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May 31, 2010

May 2010 Forest Visit

Alex and Espen at the cloverfield 

I bought a couple gallons of Chopper Gen2 and some backpack sprayers. The boys and I went down to the forests to check up on them and spray down some of the vines. I have mixed feelings about spraying.  I would spray the whole place if I was really doing intense pine management. They usually do this with helicopters and it would cost me around $6000. I don’t like to spend the money and I don’t like to spray everything.  I want some diversity, but the vines are getting out of hand. The backpack sprayers allow more precise applications and they cost much less. The materials cost a couple hundred dollars and labor is cheap, essentially free. Getting the boys involved with the land is also a good idea. So that is what we did.

Espen and Alex on grassy path to Genito Creek 

We got an early start, but only worked until about noon. It was getting too hot and I didn’t want to kill the boys or make them not like the forest.  We got the easy targets, i.e. the places within easy reach of the roads and paths. I like to do these things in iterative ways. This will give me a chance to see how it works and decide if I want to do it more widely. It will also give me something useful to do on my visits.  I can spray down some of the offending vines each time I go down and do it selectively.

Cloverfield on CP farm 

I talked to Larry and Dale Walker from the hunt club. They also work at a forestry company and showed me their operation last year. You can see pictures and read about that here and here. They are honest guys and their firm does a good job.  We talked about thinning on the Freeman property. It would be good to do it this fall. This would be my first significant harvest and I look forward to it.

Utility right of way on Freeman farm 

The utility company put in new poles. They ripped up the dirt a lot, but have since leveled it out and reseeded it.  The grass is coming up. The wires and the right-of-way are useful, despite the fact that they take up eight acres of my land.  The opening provides good wildlife habitat and the long, narrow aspect produces a lot of the “forest edge” so favored in wild ecology. From the practical point of view, the most useful thing about the right-of-way is the road. The electric company maintains the road and they just finished fixing it up. It was really rutted before, but they put in rocks over the washouts and made little stone banks to divert the storm water. All this will provide good infrastructure for the thinning operation.  If for what they did, I would have to do it and/or the timber companies would have to do it and that would cut into what they could pay me for the wood. It is a de-facto subsidy for me.

Me in my cloverfield 

The pictures are from the farms. You can see the roads along the right-of-way. The picture of Alex and Espen shows the grassy path Larry Walker made down to the creek. It is a “wildlife corridor” Alex is looking very buff these days. They are hard workers and strong boys. They can get a lot more done than I can. My clover fields are looking good. Other wild plants are beginning to seed in and this is okay.

May 28, 2010

America's Biggest Ethnic Group

Famous German-AmericansAmerica’s largest ethnic group is German.  Nearly a quarter of the American population or 58 million Americans claim German ancestry.  It used to be a big deal; as far as I know the Germans never formed a group specifically called “the race” (as in La Raza) but some clearly had separatist notions. It is a tribute to the American assimilation machine that now it matters hardly at all. You can see some famous German-Americans on the stairs to the left.  Who knew Elvis was German?

I had been meaning to go over to the German-American cultural center since I read about it in the paper.  Yesterday I went.  It is the kind of place that is worth seeing, but not worth going to see and you could easily miss it. Look at the picture below. The signs are small. Mostly, it is a permanent poster show detailing the long and varied contributions of Germans to American culture.   Since German contributions are now as American and Americanized as hamburgers, hot dogs and potato salad, it is easy to overlook them and think that now is the first time we have really had such large influx of immigrants and foreign cultures.

German-American museum in Washington 

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it and those who remember will have to go along with them too, but it is interesting to consider the conditions that existed within living memory. So let me say a little about Germans & America.  I grew up with it in Milwaukee, so talking about German-American culture is like talking about childhood. (The picture below is the Germania building in Milwaukee. They used to joke that the towers were like the spiked Kaiser helmets.)  But I had a child’s understanding of it based on caricatures and molded by subsequent history.  It is hard to put ourselves in the mindset of a century ago but I will try. 

Germania building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin 

1910 was before the wars and before the atrocities.  Germany in those days was arguably the most advanced country in terms of science and technology.  An American who really wanted to learn science had to learn German.  It was like English is today to sciences.  This persisted.  When I was growing up, the stereotype of a scientist was a guy with a beard and a German accent.   During our space race with the Soviets, it is largely true that our German rocket scientists competed with their German rocket scientists.   We probably could not have achieved what we did in space flight w/o Germans and the Russians certainty did not have the home grown talent to compete with us.

Germans also pioneered what became the research university.   Our American universities resemble them because we specifically imported German methods, ideas and often Germans themselves to remake our system during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  

If we see Germany through the prism of the Third Reich and the World Wars, we see it in entirely a different way than our grandparents would have in 1910.  Germany under Wilhelm II was not a full democracy, but it was more democratic than most of the current UN members today and it was certainly less corrupt that most of the world’s countries now. They held regular, generally free elections. There was a strong respect for the rule of law and reasonable protection of individual rights. If you can look beyond the pomp and circumstance of the aristocracy, you see that in terms of democracy, rights, rule of law & transparency, Germany of 1890-1910 would compare favorably to most of the world’s countries a hundred years later (1990-2010) and has big modern countries such as Russia & China clearly beat. 

Although emigration to the U.S. declined after German unification and subsequent massive economic growth, there still were more opportunities in the U.S. and we continued to draw German immigrants. But it was a different sort of immigration in many ways.  As I mentioned above, Germany was one of the world’s most advanced countries, with technical and scientific skills at a par or above our own. This situation just doesn’t exist anymore. Today technically savvy immigrants are still important to us, but they usually develop their skills and/or use technologies already available in America.  A century ago, we were much more the recipients of skills and technology transfer. We all know that immigrant muscle helped build America, but we may overlook that immigrant brains also had a big role in designing it, none more so than the Germans.

Arch in Washington's Chinatown 

We made an effort to wash the German out of our national memory. During World War I, sauerkraut became liberty cabbage; dachshunds became dash hounds; frankfurters became hot dogs and hamburger was renamed Salisbury steak; many streets changed their names and so did many families. Germans assimilated much faster than they might have otherwise. Wars do things like that and we have a way of trying to fit the events of the past into our current narrative. The problem is that the German heritage just doesn’t fit well into what we think of them and ourselves today. And now we don’t think much of it at all. That is why the German American heritage museum is kind of depressing. It is now located in the middle of Washington's Chinatown. Immigrant communities come and go. 

All this is past. History happened as it did and we cannot change it. People in the past did what they did, but we have to remember that history didn’t have to happen that way. Just as our futures are not determined, neither were theirs.  W/o that unfortunate and almost random event in Sarajevo (that pathetic little loser, Gavrilo Princip, actually got lost and the Archduke’s car passed him by chance.  Terrorists only have to get lucky once) and the incompetent reactions in 1914 how different the world could have been.

May 25, 2010

Bike to Work & the Snapping Turtle

Last Friday was bike to work day. I noticed an unusual amount of bike traffic that day, but now it is back to normal. The weather has been good for biking, warm but not hot with gentle winds. I have been at FSI this week, which is a little more than half way as far as my usual ride, but since I have to make the return uphill trip, it is a little harder.

Bike locks at FSI 

I see some of the same people on the bike trails, which is not surprising. Most of the people riding at that time are commuters like me.  We tend to ride faster and more consistently. I am very consistent in my biking times. Only a strong wind makes significant differences. 

People who bike only occasionally or for leisure are less predictable or consistent. Sometimes I see someone way ahead, but when I catch up and pass, they go faster and pass me back. Then they slow down again until I pass again and the game continues. One of the habits some bikers have is a kind of lock colonization.  People leave their locks attached to bike racks, presumably because they are too onerous to carry around every day. I think some people just forget about them after a while and they accumulate.

Most people walking dogs on the trail are okay, but some have bad habits and so do their dogs.  The offensive dog walkers have their animals on long leases. The dogs run back and forth across the path, alternatively getting in the way and setting up a rope barrier across the trail. Dogs have become dumber and less agile. They used to be alert. Old time dogs knew when you got close and would leap out of the way with alacrity. Many of today's dogs are like slow-witted drunks. They stare blankly as you come up on them and often don’t move until the owner pulls them away. I think they are too cosseted by their owners. It has dulled their instincts. Maybe there is more inbreeding too. Those little designer dogs seem to be the stupidest.

I haven’t really figured out the runner etiquette. I run to the extreme side of the trail or on the gravel verge. It is easy to bikes to pass me.  Some runners insist on running down the center line.  I give them as much space as I can when I am riding, but if they are striding the center there is not much space to give them. The center runners tend to be the crankiest. Some of them complain when you pass them about not getting enough space or warning.  Shitheads. I just keep on going. But most of the runners are good.  I think the ratio is like I used to tell the kids. Ninety-nine out of a hundred people are good, but you pass more than 100 people.

There is one old guy I have been seeing for more than ten years, a barrel chested guy with a Marine style haircut. I never talk to him but he seems so familiar that I have at him when I pass.  

snapping turtle on Shreve Rd 

A big snapping turtle was stranded in the middle of Shreve Road when I rode home. Cars were swerving to avoid it and I didn’t figure it was long for this world. His shell would have done him no good against the car tires. At the pace he was going, I wondered how he got that far w/o getting squashed. A guy stopped his car and we kicked it along until it ambled to safety on the side of the road. Another passing motorist suggested we grab it by the tail on the assumption that it couldn't snap us in that position, but both of us were afraid of the thing. It opened its mouth threateningly as every time we nudged it and everybody knows that those things can snap off a finger if they get a good shot. There is a wetland on the side of the road where we shooed him. The other side is just a construction site. It seemed like the thing was crossing from the verdant swamp to the rocky construction site. It would have been a mistake, but turtles don't do a lot of hard thinking.

Why did the turtle cross the road? To get to the Shell Station. 

May 23, 2010

Five-Five

John, Dorothy, Barbie, MaryIf there is significance in numbers, this birthday is significant. I am double nickels now and it was double nickels the year I was born. You notice birthdays that end in zero or five. They seem like milestones. This one really isn’t, beyond the numbers. Nevertheless, it is an occasion to pause and think about past, present and future.But I don’t have any profound thoughts today.

Life has been good so far and most things worked out better than I planned, although I can't say that I ever really had a smart plan. Maybe that's why things worked out. You don’t have to be smart if you are lucky and I have been lucky.

 

May 22, 2010

Fighting the Alien Invaders

Japanese honeysuckle is very pretty and it has a sweet fragrance.  That is probably why gardeners planted it all over the East Coast.  I suppose its robust vigor was also a factor, but it is precisely that aggressive robustness that makes it such a formidable invasive species.

Japanese honeysuckle on Johnsmatel tree farm 

I didn’t hardly even notice it growing on the CP last year, as I pulled down the trumpet and grape vines.  But these earlier infestations were small potatoes compared to the Japanese honeysuckle, which seems to have grown exponentially this spring.  That’s the way exponential growth works.  As it doubles and redoubles, you don’t see it until it is too late to stop before it covers everything.  Well, it isn’t quite that bad, but I can't just let it stand.  I ordered some “Chopper Gen2 and next week the boys and I will go and address the problem using the backpack sprayers.

Tree of heaven in Old Salem, NCChopper Gen2 has evidently replaced Arsenal AC in the constellation of BasF forestry management products.  I have been reading about vegetation control.  The Japanese honeysuckle has to be controlled; otherwise it will climb and bend the trees.  If we set it back this year and maybe next, the trees will be big enough to mostly shade it out.  We have more or less defeated the tree-of-heaven infestation.  There still are a few of them cropping up and we can zap them with Chopper too. BTW - the picture along side is a tree-of-heaven in Old Salem.  This is the biggest I have seen. They are not bad looking trees and are fine - in their place, which isn't in the woods.

I was hoping to burn out the honeysuckle, but the guys at the tree farm committee told me it would be a bad idea.  My trees are still a little too small.  A prescribed fire could work, but any bad luck might kill half my trees.  It isn’t worth the risk.  I got enough chopper for the whole farm for just over $200, so along with my in-house labor force, waging chemical warfare against the invasive species will be the way to go.  My research shows that Chopper Gen2 is much better than the first generation, both in its effectiveness and it benign environmental impacts.  It also gives the kids some stake in the place.  Espen and Alex still brag about their hard work in fighting against the tree-of-heaven and setting down the streambed rip-rap.

Wisteria 

Invasive species are one of the most threatening environmental problems we face. They have a greater impact than the projected consequences of global warming, but it is not as cool to “rock against” honeysuckle or phragmites.  Most gardeners are complicit in the invasion.  I planted some wisteria on the mailbox shelter across the street from my house.  It looks good and grows well.  Many of the invaders are indeed better than the natives, but they can get out of hand.

May 21, 2010

Nobody Can Buy it for You

Veranda at Hearst Castle 

Money can’t buy happiness. Beyond minimum levels, people do not become happier as their countries get richer. Studies show, however, that those who have relatively more money compared to their peers tend to be happier, no matter what the general level of wealth. Maybe everybody has got to have somebody to look down on. Maybe we feel threatened by the success of others because we are just big bipedal apes we still see our relative status in Darwinian terms. Or maybe knowing that we have earned what we got has something to do with it.

Don’t underestimate the power of envy & resentment (people often dislike those who do better than they do) but don’t think that there is no more to life than greed and material considerations. I attended a good talk at AEI discussing the morality of free enterprise.

Arthur Brooks, the speaker, made several good points, such as a majority of Americans still favor free enterprise and smaller government despite all the economic setbacks of the past couple years. But the most interesting part of the discussion was when he talked about earned success.

Brooks mentioned the studies I alluded to up top about how people feel good about their own success mostly in relation to others, i.e. the rich are happier, but then he took the numbers apart. It is not being rich that counts; it is the idea of earned success. People need to feel that they have done something useful to get what they have got. And it really doesn’t have that much to do with money.

Money & relative status just tend to correlate with the feeling of earned success because those are often the rewards of earning. But correlation is not causality. People engaged in what they consider a good cause or good work also can achieve the feeling of earned success even if it doesn’t pay well. Satisfaction is common among skilled craftsmen, who use their skills to create something special. People often report more satisfaction working to achieve something than in the achievement itself. We want to fight the good fight and prove our character.

Brooks cited studies showing that lottery winners didn’t win long-term happiness along with their Powerball millions. After the euphoria of the first few days, they drift back to their previous levels of happiness, only with a little less joy. Unhappy lottery winners is a cliché and maybe it says more about the type of people who “invest” heavily in lottery tickets than it does about winning. But Brooks also mentioned studies that looked at people who came into unexpected inheritances. These people were presumably a different group but the results were the same. This makes sense anecdotally. Paris Hilton has piles of money, but she doesn’t seem to have much soul. You can have piles of money and still know you are not worth very much and that hurts.

All human civilization is based on reciprocity. We cooperate together because we are better off when we help each other. Our primitive ancestors learned that before we were even fully human. If I share with you when I have a successful hunt, you will share with me when I don’t. Reciprocity doesn’t have to be perfectly symmetrical. Good parents get joy from giving to their children w/o the reasonable expectation of ever recouping their investment. Most of us leave tips in restaurants even in places we will never return. Most of us like to be generous. But we do these things with the implicit expectation that there will be some kind of balance and most of us hate “free riders,” people who give less than they should and try consistently to sponge off others. Among our primitive ancestors, such shirking was easy to detect, and consistent shirkers might end up smilodon lunch. Reciprocity was an evolutionary plus. The idea of reciprocity is programmed into our cultural DNA and maybe our actual DNA. Good people feel an obligation to return good for good. Those who don’t care about these things we call sociopaths.

That is probably why earning your own way is important, why nobody really likes equal outcomes for unequal effort and why you cannot buy self respect. You can achieve monetary success through luck, dishonesty or the kindness of strangers, but unless you feel you earned it, it won’t buy you happiness.

May 20, 2010

Wine Tasting

Chrissy at Biltmore 

I don’t understand “good wine.”  I tend to like sweeter wines, which are considered “cheap” and less classy.  I also like the “oak” flavors.  Chrissy and I went to the wine tasting at the Biltmore.  They gave us a kind of a checklist.   I thought that three of the wines were okay: a Biltmore Estate Chardonnay, a Riesling and something called Tempranillo.  Some of the wines come from North Carolina grapes, but others are California wines according to the Biltmore recipe.  I think that means that they put it in bottles at the estate. You got a special deal on three bottles, so Chrissy bought one of each. 

I don’t know how they will be in larger quantities. Lots of things taste good in small amounts, like they give you on the tastings. But we got it now, so I guess I will see. I would have enjoyed a beer tasting.  I know I like beer in larger quantities.

When I was in Warsaw I got to take part in a bourbon tasting, sponsored by Jim Beam. The organizers told us lots of stories and legends about bourbon and the various kinds of bourbon. I think they made some of them up, but they were good stories so why mess with the legends. You really can tell the black label from the white label bourbons, but only if you drink one right after the other.  A good time was had by all.  The Jim Beam guys were smart. They had a lot of their wares for sale and offered them while everyone was in the type of exuberant moods provoked by whiskey tasting.  I bought three bottles of higher-class/higher-price bourbon than I would have normally.

I learned a little. Bourbon is aged in warmer places in North America.  It is good to go in seven years.  After that, it gets  a little harsh. Scotch can be aged up to 18 years, since it is cooler in Scotland.  But it doesn’t get any better after that. Actually it doesn’t get much better after 15 years, but paying more for anything over 18 years is a waste of money.

May 19, 2010

Seven Ages of Man and Modern Retirement

Gunsmith-tinsmith in Old Salem, NC 

Shakespeare didn’t invent the concept, but he made it famous. I am at number five of the seven ages of man and considering whether or not the concept still makes as much sense in the modern age, when machines and medicines may change the way the whole game is played.

We still think today of the traditional career track, where we settle on a life-work when we are in our early twenties and stick to it until we are in our early sixties. After that we live off a pension or savings and  whether we move to a retirement center in Arizona or Florida or whether we age in place,  the remainder of our lives are just post scripts from the working/productive point of view. This really doesn’t work anymore.

For one thing, there is a crisis in Social Security and pensions. Franklin Roosevelt was very clever when he sold the country Social Security. It really is a type of Ponzi scheme, but he sold it as insurance and we have had that concept of it ever since. In fairness to Franklin, it was also a sort of insurance, since many workers did not live long enough to collect SS and nobody was supposed to depend only on it. Life expectancy was only 63 when Roosevelt proposed making the retirement age 65. Things have changed.

The last generation that will be able to depend on pensions and Social Security will retire within the next five years. There will not be enough young people to support the old people in the style to which they have become accustomed. “Young people” like me and younger, should expect to work longer and pay for more of our expenses through savings and continued work income and society will have to adjust to accommodate these needs.               

As we live longer and healthier lives, as the physical demands of most paid-labor become less onerous and as our retirement funds run out of money, it just makes a lot more sense to keep working. 

Staying on the job will mean getting rid of the old career paradigm we have today, as well as blurring the distinction between work and retirement. Most of us won’t be able to keep our current jobs and just tack on a decade or two.

For one thing, we have to move aside and give others a chance. This is especially true of managers and leaders. In the Civil Service, where longevity is rewarded, you often have the sad case a couple of workers growing old together. I say sad because one may have got the job only a year or two after the other, yet he could remain the junior guy for thirty years. We saw a similar higher profile case, BTW, with former Senator Ernest Hollings, who was the junior senator from South Carolina for nearly forty years, serving with Strom Thurmond, who hung around for almost fifty years and turned 100 while still in office. 

Another problem is that we just get bored and/or our skills are overtaken by events or technologies.   It is hard to keep up with changing requirements.  Most of us tend to slow down in our search for improvement after we think we have enough. This makes perfect sense. It is like the old joke that you always find your lost keys in the last place you look … because who keeps on looking after that. Calvin Coolidge said that you should always leave when they still want you to stay and it is very sad if you don’t take that advice.

So if most people probably shouldn’t just keep on doing their current job, what should they do? I met a guy who has one of the most perfect retirement jobs. He is the gunsmith/tinsmith at Old Salem, where he crafts guns and tools by hand.  He told me that he wanted to be an artist, but discovered that there were more talented people than there were places for them to work, so he went into business. After retirement, he got to indulge his creative side again doing a job and developing skills that keep him both useful and busy. His picture is up top.

Not everybody can get this exact sort of job, but there are lots of jobs that are functionally equivalent. I want to spend some of my productive golden years doing forestry and working on real estate development. My currently amorphous & slow moving dream is to work some cluster development into working forest and agricultural land, allowing them to exist in a symbiotic way. I think too many people are living too far from natural systems and I include in this group many who live in ostensibly “natural communities” that separate the work of man from nature. When Thoreau tramped though the nature around Walden Pond, he and his neighbors were aware of where their food came from and where the wood that would heat their houses next winter was growing. I think we should strive to strike a balance with nature – local nature - not separate ourselves and/or treat nature like part fragile flower in a museum that will be profaned by our touch and human actions.  I hope to make that the work of my sixth age. It will be useful and I hope profitable work. I would like to make the kids and (eventually I hope) grandchildren part of that before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Most people have something like this that they can do and want to do, something that will give them meaningful work until they can work no longer. I want to die with my boots on and I think most people want to keep working if they think about it. Years of leisure sound great until you have to live through them.   

The Bible tells us that the lifespan of a man is three-score and ten. That’s seventy years and roughly ten years for each of the seven ages of man. We do better than that today.

If we tweak Social Security rules to make it easier and more lucrative for retired folks to work, I think more of them will.  And if we made work rules more flexible to allow more part-time, flexible and intermittent work schedules, we can keep people working for decades past official retirement. New studies indicate that many of us will live to be 100 or 110. We really don't want to work for forty-five years and then retire for another forty-five years and just wait listening for the steps of the grim reaper. Old people can be assets or burdens to the earth. Increasingly it is a choice get to make ourselves.

Single men's workshop at Old Salem, NC 

Above is the single men's workshop at Old Salem. Below is the shoe maker's room in Old Salem. There is a story about a man who was in a terrible accident. When he woke up in hospital the doctor said, "I have some good news and bad news for you." The guy asked for the bad news first. The doctor told him, "we had to amputate both your legs." The guy shouted back, "what could possibly be good news to make up for that?" "The guy in the next bed wants to buy your shoes."

Shoemaker shop at Old Salem 

 

May 18, 2010

The Bridges of Catawba County

Covered Bridge at Catawba County 

We saw a sign for the “Bunker Hill covered bridge” and found it after driving down a couple of country roads and a gravel path. The bridge was built in the late 1800s and it is an example of a lattice construction.   There were thousands of these kinds of bridges back then in the U.S. and hundreds in North Carolina. Now this is the last one.

Covered bridge in Catawba Co NC 

The covering protects the wood.  An uncovered wooden bridge lasts around twenty years. The covered variety can last 100. The covering also made the horses feel like they were in the barn and they didn't spook because of the water.

Wooden dowls holding together covered bridge in Catawba County NC 

This bridge was build by a guy called Haupt. He literally wrote the book on building such bridges as the the note about it says, Haupt was "Chief of Military Railroads for the Union Army during the Civil War. A Philadelphia born civil and military engineer, author, professor, inventor, and industrialist, Haupt’s improved lattice truss bridge was a response to Ithiel Town’s 1820 and 1835 patents for the plank lattice timber truss. Haupt used the analytical methods he developed in the 1840s to design a more efficient lattice truss which consisted of web members positioned only at locations which required support. Redundant members were removed, resulting in the improved lattice truss as described in his book General Theory of Bridge Construction published in 1851.” It is good for a man to have a passion.

Today the bridge goes from nowhere to nowhere. It has outlived its usefulness, but I suppose that 100 years ago there was a road that people sometimes needed.  

May 17, 2010

Wreck of the Old 97 & the End of the Confederacy in Danville

Passing train in Danville, VA 

When there is a big industrial accident these days, the lawyers come out and drain any of the real emotion or truth out of the event and displace it with cash.  In the old days, at least in the southern hills, they wrote a ballad.   So it was when a train with Joseph A. ("Steve") Broadey's hand on the throttle plunged into a ravine near Danville, VA in 1903.  Nine people were killed and seven injured in what the plaque called one of the worst railroad accidents in Virginia history.  This is what they mean when they say you are heading for a train wreck.

Sign on the site of the Wreck of the Old 97 near Danville, VAI heard the song as a kid. My father’s version was sung by Boxcar Willie (I think), although there is a Hank Snow rendition and Hank was my father’s favorite singer. I thought it was just a song, not a real historical event, but it had some very precise lyrics.  “They gave him his orders in Monroe Virginia saying ‘Steve you’re way behind time’” … “It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville and a line on a three mile grade.”

So in the wonderful world of Internet, I checked it out and found out it was true, so when I drove through Lynchburg I went looking for the place.  A couple people claimed to have written the lyrics.  It was first recorded in 1924 and you can listen to the original version at this link.

This is the whole story from the Danville Historical Society.

All that is left now is this easily overlooked historical marker along a seedy patch of Highway 58 just to the west of Danville.  There is nothing left of the trestle or the tracks and the ravine is overgrown with brush and vines.  It must have been really big news around here in 1903, but more than 100 years later only the song abides.  The picture of the train, BTW, is just a train crossing in Danville, unrelated to the Wreck of the Old 97, except that they are both trains.

Another thing about Danville is that it was the last capital of the Confederacy. This lasted literally only a matter of days, as Jeff Davis and his cabinet fled south, with Union troops in hot pursuit, after the defeat of Southern arms. Davis took up residence in the house of a prominent local man called William Sutherlin.  Sutherlin made his money in the tobacco business and was a successful and flexible businessman both before and after the Civil War.

Davis was a great man, according to his lights, but he was misguided. Robert E Lee and Joe Johnston did the right thing and in April 1865 contributed to saving the United States and making it the country whose freedom we love today. Davis wanted to keep on fighting, even after Appomattox. At some point, hanging on stops being noble and becomes stupid, pernicious and immoral.  I admire Lee & Johnston, Davis not so much. The guide treated Davis as a hero. I don't agree. 

Sutherlin mansion in Danville VA 

Chrissy and I visited the house, an Italian style mansion. Pictures are above and below. The woman in the painting above fireplace is the Sutherlin's daughter on her wedding day. The house is restored to the period of around the Civil War. You really get the old South feeling there. The Daughters of the Confederacy use the place for their meetings. One of the rooms is deeded over to them.

Living room in Sutherlin mansion in Danville, VA 

May 16, 2010

Pluralism - Moravians in Old Salem North Carolina

Chrissy in Old Salem 

Religions, regions, firms, families, clubs and even individuals often have distinctive cultures that help determine the choices they make. You might object that these things are ephemeral, but all cultures are ephemeral. Some last a short time, some a long time, but none is forever. When we try to keep them as they are, we create either cultural museums or graveyards.  America has been home to many cultures, many that you don’t notice toady because over time they melted into the American mainstream, making their contribution by not remaining separate. It is pluralism that worked for us.

Pluralism allows a variety of different philosophies and organization types to coexist, jostle together and produces disparate results that together are usually better than from what would seem a more logical planning process. It requires an acceptance of inequality and pluralism thrives when central governments exert only generalized authority (as was the case in the U.S. through much of our history.) Pluralism creates a kind of cultural marketplace of choice, where the most adaptive ones succeed and all of them collide, collaborate, combine and constantly change into something else.

Yard in Old Salem, North Carolina 

Pluralism works because it allows the greater society to take advantage of productive arrangements and systems that might be destructive or dangerous if applied too widely or too long. The difference between a life giving medicine and a life taking poison is often in the dosage and the application. Pluralism allows us to take advantage of the positives of many systems w/o suffering the ill effects that would afflict us if they were widely applied. People can choose to live under particular rules that might be odious to others, and it works much better if one standard does not cover the whole society. We enjoy a kind of a la carte cultural menu in the U.S. We are free to copy the best and leave the rest.  None of us has to keep all the aspects of the culture we were born into, and few of us do.

I thought about this as we visited Old Salem in Winston-Salem, NC. Many people confuse this Salem with Salem, MA famous for the witch trials. Both were founded by religious groups that followed a kind of a localized theocratic socialism, but they are otherwise not very similar.

Organ player at Old Salem 

Old Salem is something like Colonial Williamsburg on smaller scale. I found it really interesting because it told the story of the Moravian settlement. I knew almost nothing about that before. It is well worth the visit.  The people who work there and play roles make products by hand using the old methods.  But they don't always remain strictly in character, which allows them to explain a little more about how things are. The gunsmith, for example,  told us that there is a good demand for his custom products. Their products go to high end collectors and museums.  The market is strong, he said.

Gunsmith at Old Salem 

The people who work there really seem to like their work. The guy in charge of the organ played us several of the pieces used in the churches and sang along.  He had a good voice. Everybody enthusiastically told us about the history of their location and of the community in general.

Moravian cemetary in Old Salem 

Salem, NC was consciously founded as a commercial and agricultural colony of the Moravian protestant sect, which traces its roots to Jan Hus, a century before Martin Luther. They seem to have been practical people who sought the elegance of simplicity.  Society was divided into groups, called choirs, based on status - young men, young women, male children, female children. married men, married women etc. When they died, they were buried according to their choir, not with their families. The graveyard, called God's Acre, has flat tombstones, so that nobody is above anybody else.  The Moravians clean the graves and scrub the stones each Easter.

The Moravians were good planners and were very well organized. They trained their people in useful trades and skills and produced simple but high quality products.  One of the reenactors told us that Moravians supplied good products at reasonable prices and that they were honest.  Having all three of those things at the same time was rare on the frontier. Their community prospered. Their location in the middle of North Carolina also contribute to their prosperity. It was right on the wagon road and had access to the growing North Carolina frontier, with its cheap land and good soils.

Street in Old Salem 

Organization was the key to success and organization and the needs of the community circumscribed personal choice. Boys were trained in trades, which were chosen for them by the church authorities, so that supply of labor met demand. Nobody could actually own land in Salem; it was all leased from the church and held on conditions of good behavior, including attending church and living a moral life. Women could marry when they were eighteen. Men could marry when they could demonstrate the ability to support a family. A man would build a shop and a home and then petition the church for permission to marry. He could submit a specific name if he had a girl in mind, but that match might not be approved. If he didn’t know any girls he especially liked, he could make a generic request and the church authorities made suggestions.

Moravian garden 

People like the Moravians made very valuable contributions to the development of North Carolina and to America, but most of us would not want to live under their strict rules, nor would those rules necessarily be adaptable to a wider society or changing conditions. In a pluralistic society, they were able to survive and prosper with the implicit conditions that they produce something useful for the wider America. W/o access to political power, they could not impose their views outside the fold. In fact, the ultimate punishment for those who consistently did not play by the rules was to be kicked out of the community. In other words, at base it was a free-choice association. You could leave if you didn’t agree and you could be forced to leave is others didn’t agree with you.

Catalpa tree in flower in Old Salem, NC 

In a pluralistic society, individuals have the right to belong to whatever group that you want provided they will take you. All the individuals involved have the choice and they have to work out the particular relationships. It has to do with freedom of assembly. You can choose your friends and associates and should not be forced into any group membership. Groups themselves have no right to exist beyond the choices of their individual members. This is an important distinction. Pluralism as we have used it empowers individuals to be members of groups of their choice. If you empower groups over individuals you have a type of corporatism or fascism.

Catalpa flowers in Old Salem, NC 

There were advantages and disadvantages to being a member. Leaving out the spiritual benefits, which believers would have considered the most important aspect of their lives, on the pragmatic side members, on average, were more prosperous than their similarly situated neighbors. Of course, they had to accept the strict rules, which included devoting large parts of your income, energy and time to the collective and one of the important reasons behind their success was their adherence to the rules. Would it be considered unfair that others couldn’t get the advantages w/o buying the whole organization?

Pluralism demands diversity and requires inequality of results. These are the things that choice will inevitably produce. We sacrifice pluralism and choice in exchange for greater equality. This may be a wise decision at times, but we should be aware of what we are doing - getting and giving up - and not hide it by misusing terms like diversity or multiculturalism. It should be about choice to the extent possible and that means picking up both ends of the stick and living with the results of our poor choices as well as our good ones.

The pictures are from around Old Salem.  They include the gun smith, the organ master and some of the buildings. The flowers and the flowering tree are catalpa.  They are also called Indian cigar trees, because of the long seed pods.  I took a picture of this tree because it was so full of flowers and unusually beautiful. 

May 15, 2010

Dying Hemlocks

Hemlock trees on Biltmore Estate 

The Biltmore estate had lots of big and beautiful trees, including some hemlocks.  Hemlocks are common much farther north.  They hang on in the southern Appalachians as a relic of when the climate was much cooler thousands of years ago.  Or maybe we should say they hung on and that they were common farther north.

The hemlocks on Biltmore don’t look good.  It is not bad management or climate change that did this. This destruction is probably the work of the hemlock wooly adelgid, an invasive pest from Asia that arrived in 1924 and has now spread from Maine to the Carolinas. This is an ecosystem altering monster, although the insect itself  is almost too small to notice. It threatens the existence of hemlocks in eastern North America.  The hemlock is a beautiful tree that grows well in shade. It occupies this special shady niche and w/o the hemlock many of the woods will be a lot more open and hotter. The destruction of the hemlock is a slow motion disaster.

When I first visited Old Rag mountain in the Shenandoah, the start of the trail was shaded by giant hemlocks. That was twenty-five years ago.  Today they are gone.  All that is left are dead and decaying skeletons.  Some of the guide books still describe the cool shade and the deep green solitude of the place, but if you won’t find it no matter how hard you look.  Hemlocks make a particular sound when the wind blows through.

We lost the chestnuts before I was born.  Now the hemlocks are going.   We did manage to bring back the American elm, however, so maybe there is still hope. A lot of good work is being done in biotech and plant breeding.

The Biltmore Estate

Biltmore Estate near Asheville, NC on May 14, 2010 

The Biltmore is the biggest house in America, built by George Vanderbilt in the 1890s.  It is part of a enormous estate.   When Chrissy & I toured the house, the gardens and the general area, it changed our point of view a little.   An estate this size is not all about the owners and it is not really about a house as a place to live.

The first thing I noticed is how much the place resembles a hotel.  Hotels tended to copy many aspects of these mansions.  The “winter dining room” at the Biltmore is a classier version of the Holidomes I used to like so much at Holiday Inns.  Beyond that, these big houses were a lot like hotels in their functions.  They were set up to host, entertain and feed guests with a large staff devoted to doing it.

Gardens at Biltmore estate 

The second thing I noticed is how much the owners of this estate played their role. The Vanderbilts always seemed to be on stage.  They changed their clothes dozens of times a day.  There were specialty clothes for walking in the eating each of the meals, playing tennis, sitting in the library or walking in the garden. Below is the gate to the Estate.  After you pass through the gate, it still takes you around 15 minutes to drive to the actual estate buildings.

Gate at Biltmore Estate with really big tulip poplars 

 

My first impulse was to dislike the Vanderbilts because they had piles of money and engaged in conspicuous consumption on a grand scale.  But they did a lot of good with the money too.  This massive investment in the hills of North Carolina employed lots of people and not only maids, butlers and kitchen staff.  Building the place required a massive labor force, as did building and maintaining the gardens.  Of course those things are still a type of consumption.   But the estate also included working farms and forests.  Some of the science of forestry was invented on the estate.  Gifford Pincot, the father of American forestry worked here.  I learned how to use a “Biltmore stick” to estimate timber volume when I studied forestry in college.  I never knew were the word came from.  I guess I just figured it was named after some guy named Biltmore.  It was named after the estate because its use originate here.

Bridge over bass pond on Biltmore Estate 

Fredrick Law Olmsted designed the gardens, the same landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York.  He also designed some parks in Milwaukee, including West Park (which became Washington Park), Riverside Park and Lake Park. Olmsted was expert in the use of water in the landscape.  Above is a bridge over the bass pond he created at the end of the garden.  Below is the rose garden.

Rose garden at Biltmore Estate 

You couldn’t take pictures in the house. It was a nice place.  As I said, it reminded me of a nice hotel, so if you have been in a nice hotel, you have an idea.  It must have been really impressive 100 years ago.  Today we are accustomed to big buildings (like hotels).  At the time the Biltmore had new innovations such as electricity, indoor bathrooms and refrigeration.  Now everybody has those things.  The rich today can live a very opulent life, but the practical difference between being rich and poor is smaller because being poor is a lot less miserable than it used to be. 

Additional pictures

Bass pond at Biltmore Estate

Corner of the Biltmore Estate

North Carolina Countryside near Asheville

Courtyard food court at Biltmore Estate

May 14, 2010

Notes from the Carolina Roads

Coffee at Pilot

Pilot coffee

I don’t much like coffee, but I like cream and sugar mixed with coffee. I am especially fond of the French vanilla cream, but I put so much of it in that I need a strong coffee to stand up to it.  IMO, the best coffee for my purposes is the Sumatra coffee at Pilot. Pilot is a truck stop station, which usually has the least expensive gas on the highway. The bathrooms are clean and they are usually lively places, so I stop at Pilot whenever it is reasonably convenient.

McDonald's is okay in moderation

Asheville McDonalds

Above is the McDonald’s in Asheville, one of the fancier McDonald’s I have visited. It was hosting lots of old people while we were there. My father always complained about old people when he used to shop at Pic-n-Save.  He said they were so slow and they always just stood around in the way. And I used to make fun of him. Maybe you have to be almost old yourself to make these kinds of judgments because I am beginning to understand his point. It took ten minutes to get at the straws, napkins and catchup.  Evidently how many napkins to take and whether or not you need a straw is a decision that requires more thought than some people can give it in less time.

I have been eating at McDonald’s since HS.  They used to give you a free Big-Mac for every A you got, which was a good marketing strategy. I didn’t get many free Big-Macs, but I did get to think they were good. Some people go on about fast food being bad for you, but it doesn’t hurt in moderation. “Nothing too much” is a good life guide. I used to have a minor cholesterol problem, but then I got a low dose of Lipitor and the problem was solved. Any problem you can afford to buy off is not a problem; it is merely an expense. I call my daily dose of Lipitor my “cheeseburger tax.” Maybe someday it will kill me, but not today.

Granny's Country Kitchen

Granny's restaurant near Hickory, NC 

It isn’t always fast food. Other food can have lots of calories and cholesterol. We stopped off at Granny’s Kitchen just past Hickory, NC. Chrissy & I both had the pulled pork and French fries. Chrissy didn’t eat all of hers, so I helped out. We have been trying to go to local restaurants when we travel to get a little more of the local flavor. The trouble is that there is less & less local flavor that is worth eating unless you have inside local knowledge. Various franchises are pushing them out or at least away from the places convenient to the major highways.

Boutique hotels

Grand Bohemian Hotel in Asheville, NC

We stayed at the Grand Bohemian hotel near the Biltmore Estate. It is in the Biltmore Village, a kind of ersatz central European hamlet set the southern hills. The Grand Bohemian is part of the Marriott’s “Signature Collection” of boutique hotels, i.e. ostensibly ones with special or unique character. It is different, but I don’t know that I like the character. It is European-like and made to look like a hunting lodge. I used to visit one like it near Bielsko in Poland. That one was used by the Hapsburgs in the 19th Century. It had character and I liked it. But the one in Asheville is not a hunting lodge. Hunting lodges are set out in the forests and fields. This one is surrounded by busy roads … and the ersatz village.

These Central European style buildings are just not suited to the Carolina climate. They are designed to hold heat and support roaring fires. These are things that are not really appropriate in North Carolina. It doesn’t get very cold around here, but it is hot and humid a good part of the year. Of course, our modern society defeats the weather with air conditioning, but still it looks funny all buttoned up in a hot climate.

Weird weakness

Weight room at Grand Bohemians

The hotel has a nice health center, however. I don't use treadmills very much. I prefer just to go outside and run. But these had TVs attached, so you could just walk along and watch TV rather than couch potato it.  I lifted some of the weights. Something strange happened last week. My right arm got 1/3 weaker.  I noticed I was  bit clumsy and when I tried to use the one-hand weights, I found that my right arm couldn't do curls with 45 lbs, as usual. My left arm did okay with the 45lb (which I have been using for 30 years BTW), but with the right I could do only 30lbs. Otherwise it was normal, just a lot weaker, but really only with the curls.  I can still do chin-ups and presses. It also sometimes has that tingling feeling, like when you sleep on it. If it doesn't get better maybe I will have it checked out.  

Treadmills and TV at Grand Bohemian

May 13, 2010

A Nation the Makes and Builds Things

Can Americans still make stuff? Do we have excellent companies that operate w/o a lot of debt, stick to their business and operate with a lean staff? Can we Americans reinvent ourselves again? I think so.

Nucor headquarters in Charlotte, NC

C&J attended the annual shareholders’ meeting of Nucor steel. We have owed a few shares of Nucor since the early 1990s, but this is the first time we have attended a shareholders’ meeting of any kind. Despite our lowly very small shareholder status (we own 200 shares out of the 315 million shares outstanding), everybody was friendly to us. The CEO spoke to us and seemed to remember our names. The chief financial officer took a few minutes to explain the Nucor philosophy.

I bought Nucor nearly twenty years ago because I liked the philosophy of the company. I read about Nucor and its famous CEO Ken Iverson in In Search of Excellence when I was in B-school, but it took me around six years to pay off my student loans and be able to invest in anything at all besides paying off loans. After all those years, it still seems to be an excellent firm. There are more than 20,000 employees, but the firm is run with a corporate staff of around seventy-five. Top executives do not get company cars, corporate jets, executive dining rooms or even executive parking places at the headquarters. Nucor is headquartered in Charlotte, a medium sized city and its operations are generally located in small towns and rural areas, where costs are lower and American work ethics strong.

Nucor was an American pioneer of electrical arc furnaces, which let it run smaller and less expensive mills called mini-mills. While the big steel was literally rusting away, Nucor’s mini-mills were making steel in America that could compete internationally. These mills can easily process and recycle scrap and steel is the most recycled material on earth. Nucor recycles a ton of scrap every two seconds.

The Harvard Business review rated Nucor CEO Daniel DiMicco and the management team as one of the best in the world, pointing out that the list of the best CEOs overlapped very little with the list of the most admired or the most highly paid.

The economic downturn has hurt Nucor too. The firm made a profit every year from 1966 through 2008, but lost money last year, although made money again in the fourth quarter. Nucor’s cost structure is highly variable and counter cyclical, i.e. the prices of scrap metal and energy tend to decline when the economy declines. This has helped Nucor stay profitable through hard times - until this last year, of course.

Companies like Nucor show that Americans can still make big, heavy industrial things profitably. This is the example I have, but I know there are many others. As I wrote above, I first learned about Nucor when I read In Search of Excellence. That was back in 1983, when America was going through hard times as we are today. There was a crisis of confidence and many people thought that our best days were behind us. They were wrong. Americans know how to reinvent themselves. We did it before – many times – and we can do it again and we will do it again.

May 12, 2010

Buying Stocks

Please note that I am on the road w/o the cord to download pictures. I can update the blog, but I will have to add the pictures later, so stop back if you want to see the pictures that go with the trip.  

I drive down I-85 all the time on the way to the tree farms, but I never go south of South Hill, VA. As far as my personal experience goes, the world could just end ten miles south. I would have no way of telling. Well today I went a bit farther and I can report that it looks a lot the same.

We drove down to Charlotte, NC to attend the annual stockholders’ meeting of NUCOR Steel. I have never been to a stockholders’ meeting before, so I thought I would enjoy the experience. My shares are worth almost nothing in the great scheme of things, but they still have to let you in even if you own only one share.  

NUCOR is one of the first stocks I bought in the early 1990s and one of the few that I still own from that time.  It grows reasonably well and pays a regular dividend, but that is not why I bought it. I liked NUCOR because I read so much about it in the business books I used to love. NUCOR is a mini-mill steel producer.  They were profitable at times when other American steel giants were rusting away. The CEO at the time, a guy called Ken Iverson, was one of the saints of the B-School set.  He was smart and innovative. He ran his front office with only a staff of a couple dozen, lean and agile.

Investing in stock was a great education for me.  It is much more interesting to look at companies when you have a stake, no matter how small, in the outcomes.  I no longer invest in individual firms. I don’t know enough about it anymore and other interests (mostly forestry) have dulled my never particularly acute business acumen.  It is better for somebody like me to stick to indexing.  But I still keep a few of the original stocks, among them NUCOR, which I admit I keep more for tradition than investment, as long as they do acceptably well.  

My most productive firm has been Vale do Rio Dolce, a Brazilian company that mines ore and exports a lot of it to China, so it has done well over the last decade.  It is also just a great company. I bought it in 2001 and keeping an eye on it has given me useful insights into business in Brazil and international trade in commodities.  So sad that I have to get rid of it this year, since it is a big firm in Brazil and it could create the appearance of impropriety when I am down there working for the USG.    

On the other end, I have a firm called Dyadic. They make enzymes potentially used to create inexpensive cellulosic ethanol. That is how I got interested. Unfortunately, about a week after I bought it, somebody in a Chinese partner organization was found to have cooked the books. For a while it was dropped from the exchanges. When it came back, it was worth less than 10% of what I paid for it. Talk about bad timing.  I didn’t bother to sell it, mostly because it was not worth it. The broker commission would have accounted for a large percentage of the total proceeds.  Besides, I like to keep it around as a reminder against the sin of unwarranted pride.  Since then it has come back a little, but I don’t expect ever to break even on this investment. That is the one that made me understand that my confidence in investing had overtaken my competence. I had a reasonable understanding of the product and the markets, but the accounting thing is just beyond my ability.

When you add it all up, I probably have made as much money in the supermarket (buying things like spaghetti sauce on special) as I have in the stock market, but I have made a little and it was more interesting than just putting the money into the bank. I learned a few things along the way about how business works and I learned that the market is smarter than I am, hence the reliance on indexing. People who learn that lesson young are usually better off than those who learn it when they are older, or not at all.

I will write about how the NUCOR meeting goes tomorrow.

May 11, 2010

Growing the Best Trees

Below is my article for the next issue of "Virginia's Forests", the publication of the Virginia Forestry Association.  It draws on a blog post from a few months ago, so it might be familiar, but there are changes.  I am going past the farms on Sunday, so I may have some pictures to add.

Growing the Best Trees

I have been a like a proud parent with my forest land, taking pictures of my growing trees and the changing face of the land I own.  One of the tracts was clear-cut in 2003 and the next year replanted with genetically superior loblolly pine,  so the trees are now six years old.   I know that as a relatively new forest owner, I am just experiencing things that many readers have seen long before, but I still think it interesting to mention.

Differences show up

At first the biggest trees were not those planted ones.  The volunteers or the trees that had just been coming up when the stand was cut had a quicker start, and those were the pines I saw and captured in pictures in 2005.  But the equation has been changing. The “old” trees are still growing vigorously in many cases, but the “new” trees have now caught up and generally grown taller. There is one particular place where I have been parking my truck and using it for comparison in pictures each year, where I notice this especially.  A couple years ago, the old trees looked pretty big, but now the new trees are bigger.  The new ones are also shaped better, much less spreading branched and rounded. Beyond all that, the new trees responded much better to my application of biosolids fertilizers. If I can see (and have pictures to prove) this difference in five years, imagine what it will be like in twenty.

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

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

Bring on the clones

The most recent method being deployed is cloning, although it is not really new.  Most gardeners have cloned plants.  You can clone a willow or a cottonwood just by shoving a stick into wet ground.  A grove of cottonwoods along a river may all be the same tree – genetically – as trees sprouted from roots or from sticks that lodged in the mud.  I once inadvertently cloned a cottonwood when I used a freshly cut cottonwood branch as a marking stick.  A couple days later it sprouted into a little tree. Pines are harder, but they can be cloned too.  Among the pines, loblolly is relatively easy because it can re-sprout from a cut when it is young. 

I  have to say that I am a bit uncomfortable with using clones. It is too much of a monoculture.  Without the subtle genetic variations, the whole stand may become easier prey for very adaptive bugs or disease, as has happened with some apple varieties.  On my land, I would prefer to go with a little more genetic variety, even if that means lower yields, but that is a judgment each tree farmer must make for him/herself.

Good genetics can move the whole curve higher, but variation remains and good genetics are most profitably deployed as other conditions improve.  As I mention above, the superior trees responded significantly better to my biosolid application.  Many of the costs associated with establishing and managing a stand of trees remain the same no matter what you plant.  If you are planning to expend a lot of energy and time on management, [“planning” is repeated in sentence] you are well advised to spend a little more for genetically superior trees. All trees will do better with better management, but the better trees will do better than the others. 

Improving conditions improve the better trees even more

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

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

So I guess the trees you plan to plant or allow to grow on your land should depend on how much you are going to put into it.  If you plan to do not much of anything except cut them sometime in the future, it probably doesn’t pay to invest in superior trees. If no attention is paid to spacing, thinning, fertilization, etc., they won’t grow to their potential anyway and almost any old tree will do.  But the more you plan to do, the more you need to do it right.

I am just enjoying my land and trying to learn as much about forestry as I can, with a little help from my friends and fellow tree farmers.  And when I learn something, I try to pass it on too. That is what it means to be a tree farmer with your land in the American Tree Farm System.

May 10, 2010

Gassy Good News on Energy

The energy news is so good and so comprehensive that it is hard to believe. The federal Energy Information Administration reported last week that greenhouse gas emissions fell 7% last year—the largest- percentage and absolute decline ever. The U.S. carbon footprint has shrunk in three of the last four years. The bad news is that the recession caused some of last year’s decline. However, we managed a 1.3% decline in 2006, the only time this happened during a time of robust economic growth.

But we can expect more good news. Our energy intensity (i.e. the amount of energy it takes to produce a unit of GDP) has been improving for many years. Last year it improved by 2%. (You probably have not heard about this improvement either, since it didn’t require new legislation to make it happen and much of the media cannot seem to perceive any positive developments that take place w/o government fiat. If the energy bill had passed, you would have heard a lot more, as they would be taking credit for this number.) And carbon intensity will drop even more. Abundant American natural gas supplies are going to help us reduce U.S. CO2 emissions and allow us to give people like Hugo, Mahmoud and Vladimir a good kick in the kiester, just when the international bad guys thought they would be able to set up a gas cartel similar to OPEC.

are subjects I like (so please excuse me if I go back to the same wells) and I am optimistic that we can solve our problems, or more precisely overtake them, since few problems are ever solved and when old problems go away new ones come. The pessimists keep on telling us we are about to hit the wall, but the innovators keep on finding ways around or through the troubles, often despite the experts.

The pessimistic “experts” can create serious problems, however. For example, back in the 1970s experts said we were running out of natural gas, so the Federal government banned new power plants run on gas, in order to save it for home heating etc. (President Reagan repealed the ban in 1987.) Three Mile Island, the disaster that killed nobody, managed almost to kill the nuclear industry. That is why we are behind on gas and nuclear power stations today. Instead of nearly zero carbon emission nuclear power and low carbon emission natural gas, various government agencies and environmental action groups pushed us into using more petroleum and coal. Go figure out the unintended consequences.

But this is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed whose program. We have more options than we thought we did and let’s use them wisely.

Natural gas is the cleanest burning of the fossil fuels in terms of CO2 and ordinary pollution. You can understand this when you are cooking your food with gas on your unvented stove. What if your stove and oven ran on coal or oil?

Gas is also relatively clean to extract. A natural gas leak does not spread over the oceans and kill animals and plants. Miners don’t descend into dark pits to pull the stuff out, nor do they remove the tops of mountains in West Virginia to get at gas seams. The environmental danger with natural gas is relatively small. The biggest problem is that gas extraction using the latest techniques requires the use of water and there are some concerns that local water resources could be impacted. So far this has not happened on a large scale, but gas production should be properly regulated.

Maybe it was a divine joke to put most of the world’s exportable oil under unstable and sometimes plain nasty regimes. Or maybe it is just true that the concentration of a resource like oil, which requires little input and almost no actual work from the people under whose land it is found, is the problem. Easy and/or unearned concentrated wealth encourages klepocracies. Maybe the best thing about natural gas is that it is widely distributed and a lot of it is right here in America. While gas won’t put petro-tyrants like Ahmadinejad of Hugo Chavez out of business, it will – it already has – diluted their power.

So let’s get cooking with gas while we develop alternatives to fossil fuels. As long as I can remember, solar and wind alternatives have been “around five years” to viability. It has taken longer than we thought, but progress is being made. The largely unanticipated jump in natural gas reserves has bought us some time. We can meet our environmental goals, while kicking the despots, dictators and jihadist in the keister (as I mentioned above) and do all this w/o crippling our economy.

Gas is not a permanent solution. There are no permanent energy solutions. Our technology and innovations have saved us for another generation and we will live to fight the energy battle another day. By then we will be better equipped to win, but only if we continue to innovate now.

May 09, 2010

Appropriate Levels of Leadership

I make distinctions among the terms leadership, management and administration, but when I wrote to a respected colleague that government should lead but not manage, I couldn’t make explain it well enough to make the distinction clear to him. The distinctions are subtle and not universally accepted, but I think we have to make them and much unpleasantness results when we mixed them up.

Lots of books and seminar graduate seminars have addressed this question, so I am not going to say that mine is the final word or that the concept is settled. One of the many websites I found had a good and simple explanation that leaders lead people and managers manage tasks. Let me add that administrators administrate the rules. I think another good distinction is that leaders tell you why, mangers tell you how and administrators implement it.

Of course there is significant overlap, but there are also decided tendencies among people. My track record, which now goes back more than a quarter century, shows that I am a better leader than I am a manager and I am a downright poor administrator because I tend not to follow rules carefully enough. (Administration means following rules, while leadership often means changing them) I learned this the hard way, but I did learn. I few years back I turned down a position that would have led to promotion because the job consisted largely of administering rules. I told my incredulous bosses that if they put me in that job, sooner or later I would screw it up with some sort of unwarranted “innovation.” You have to know your limitations. It is simply not true that everybody can learn to do everything and it is important to know what you can do ... and what you can't.

If you look at successful leaders, you often find that you are really dealing with a team. You have a leader who makes broad plans and statements and has valuable insights. And then you have a good manger working nearby who makes these things work. A good leader should never hire a deputy who is like him/her. They need to have complementary skills and temperament. Harmony comes from the differences. There is often a crisis of leadership if the manger moves into the leadership position. Excellent mangers may ostensibly have the skills and qualifications to be excellent leaders but lack the temperament or the vision. On the other hand, leaders w/o good management skills or backup can drift aimlessly from one big, good but unimplemented idea to another. Deploying a great talent in the wrong time or place is the stuff or tragedies, all the more poignant when it brings down someone who has been wildly successful before.

Different situations call for different types of leadership, management or administration combinations. Leadership is usually most necessary when there is difficult to predict change. The cliché phrase used to be “paradigm shift.” Somebody needs to lead the way out of the old way or into the new one. In the case of significant discontinuous change, there is no reliable experiential road map to go by. Somebody needs to make a new path. This is very exciting and often very creative but also dangerous and destructive. Leadership must be flexible and arrangements are ad-hoc. Most of us do not like to live in such interesting times, although we do like to read about them, watch them on TV and imagine how we would have done better than those who actually called the shots.

If conditions are stable and predictable, leadership is less important. In fact, you can often get by with administrators and bureaucracies. The word bureaucracy is often used pejoratively, but bureaucracies can be phenomenally robust and efficient. Bureaucracy is based on rules and if the situation is well known, stable and predictable, you can make rules that actually work. The working of a computer is like a bureaucracy. It makes a series of if-then decisions and quickly comes up with reasonable results. But one reason it works so well in the cyber context is that computers don’t have personalities and they don’t get bored. People tend not to like bureaucracies because they limit or eliminate creativity. You simply are not allowed to deviate from form AB5055 or make up your own unique interpretation. If you do, it can have repercussions throughout the system.

Most organizations have mixtures of types, with some core functions administered in bureaucratic ways, some discretion among mangers and some leadership that responds to changes and takes risks. Success depends on deploying each appropriately.

So what about government and society?

I am not being facetious when I say that I love government and think that it is so precious that it should be used sparingly. Stable government is the prerequisite of civilization and a reasonably efficient and honest (or at least transparently corrupt) government, one that can and does protect property rights, is the prerequisite for a market economy. That is why true market economies did not develop until the around 300 years ago, along with the democratic revolutions, and why there are still some places they don’t work. But as with medicine, hearty food or fine whiskey, some is good but too much is unhealthy or even poisonous.

The old, "A man's gotta know his own limitations" saying goes for big organizations too.

Lots of people have tried to explain the failure of government planning or socialism by referencing its lack of congruence with human behavior (i.e. people are greedy; they like to keep what they earn etc). Those things are important, but I don’t think this is the big flaw. Until the democratic revolutions of a couple centuries ago, all societies were top down (the king, pope or emperor told you what to do and when to do it, even if poor communications allowed people to avoid them day-to-day) and all complex societies relied heavily on government rules. Most pre-modern governments tried to establish "fair" prices and many societies even enforced specific rules for how people of various classes and groups were allowed to dress. It is indeed the case that power tends to corrupt people who have it and that somebody always takes advantage of opportunities provided by big government, but EVEN IF everybody was honest, unselfish and smart, it still wouldn’t work.

The problem for planners has to do with change and information flows. You can manage risk, but uncertainty creates real challenges. Effective planning requires a reasonable ability to predict future developments.To do this, you need to have a fair idea of what is happening right now and the relationships among the parts of the system. Even with the help of super computers, it has been impossible for central planners to aggregate and understand even a day’s worth of economic or social data. We (humans) do not do complexity well. So if you want to system to work, you have do it with a division of labor and you have to allow significant autonomy of decision making to smaller and dispersed units and individual. These people have the information about their limited spheres. They also have the incentive to use it well. Their millions of decisions are aggregated through the market mechanism. This is a positive good thing anyway. It is called freedom, but let’s just stick to pragmatism for now. It works better than the alternatives in the long run.

Now how about a paradox? We often hear criticism that we don’t have a plan for how to deal with big things like global warming, natural disasters, economic change etc. When people say this, what they mean is that we don’t have a centralized government blessed plan. But that doesn’t mean we have no plan. Actually, what we have is a process of distributed decision making. I have a plan for those things that are important to me. I seek information about these things to improve my chances of being right. Everybody has a plan and the total planning is greater and better than if some really smart officials did one big plan for us all. Beyond that, the distributed decision making is more robust. It may never be 100% right, but it can quickly respond to changes. It doesn't work all the time; It just works better most of the time.

Having a process to make decision is more important than having a specific plan. The example I used to use was kayaking down a rapidly flowing river. I cannot tell you exactly what I will do when I come to a particular patch of white water or rocks because I am not sure of the conditions. But I am reasonably certain that I will know what to do because I have a process to make those sorts of decisions.

To sum up, as I have said on other occasion, government has a crucial role in providing the legal and often the physical infrastructure that allows people to plan for their own lives and prosper. In times of crisis, government may grow and take on role that the people would generally do by themselves. But when the crisis is over, it should again shrink down to its appropriate tasks and size. This is what happened after World War II, when the enormous U.S. war machine, which had of necessity regimented the country to fight totalitarian dictatorships, reverted to peaceful and usually private leadership, management and administration.

Those totalitarians had detailed plans. We have a decision making process in the interaction between smaller government, individuals and organizations knit together with the mechanism of aggregated choice. I like our system better. IMO, this is the more natural system. In a working ecology, various forces work themselves out in relation to each other w/o a plan, but with a process. You can see how it works in the picture above. Nobody planted any of those things, but they are sort of spaced out right anyway.

May 07, 2010

You Neanderthal

Neanderthal close up at SmithsonianCalling somebody a Neanderthal is no longer just a hypothetical insult. Evidently our ancestors interbred with Neanderthals, or maybe put the other way, our ancestors interbred with Homo sapiens sapiens. But now that we know that 1-4% of SOME people’s, but not everybody’s come from the Neanderthal, won’t it become politically incorrect to disparage beetle browed cognitively challenged ice age hunter?

The Neanderthals were sorely oppressed by Homo sapiens sapiens (HSS), who evidently were not very inclusive of the Neanderthal. It was unlikely that good looking HSS men dated the stocky, troll-like Neanderthal girls, although some of them may have taken advantage of them sexually.

And why do the HSS think they are so smart anyway? Neanderthals did okay through the tough times of the ice age and as soon as the weather improves here come the HSS, with their fancy flakes spear points and articulate grunting (i.e. actual complex language). Maybe Neanderthals should have been more careful in protecting their southern border.

Trolls & ogres look suspiciously like Neanderthals. Isn’t it likely that they are based on Neanderthal racial stereotypes? Or maybe the Neanderthals were forced to live under bridges and that is how they got to be "trolls". And what about those people who say "don't feed the trolls?" Aren't they really saying, "starve the Neanderthals?" Aren’t the dim-witted but dangerous bad guys in “The 13th Warrior” Neanderthals? In fact, it is hard to think of any common positive media portrayals of Neanderthals.

I am assuming that I have some of those Neanderthal genes. That probably explains why I have not been as successful as I think I should have been. And I am wondering if I should get some kind of restitution or affirmative action as a result of the ancient oppression. In the entire history of the world, not one openly Neanderthal individual has ever been a president, king or even a successful lawyer. Is that mere coincidence? Generations of science books have shown a “progression” of humans from the “lowest” to the “highest”. Neanderthals never get to be on top, despite the fact that Neanderthals had a larger average cranial capacity than modern humans. And what’s up with the German name “Neanderthal?” Neanderthals lived in the Neander valley long before Germans were invented.

The mainstream society has changed its view of Neanderthals but not enough. We should spare no expense to find out what the Neanderthals called themselves, so that we can show them the respect of calling them by that name. After eons of oppression, do they deserve anything less?

May 05, 2010

Pictures

This is a dump of pictures from April.  Most did not make it onto the blog, but in case anybody wants to look at them.  The titles make sense to me, but there are typos and misspellings, and I don't guarantee that the titles make sense to anybody else.  They all are creative commons, however, so if anybody wants to copy a picture to use on his/her own blogs, these pictures are available.

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Around Washington

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Beach

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California

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El Camino Real

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Forestry Visit

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Garden

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Josuah Tree

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Marine 2

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Shenandoah

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Ventura & Palm Springs

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May 02, 2010

Springtime

Highway 81 through the Shenandoah Valley 

We are back home in Virginia and we have evidently missed spring, at least late spring. It is now summer.  The leaves are all out. Today was hot & humid, mostly humid, at least compared to the cool weather we had when I was last here a couple of weeks ago. It will get more or less cooler again. May is a pleasant month; we usually don’t get that oppressive heat until late June. 

Creek and flowering trees in James Madison Aboretum on April 17, 2010 

I went to see Alex just before I left for California. We went to the arboretum in Harrisonburg, but I never wrote a post or posted the pictures.  It was a pleasant spring day. I am posting the pictures today, but they are a couple weeks out of date.

Flowering trees in James Madison Arborteum 

The Shenandoah is one of most pleasant places on earth in the springtime. The picture on top I-81 that passes through the valley. It is a busy truck route, that carries much of the goods along the East Coast. The trucks make it a hectic drive sometimes. They are bigger than the cars and they know it. The middle pictures are flowering trees in the arboretum.

Spring forest floor at James Madison arboretum 

Pond at James Madison arboretum 

Above is the pond on the arboretum. Below is a pocket park in Arlington. It is near the place where we first lived when I joined the FS. It is just one block of green, enough to give kids a place to play and provide a nice space for the neighbors.

Pocket park on Pershing Av in Arlington VA 

Below is the lawn in the park. It is a "real" lawn with clover and some weeds. I like this better than the chemical lawns so common around malls and new developments. The Chesapeake Bay is polluted with run off. They blame farms and farms do contribute, but at least they also produce something.  But it is just wrong when we use chemicals and fertilizers to create perfect lawns. This one is better all around.

Mixed weedy lawn 

May 01, 2010

Salton Sea & Wind Blasted Rocks

Interstate 10 in the distance 

We left the Joshua Tree National Park and keep on going on a little road toward the Salton Sea. (Above is Interstate 10 in the distance.)  The area is below sea level and w/o irrigation it is a hot and desolate place.  With irrigation, it is a hot and productive place.  This is the Imperial Valley, one of the most bountiful agricultural areas in the world, where a lot of our lettuce, grapes, berries and broccoli come from.

Salton Sea looking south 

The Salton Sea is a fascinating accident related to the irrigation. In 1904 the irrigation dikes broke and almost all the water from the flow of Colorado River poured into the below-sea-level desert depression for almost three years. The escaping water had created a vast fresh-water lake.  It is so big that you cannot see across it.  Had they not fixed the dike, the Colorado River probably might have simply changed course and eventually found its way to the Gulf of California by alternate means. (This, BTW, happened periodically with the Mississippi.   If not for human intervention, the Mississippi probably now be following the route of the Atchafalaya River, bypassing New Orleans.) Geologists say that the Salton Sea has been formed and dried up many times in the past w/o the intervention of man.  You can see the Salton Sea chronology at this link. 

Grapes near Salton Sea in Imperial Valley 

At first it was great.  People put in fish and the bred fast in the warm and empty waters.  But the water in the Salton Sea didn’t stay fresh for long.  The salts and minerals from the lake bottom soon dissolved in the water and with no outlet to the ocean, it was in the same situation as the Dead Sea.  It is getting saltier and saltier.   Many of the fish are dying out.  The only ones still thriving are tilapia, which can survive almost anywhere if the water is warm enough and are now being used for cat food. 

Gas station in Imperial Valley 

The dying of the Salton Sea is a problem from several points of view. Migratory birds have become very fond of using the Salton Sea as a stopover.  If it becomes a dead sea, it cannot serve that purpose.  The State of California is trying to “save” the place, but it is hard to see what they could do, short of breaching the dikes again and sucking in the Colorado River.  It “benefits” from some irrigation discharge, but this is not water of the highest purity. The Salton Sea is essentially a big puddle, with no reliable sources of replenishment or discharge.  It is a very temporary lake and in a moment of geological time it will return to its former condition.

windmills along I 8 

We almost got to Mexico on the last leg of the day’s journey. We caught I-8 in El Centro, California.  Not too far along the road, we were stopped at an immigration checkpoint. I didn’t know they had such things except at the border.

Rock pile mountain 

The road to San Diego is very interesting.  The first set of mountains look like a pile of stones.  If you didn’t know better and they weren’t so massive, you would think that humans dumped and piled these rocks.  It just doesn’t look natural. As I wrote earlier, the wind really blows out here.  They have signs on the roads warning about the high winds.  The winds sandblast the rocks, and everything else, and knock off the rough edges.

As we got farther west, the mountains became green and beautiful.  In other seasons the grass is probably brown, or golden as the Chamber of Commerce might describe it, but the green was really nice. Below is another picture of Chrissy.  Sorry to post so many, but she looks good and really liked the car.

Chrissy driving again

We ended up at the Courtyard Marriott at Liberty Station.This used to be a Naval Training base and now it has been redeveloped into hotels, shops and restaurants.It is very pleasant if a bit too neat, see below. Chrissy has already left for Washington.My flight is a little latter so I am writing this at the airport.It has been an interesting visit to California.

Liberty Station palms in San Diego 


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