy the whole panoply of tools and techniques and know which combinations are best.  This is more an art than a science.  The key is flexibility. Don’t get too enamored with anything in particular or develop strategies around one platform. You don’t want a Twitter strategy.  You want a strategy that may use Twitter as one of the tools. Carpenters don’t have “hammer strategies.”   They have building strategies that may involve hammers as one of the many tools in the box.

There is no such thing as a global brand or a one-size fits all

Even a ubiquitous & simple product like Coca-Cola tastes different and is marketed differently around the world.  The reason they teach us all these things and all these languages at FSI and the reason you make the big-bucks as public diplomacy professionals around the world is that you are supposed to understand the local cultures and environments and apply a nuanced and appropriate persuasion strategy.  

I would add that almost all the effective public diplomacy (as opposed to public affairs, which happens mostly in Washington, BTW) work occurs at posts overseas.  Washington programs should be in business to support the field in this respect.   This is something we sometimes forget.
We are not allowed to change our “product,” i.e. the United States and its policies, but we can choose which aspect to emphasize, what analogies to make, what frames to deploy, what relationships to cultivate and when and where to do these things.

The human equation: bridging the last three feet

Edward R. Murrow, the greatest director of USIA or public diplomacy, observed that our communication technologies could span the world, but the real persuasion took place in the last three feet – human contact. He lived in the days before Internet. IMO, internet can (although less easily than people think) create or at least sustain the kinds of engaged relationships Murrow was talking about, but we still have to build those relationships. There is a cognitive limit to human engagement. You can only keep in real contact with a couple hundred people, although new technologies may expand that number, it does not reach into the millions or even the tens of thousands.  That is why you have to set priorities.  You just cannot love everyone equally and any strategy designed to reach everybody will satisfy nobody.

There is no garden w/o a gardener.   

You cannot outsource or compartmentalize your brains or your engagement.  The person doing the public diplomacy must be involved with the public diplomacy decisions.  There just is no way around this.  If we don’t get involved, we cannot make good decisions.  Too often, we just try to shunt off the PD function.  We hire consultants.   Many consultants are good, but a consultant is often like the guy who borrows your watch and then charges to tell you what time it is. If we outsource our decisions, we essentially outsource our intelligence. Then THEY know what we need to know.  It is a lot like hiring a guy to look after your spouse.  Even if it seems to make her happier, maybe that is your role.

BTW – be very wary of pseudo-experts who claim to “speak for” large groups of people or have some kind of inside knowledge that cannot be replicated or properly explained.   If they cannot explain it to you even in broad strokes, they probably don’t understand it themselves and often they are just hucksters protecting their phony baloney jobs.   We have too many such people hanging around us not to trip over them occasionally.

So let me sum up before I move to the next part.  Technologies are new; human relations are old.  Our “new” methods return to an earlier age when communication was engaged, individualized, personal, two-way and interactive.  And for public diplomacy the lessons of anthropology (people) trump technology (machines.)

How does public diplomacy really work?

Forget about mass marketing & advertising analogies. We are not selling something as simple as a can of soda and we do not have the resources to engage mass markets. We are not trying to build awareness (who is not aware of the U.S.?) and content DOES matter.

Public diplomacy is a mass networking proposition, where we build key relationships with opinion leaders and use leverage to allow/encourage others to reach out, who in turn reach out …  We cannot reach THE common man (because he doesn’t exist) and we should be careful not to mistake A common man for THE common man.

There are thousands of books and experts who will point to the example of the obscure person who did something great.  They are right; but it is really easy to pick Bill Gates out of the crowd AFTER he has been wildly successful.   Then it is easy to explain why he succeeded.  Of course millions of others did similar things and did not become the richest man in the world.   

They call this survivor bias.  In many ways it is like a lottery.  We can be sure that SOMEBODY will win, but we cannot tell who before the drawing.  So we have to play the odds and we cannot treat everybody who buys a lottery ticket like a potential millionaire. 

Humans are social creatures who make decisions in contexts of their culture & relationships

We make a big mistake if we treat people as members of undifferentiated masses.  Human societies are lumpy. There are relationships that matter more and some that matter less.  And (as per Heraclitus) they are in a constant state of flux. People make most of their important decisions in context or in consultation with people they trust.  Later they might go the some media sources for confirmation or details. Probably the biggest decision you have ever made was buying a home.  Did you just read some literature and make an offer? Or did you ask around and talk to people you trusted?  How about the car you own?   We like to explain our behavior rationally, but relationally will provide more reliable assessments.

Information is almost free and a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention

We now must find or create social context for our message to get attention.   I always laugh (at least to myself) when I hear someone say that “we got the message out” or “We reached a million people”.  I am going to start calling this the barking dog strategy, because like the dogs, we just shout “I’m here; I’m here; I’m here.  It doesn’t matter what you say; it is what they hear that counts.   If your message does not say the right things, if it doesn’t fit into their cultural and socials contexts and if it is not delivered in an appropriate way, it doesn’t get through.   I will reiterate that the reason you get those big-bucks is to understand the right time, place and context of the communication.   The new technologies have not made this easier.

Understand - Everything has rules and patterns

I mentioned Heraclitus.  Let’s go a bit farther east and think of Lao Tzu.   He talked about the need to understand the “Tao”, the patterns and logic in all things.  Understanding these things could make the most difficult tasks fluid and easy.   There is usually easier and harder ways to do things.  Sometimes you CREATE more resistance and make less progress by pushing too hard.   So try to understand before you try to persuade.  If people have been doing things for a long time, there is a reason.  Figure out what that is and persuasion becomes much easier.   And always look for the links and relationships.  People may not be aware of what drives their own behavior, but it is often linked to social acceptance. And a person’s outlook often changes more based on the perceived future than on the present reality. 

Let me digress with a fish story from my time in Iraq.   During the late unpleasantness, Coalition forces had to ban fishing on the Euphrates River for a time, to prevent insurgents from using it as a highway.   But fishermen didn’t return after the ban was lifted, even though the fish were plentiful and bigger given the no-fishing respite.   We thought of helping them buy new boats, nets, sonar etc. But the reason that they weren’t fishing was much simpler – no ice.  The ice factory had shut down and in this hot climate if you cannot put the fish on ice, you cannot move them very far or sell them. We helped the ice house back into operation and the fishing started again.  

ENGAGE - influencing your community but also being part of it and willing to be influenced 

This story shows the importance of engagement.  You also have to get out – physically – and meet people where they are.

Inform & Interpret – turn information into useful knowledge

Engaging is fun and essential, but if we are not giving the taxpayer value for their money if we don’t inform and persuade.   Since information is almost free, what do I mean by inform?  This means turning raw information into useful knowledge and narratives.   Even simple facts must be put into contexts.  What if you didn’t have any dresser drawers or hangers in your closet?  What if you didn’t have any bookshelves or cabinets and all you stuff was just lying on the floor.  It would be hard to find things and many things would not be useful. 

Turning information into knowledge is like putting things in some order.  In the public diplomacy realm, that usually means framing and narratives.   People understand stories and until they have a story that makes sense, information just sits there, useless as the shirt you cannot find under the pile of dirty clothes.  Analytical history, BTW, as opposed to antiquarianism or chronicles is depends almost entirely on framing. The historian must choose what to put in and what to leave out and that makes the story.

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. 

I mentioned framing, but I should say a little more.  The frame is how you characterize information or events.   If you want to be pejorative, you can sometimes call it spin, but there is no way you can understand complex reality w/o some kind of frame. Most of our frames are unconscious, but that doesn’t mean they are not powerful or pervasive.  Think of the ubiquitous sports frame.   Describing something like American football, (i.e. centrally planned, stop and start with specialized plays and players) versus football other places (i.e. fluid, fast breaking with the players less specialized) makes a big difference to how it will be perceived. Or think of how we try to frame our presidents.  We want our candidate to be in the frame with Lincoln and Washington, Warren G. Harding and Rutherford B Hayes, not so much.

Build a community & be part of a community

 Figure out what you can contribute and do it.  Remember people make decisions in the contexts of their relationships.  Also make sure that you get something back. 

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.

Just a few more short points …

Inclusive & Exclusive 

Communities are inclusive for members and exclusive for others. You attract nobody if you appeal to everybody. You have to earn membership in any community worth joining. 

Personal – or at least personalized  

Editors and marketers have tried for years to homogenize for the mass market. That’s how we got soft white Wonder bread and Budweiser beer.  Niche markets – and social media is a series of niche markets – require personality.  We do a poor job of segmenting our market in public diplomacy.  This is something I will work on when I get to Brazil and I suggest you think about when you get to your posts.


Success is continuous learning - an iterative   process- not a plan - and a never ending journey.  As I wrote up top, we never get to the end. We have to learn from our failures and our successes and move on. The best we can do is make our own ending worth of the start.   

April 08, 2010

Notes on Social Media & Public Diplomacy

A more mature understanding of the social media

It is no surprise that our early forays into the media felt a bit like returning to high school.   Much of the social media was for and by teenagers and catered to their motivations and predilections.   We followed through that door, looking for that ever elusive youth market and we were about as successful as adults always are when they try to “hang around” with teenagers and young adults.

This is one of the impressions I got from participating in an open discussion about how we (State) use social media in Washington and at posts at the tail end of the FSI course on using the social media.  In addition to teaching techniques this course was also designed to assimilate experience from those who actually work with the social media on a regular basis in real world public diplomacy, making, as course organizer Bruce Kleiner characterizes it, a “why-to” as well as a “how-to” course. 

Bruce ran what amounted to an informal expert practitioner focus group and since Bruce and I had worked together to design this module, I got to be there to take part and take notes.
The good news is that everybody is now using a wide variety of social media methods and platforms in public diplomacy.  We no longer have to do the sales job.  And we are maturing.  You can see the changes month-by-month.  Not much more than a year ago, it was enough to be on the media. 

At first we looked to the social media for numbers.  In many ways adopting the teenage paradigm of popularity, we measured our own worth and that of our programs by how many people put their names on lists, called themselves our friends or said they approved of our comments. We learned how to build audiences and found that it was easy.   But we don’t have the audiences we want and we don’t really have the audiences that want what we provide.

Several people complained that they were pressured to create and populate Facebook or Twitter realms w/o specification about the kinds of audiences they were supposed to get.   The result was massive, unsegmented groups of fans or friends, with little commonalities of interests.  We indiscriminately push our messages to these groups and call it a success if we reach a million people. But  we are now exiting this stage of development.

The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on

It seemed fairly unanimous that audiences and content count.   The social media can get people’s attention, but we have to hold it once we got it.  This is harder.  I compared some of the social media to barking dogs.  The bark says “I’m here; I’m here; I’m here.”  Our audiences are acknowledging our presence and now asking what is it we want to say?   If the content that follows is insufficient or not well targeted, we will be about as effective and maybe as annoying as a barking dog.

This transition will not be easy.  We have developed general social media audiences but we want to pass messages about specific topics.  It is unlikely that any particular people will be interested in all or even most of our topics and few people will sift through all of what we send to find the nuggets of gold. 

Segment the audience and sell to the segments

Skilled marketers know that marketing is not selling.  It requires understanding your customers, your products and your potential products and putting these things together.  It is easy to take marketing analogies too far, but this one fits public diplomacy well.

The first imperative is to segment our audiences.   This may mean trimming them to smaller and more interested proportions.   A community that allows everybody in quickly becomes a mob, where important ideas and messages are lost in a sea of inanity. This actually fairly describes much of the social media.  If we want to make this medium useful, we have to tend to our audience segments.

Of course addressing a market segment implies that you have some product particularly appropriate for that audience.   This means content and often very specific content.   An individual interested in climate change, for example, will not long remain satisfied with simple information aimed at a general audience.   This will apply to any subject we can think of and it will happen even if we are trying to talk to experts.  An informed layman will quickly move beyond the general information and demand more.   If they don’t find it with us, they will move elsewhere.   Information is easy to find on the web.

Social media exacerbates a classic sales temptation.  An aggressive salesman can sell products his organization cannot reasonably produce or deliver.   A good salesman ensures that customers get what they want and his organization can produce and deliver what he promises.   This is often the difference between short and long term success.  

Another temptation is to use the social media as a conduit to unload our products into the market.   I asked how many people would actually read the various speeches or watch the videos we send out.  The response was not overwhelming.   If we, who are more interested in such things than a most people, will not be interested in these things, why do we think others will want them?   We have an important role to play for sources or archiving.    Most people will not read through a whole speech by the Secretary of State or the President, but many people want to have it available as reference.   They essentially mine out the nuggets of information they want.   Filling this need is a web 1.0 function or even just an archiving task.   We might use social media to remind audiences that these things are available, but regularly sending out texts is probably a waste of time and may even morph into the barking dog mode of annoyance.

Culture matters

It was clear from the discussion that people at our posts have many similar problems and successes with social media.  It was equally clear that there are substantial differences in what is possible or desirable based on local cultures, environments and priorities.   There is no such thing as a global product and we need our people on the ground to tailor and modulate our messages.   BTW – it is also very important to have up-to-date information from people on the ground.  Conditions change rapidly and what worked last year may be a disastrous failure this year.   There is no substitute for local expertise.  Social media can leap borders, but it still has to appeal to local people when it arrives.

Answering criticism

Another audience question concerned responding to criticism.   Sometimes we just have to repeat the same answers over and over because there is nothing else to say. This may not be satisfying to us or others but it is the way it has to be.  We agreed that we should welcome legitimate criticism and answer it truthfully and forthrightly.   There is a danger, however, of getting too deeply involved.  We don’t know how many people are really involved in an online discussion and/or if it may reach a wider audience.   We also don’t know the level of commitment.    For example, there might be only a couple individuals criticizing us.  Maybe they have thousands of friends “involved” but these people don’t really care.  Remember the difference between involvement and commitment can be seen in a ham and eggs breakfast.  The chicken is involved; the pig is committed.

We can never be as efficient or nimble as a private firm

We talked a little about the differences between what we (USG) can do versus what private firms, or even smaller governments can do.  Much private effort in the social media is to simply build awareness or name recognition.  Unlike most private firms, the USG has no need to build awareness of itself.  Everybody knows who we are.   We also must recognize that people may see even our innocent effort as menacing.   I told the story about my recent experience with Amazon.com.  I checked out a few books on ancient Greek literature a few days ago. Now Amazon.com is sending me updates on books in ancient Greek.  Their machine has noticed and categorized me. I don’t find this offensive and it may help me find things I might want.   Now imagine that you are a citizen of a country where America is not universally liked.  You learn that we have the kind of information on you that Amazon.com has on me.  Are you happy about that?   What if you find out that the U.S. Government wants to “help” educate your kid?  We have to recognize that we are not a normal organization and that our embrace is not always welcome.   That means that we can almost never just copy what others are doing successfully and we will never be as efficient or nimble as private firms because we cannot let ourselves be so.

Somebody has to do it

There was mention of the problems of staffing.  Social media duties tend to get tacked onto the workload.  Since most posts are already working with reduced staffs and already “doing more with less,” this can be a strain.  There are no easy solutions to the staffing problem.   All of them involve priorities.  We agreed that posts need to identify who will be doing the new work and how much time it will take.  Then they have to ask and answer the question whether the new duties are important enough to displace old ones, and if so what.   Of course, social media will sometimes automatically displace older duties.   The need to copy, collate and distribute is vastly decreased because of the social media, for example.   As with most management decisions, it might be better to reengineer and/or eliminate whole sets of tasks rather than tinker around the edges.  

A flatter hierarchy might be very helpful, since a great deal of time is spent getting clearances and making fairly meaningless cosmetic changes to documents.   The old saying that you shouldn’t spend a dollar to make a dime decision goes for wasting time too. 

The medium is not the message

Finally, we have to recognize that the advent of social media may be less immediately revolutionary than we initially thought.   Most people still get their information through traditional media, especially television and radio.  When President Obama spoke in Cairo, for example, it was hailed as a social media success but almost everybody who saw the speech, saw it on television.   Even people who saw it later on Internet saw it essentially through the television lens, just delivered differently.  And following up on social media has not proven as successful as the original excitement would have implied.  You still have to have something to say and you still have to maintain relationships.   Social media will become increasingly important as components in the toolbox of public diplomacy, but it will never be a standalone technique.   Social media can support programs, but it never can be the program itself.  The medium is not the message.  

BTW – I gave the keynote to this course.  The PowerPoint is available here.



April 07, 2010

Brazilian Elections

Brazil was once derided as “the country of the future and always will be” but it seems to have become the country of today.   The economy is doing very well, even in these tough global times and this year Brazilians will vote in their sixth free presidential election. That was the topic of a seminar I attended today at the Wilson Center.

It was interesting even before I got into the room.  As I checked for my name on the guest list, I noticed that we were all listed by our first names. I had forgotten.  That is how they do it in Brazil.  You generally call people by their first names, even if you don’t know them well.

You can read about the panelist at the link above.  I am going to write in general just to put out the quick note.

Brazil faces the challenge of success. The currency is stable; economy doing well and Brazil is getting the international respect it has long sought. Much of this is the result of the “Plano Real” enacted in 1994. At that time, Brazil was in dire straits and its options were limited. They had to follow good macroeconomic policies and privatize or at least discipline state owned firms.  Today, options have expanded and so has temptation to slip back into the state capitalism or socialism that created so many problems in the past. The Economist featured and article about that last week, and comments of panelists echoed some of the same themes.

The middle class has grown. Brazilian sociologist divide their society into groups A,B, C, D, E.  A&B are fairly rich. C is middle class, i.e. people can afford some things like nice TVs, computers etc.   The C class has grown by thirty million in the last decade and has gone up from 34% to 49% of the population. These people are feeling good and Brazilian consumer confidence is at an all time high.  The issues are “middle class” priorities, such as crime, drugs and schools. Concerns about jobs, inflation and poverty have moved into the “givens” categories and do not motivate voters as much in this election.

The current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, just called by “Lula,” comes from the workers’ party (PT) which was socialistic, but Lula has followed policies that have mostly made businesses and investors happy. He is very popular, and could almost certainly win a third term, but Brazilian presidents are limited to two terms (like ours). So he is trying to pass his popularity to Dilma Rousseff (just called Dilma) his former chief of staff, who will run on the PT ticker. Dilma has never run for office before, so nobody knows how well she will do. Lula is phenomenally charismatic, Dilma, not so much.  The question is whether Lula will be enough. Panel members pointed out that it is easier for Brazilian politicians to control the message  and that PT will protect Dilma.

The main opposition candidate is Sao Paulo governor Jose Serra.  Serra is ahead in the polls, but everybody agreed that it is much too soon to tell. Serra (they called him by his last name, maybe because Jose is such a common name) is known as a competent manager, but not charismatic as Lula. IN this election, where most people are content with the status quo, his strategy seems to be that his management competence will be better to maintain and enhance the good times that people are living today.  But it is always hard to sell change when times are good.

Some of the outlines of the election are already clear. Serra is strong in the richer parts of the country (the South and Southeast) and among the richer people. The panelist agreed that Dilma will carry the poorer parts of the population, but Serra will need to ensure that the loss is not a landslide.

The question and answer session added a few insights.  For example, the panelists agreed that race is not an issue in Brazil as it is in the U.S.   Brazil doesn’t treat race in the binary way we do. There has been a lot of racial mixing and it is possible for siblings to be in different racial categories.   Most Americans “blacks” would be thought of as mixed race in Brazil and many would even be classified as white.  There is some trouble now with the idea of quotas.  One person told a story about applicants at the University in Brasilia where twin brothers categorized themselves differently and the one got in based on race preference.  

Internet is still not important politically in Brazil.  Radio is still the big way to reach people.  This year, however, it will be possible for candidates to solicit money over the Internet and the parties have brought down U.S. consultants with experience raising Internet money here.  Nobody knows how that will work out.

The most interesting guy on the panels was Alberto Almeida, Director, Instituto Análise.  His talk was interesting and delivered with a great and amusing style.   I will have to make a point of looking him up when I get to Brazil.   He wrote a book called “A cabeça do brasileiro.”  I would like to read it.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be available on any of the online bookshops I can access.

There is some other references from the Wall Street Journal

April 06, 2010

Short Cuts

Magnolia flowering at Fort Meyer

Being able to cut through Fort Meyer has greatly improved my biking to work experience. I had almost forgotten that I have this blog to thank for this. One of my colleagues at State Department send me an email telling me that Fort Meyer was open again after reading this post.

Rebuilding the Herbert C Hoover Building. 

Above is an interesting sign of the stimulus. It struck me as funny for a few of reasons, first because it is the Hoover Building. Hoover’s reputation on economic recovery is not that good. Second this renovation started a long time ago. Chrissy used to work in that building and they were already renovating it when she was working there back in 2007/8. Third, this building was one of the first big government buildings in Washington. It was the biggest office building in the world when it was completed in 1932. 

New construction in Arlington, VA 

Above is new bigger home that replaced a little ones. This kind of "tear down" or "in filling" is still happening, as you can see, but has slowed down a lot because of the recession. People buy the smaller houses, like the one at the right, tear them down and rebuilt bigger, newer ones, like the one on the left, on the lot. This one is not as big as some and it seems to fit in well with the neighborhood. Sometimes people build huge houses that essentially cover the entire lot, often literally shading out their neighbors. 

April 05, 2010

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Steel tree at sculpture garden 

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, its lack much be a sincere form of rebuke and our hypertensive desire not to be seen to be intolerant of “judging” makes it one of the few measures we can actually use to understand what people really think.  The capacity to copy traits you think are good or useful and let the negative ones die out is one of the primary benefits of diversity.   It is the essence of adaption and the lubricant of innovation.  It is how all successful people and groups have prospered in practice, but it has never been very popular in theory.

It seems a little mean, especially since it will tend to fall hardest on the least successful individuals and groups in society, since they are almost by definition doing the things that don’t work as well. Nobody wants to copy what losers are doing. And it gets entangled with ideas of cultural values and ethnicity.

What is culture?  Basically, a culture is a set of habits and traditions that were useful at least some times in the past.  Whether they remain useful is a question we have to ask constantly. There is nothing sacred about any particular cultural traits and while we should be very careful when changing long-established practices and relations – like ecology, they often have connections and purposes that are not immediately apparent – change them we must.

American culture is extraordinarily good at this. In the 1980s, we went through a revolution in business management, where we copied, adapted and developed many organizational principles from Japan.  Emphasize those words adapted & developed.  It was not just a copy; it was something better suited to our needs. Or consider the changes in the American diet, at least the one we know we are supposed to eat. My father would not recognize many of the things we commonly consume. We have imitated and developed.

Yet it is a common theme that Americans do not learn from others and try to force others to be more like them. One reason for this is that we adapt & develop with so much ease that it often goes unnoticed, even by us.  Another is a kind of bias against American ideas.  When we adopt something, it seems to become “American” and others might resist it for that reason, often while imitating it, BTW – the sincerest form of flattery - because it works. But I think a lot of it has to do with the other side of that flattery equation. The lack of imitation is a kind of rebuke and there are lots of things we don’t imitate and don’t want to imitate.

But too often we are too hypocritical, i.e. politically correct, to be open. Instead we praise, but don't take any concrete steps to learn or adopt. 

In my observation, the more people effusively praise something, the less they actually respect it* and if you have to have a special sponsored celebration you can be pretty much sure that nobody will be imitating whatever/whoever you are celebrating (i.e. they don’t really want it).   Think about it from the point of view of what we really want. When we were trying to learn about Japanese quality control methods a couple decades ago, we didn’t have to sponsor special months for it. Everybody wanted it. People & firms paid their own money and spent their own time trying to learn about it because they really thought is was something they wanted.

The cynical saying that you should either be sincere or fake sincerity only works in the short term and only for transactions that involve mostly words. If you loudly praise the food I serve, but won’t eat it, I know you don’t really like it.  After a while, I will resent the insincere praise.

We should respect all humans because they are human, but there are some types of respect that cannot be given or demanded; they must be earned. You earn this kind of respect by what you do over a period of time.  It means doing something worthy of emulation or creating something worthy of imitation. Respect is a kind of mutual society. You can only get it and only give it if you are doing the right things. 

This is the harder part. There are some people whose respect you don’t want and some whose respect you can’t get. When you are not getting the respect you think you deserve, it usually is your own fault, but sometimes it really is their fault. 

* Here I am talking about traits, habits and culture. Of course, we may legitimately praise heroes or great events, but even that can go overboard.

BTW - the picture is a metal tree in the sculpture garden near the Capitol Mall. I hate it. Who needs an imitation tree when there are plenty of real trees. I wonder how much they paid for it.

April 04, 2010

Spring Forest Visit

Cloverfield at CP showing six year old loblolly pines 

It was a little early to go down to the farms. The trees haven’t quite started to grow yet and the clover is still small and not flowering. I will be back in a few weeks. But I wanted to check on flood damage now. Above are the trees near the clover field at the top of the hill. The truck gives perspective. The land was clear cut in 2003, so you can see how much the trees have grown since then. The biosolids helped them grow faster last year. Below is another truck comparison. There is an interesting detail. Look at the two trees behind the truck. The round top one is a "volunteer" i.e. natural regeneration. It was probably a little tree when the place was cut. The one next to it is a planted genetically "super tree." Because of their location at the crossroad, I have been paying attention to this place. The round top tree was twice as big as the ones around it when I first noticed. Today, you can see that the one next to it is a little bigger and I expect that after this growing season it will be significantly bigger. I will take another picture.

Comparion with truck at crossroad on April 3, 2010 

I saw clear evidence of heavy rain and lots of runoff, but no real damage. The places near the streams overflowed, but that doesn’t hurt the trees. The water is running UNDER one of the water pipes. I figure it will undercut the road, but I don't think there is much to do about it. I will put in a load of rocks and turn it into a ford when/if it collapses. I think it will be better for the water to run over instead of under. 

Wetland on CP 

One of the little streams changed course last year. It went back to its older course. When I dig down, I find sand and gravel all over, indicating that the stream has changed course a lot. It creates wetlands until the mud piles up into natural levies, and then it moves again. You can see from the picture above that there have been times when the ground was dry for a long time.  The dead trees were alive when I got the place in 2005, when the stream shifted and evidently drown the roots in wetland. I suppose that now the stream has shifted again, it will be dryer, although the whole place is spongy.

I also think that runoff will decrease over time as the trees on the slopes get bigger and their roots absorb more of the water before it hits the streams. 


I want to get the trees on the Freeman tract thinned this year or next, before I get to Brazil.   Above you can see from the comparison with the truck that the trees are big enough and thick enough. They will be fourteen years old this year, which is a little early for thinning but within the range.  Below is the power line right-of-way. They replaced the wooden pylons with steel and kind of tore up the grass. I have eight acres under those things. I am looking into establishing quail habitat, since I cannot plant trees (or allow them to grow) that would interfere with the wires.  On the plus side, it provides a long area of forest edge and wildlife plot and the utility company maintains the road. 


April 03, 2010

Spring has Come to Washington

Capitol in springtime looking from SE 

Spring has arrived in Washington.  Some pictures are included. Above is the Capitol seen from the NE corner.  Below is the Jefferson Memorial.

Jefferson Memorial  

Below is the Lincoln Memorial. Lots of people have come to see old Abe. 

Lincoln Memorial 

Below is the Washington Monument through the cherry trees.

Washington Monument through the cherry trees 

Below is the path along the Tidal Basin.

Cherry trees along the path near the Tidal Basin 

April 01, 2010

Computer Revolution #4 (and counting)

I am doing my FSI talk again on Monday.   It is very similar to the one I did in February, but there are some additions and changes.   The new PowerPoint is included at this link.  I was thinking through the slides and about the impact of new media this time.  Below are a few ideas.  I don’t know if I will use them in the very short presentation, but maybe if somebody asks.

This is the forth computer revolution that I have personally experienced

The first was when I was still too young to have much of an understanding.   This was the one where computers were going to take over the world.  Science fiction movies had computers just usurping the thinking of humans.   There were “evil” computers like Hal on “2001: a Space Odyssey” (funny, 2001 came and went w/o that Jupiter mission) but mostly they were just better than we mere humans.  The irony is that the actual computing power was so low in those days that we just laugh at the perceived threat.

I was part of the next revoltuion, proud and excited.  This was when young people (like me at the time) were going to use computers to change the world and displace all the accumulated wisdom of the ages with our raw young intelligence bolstered by computer power. The problem was that we really didn’t know how to do anything.  The computers just helped us do nothing much faster than before and leveraged our mistakes.  I recall a saying on the wall the University of Minnesota, where I got my MBA. It said,

“to err is human, but if you really want to mess up you need computer support.”

The other MBA epitaph was, "Often wrong but never in doubt." Harness that to the power of computers and see what you come up with.  

The third revolution was the dot.com boom of the late 1990s.  This is the one we have to pay close attention to because it has lessons for today.  The idea of the dot.com is that you didn’t really need any content or products. The race was for attention – eye balls.  People set up web sites supposedly selling all sorts of things, but all they really cared about was exposure.  Money poured in to investments in dot.com. It wasn’t until around March of 2000 that people noticed that the emperor had no clothes. The demise of the dot.com pulled the market down with it and also much of the economy.  The NASDAQ still hasn’t fully recovered. Some firms like Amazon.com came out winners. The difference was their organizational skills and the fact that they delivered real products.

We have our own special dot.com cautionary tale. We (the USG, State, USIA) messed up big-time in the 1990s in relation to public affairs, or at least the concept did.  Many were taken in by the promise of the Internet and there were those who thought we didn’t need a real presence on the ground in other countries. We could do it all from Washington.  During the 1990s, we closed posts, shut down most of our libraries (made them into Information Resource Centers), eliminated many of our centers overseas and generally let our public affairs capacity atrophy. A simple but telling statistic is that there were only about half as many public diplomacy officers in 2000 as there had been in 1990.  After the attacks of 9/11, we really didn’t have the people on the ground or the experience needed to communicate with world publics. The website “air war” was a bust. You can reach millions of people, but you are just wasting your time if they aren’t paying attention or your message doesn’t appeal.

BTW - Rebuilding American diplomatic capacity began soon after 9/11. Colin Powell spearheaded a diplomatic readiness initiative to help compensate for the damage done during the 1990s Results are starting to show but rebuilding networks will take a while longer. U.S. diplomacy has a very peculiar age structure because of the nineties neglect. There are many new employees (>10 years experience) and many old employees (20 > years experience), but not many in the middle.  This will be a challenge in the next five years, as much of the experience will go out the door through retirements. (Career diplomats can retire after 20 years.) It will be a good time to look for a job in the Foreign Service, but our government will be paying for mistakes of the 1990s for the next ten years. You cannot turn these things on and off like a light bulb. Think of public affairs like a forest. Things take time.  The trees you plant today determine the forest years from now and you cannot expect to walk in the shade of your trees that you didn't plant 15 years ago.

Some things just take time.

Now here we are in revolution #4. I don’t know how this story will end.   My earnest hope is that we will remember that we are always and everywhere talking to people.   People are funny.  They don’t always do what you think they will.   You still have to understand them before you can expect them to understand you.   In this latest age of new media, reaching out with the newest tools is necessary, but not sufficient to achieve our goals.

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