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June 30, 2010

Dumb Things that Seem Smart

I studied two things in college that I have not used since and rarely seen others use.  Those were classical Greek and calculus.  I am not saying that either was useless, but both were more ornamental than practical.  The difference is that everybody knows that Greek is a kind of intellectual exercise, maybe even an indulgence, while many people – most who have never studied calculus – think it that a population generally conversant in calculus is a golden key to international competiveness. Come to think about it, Greek has been more useful to me.
 
I didn’t come up with this myself.  Gregg Easterbrook in his book Sonic Boom questioned the efficacy of higher math for the masses.  He said that pushing higher math for everybody just has the effect of making lots of teenagers feel stupid. Probably a majority of students cannot master calculus and the time &  energy spent trying to hammer the big square peg of complicated math into the smaller round holes of limited cognitive ability could be better spent elsewhere.  As I said, I took calculus, but the only time I ever used it was to get into business school. I really think the primary purpose was to create a filter for the school.  Requiring calculus keeps down the numbers of applicants and is a proxy for significant years of study.    
 
Let me be clear. I am not saying that higher math skills are not important for society; I am just saying that they are not important for most people, not attainable for most people and not sustainable even for those who learn them but don’t use them in daily life. I have not used calculus since I left college and now my skills have atrophied to the extent that the difference between me and someone who has never taken the subject at all approaches zero. The same goes for my Greek, BTW, but in the case of the Greek I still retain important knowledge from the underlying documents.
 
I agree with Easterbrook when he says that it would be much more useful to give the masses of students a better grounding in things like economics and statistics. Those are things that I do use almost every day and it is clear from the decisions people make that many do not understand the basics enough to apply them to their own lives.
 
Another dumb thing that sounds smart is the idea of self sufficiency. I read Thoreau when I was a kid and I even bought books that explained how a person could support himself on as little as a couple acres of land. Of course you would have to live like a medieval peasant, i.e. like shit, but you could do it. (I am reading another good book called the Rational Optimist that cut through some of the pabulum that life was better in the past or is better still in less developed places.)  Self sufficiency sounds attractive but why would you do it when working and interacting with others is so pleasant and profitable? Specialization is the key to prosperity and happiness.  It is the capacity to do some things well and trade them that makes us better off, not some kind of ability to do lots of things clumsily
 
I don’t have to know calculus because I know that some smart guys do and I can rely on them. This is just the basic economics that so many people don’t learn about in school. A good essay explains how we are all interacted. It is called I Pencil. Kids would read it in HS, if they were properly educated in economics.
 
Related to the myth of self sufficiency is the idea that a person should be “well rounded” and be able to do many things.  We hear that at work or in school. People try to make up for their deficiencies, which is great … as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of developing strengths. The fact is that we usually become successful at developing strengths, not  making sure we can do everything. As I mentioned above, I don’t need to learn calculus and time spent developing it, where I have no natural inclinations or talents, would be wasted.
 
With something like “well rounded” there is threshold. If you are below the threshold, you cannot properly function, but at some point you are good enough at the things you are not very good at doing.  It is binary.  After you cross the threshold, getting better is not necessary.  After crossing the threshold, it is better just to avoid the things you don’t do well. Let somebody else do it, somebody who likes it better and is better at doing it.   
 
This shows up in my panels. Some people are good at lots of things. They are well rounded. They tend not to get promoted. It is better to be acceptable at most things and really exceptionally good at a few. Playing to strengths while minimizing or avoiding weaknesses is better than trying to fix every problem.

George C Marshall, the architect of victory in World War II, used to say that it was more important to ask what a man could do and let him do that than to ask what he couldn’t do. People with great talent are often uneven personalities. George Patton was not much of a diplomat, but he was very good at pushing armored units through German lines. Marshall used Patton where he could do some good.  Eisenhower was not the greatest strategist in the war, nor did he have real combat experience, but he could cobble together coalitions.  That is what he did.

Finally re the dumb things that sound good is learning foreign languages. We Americans castigate ourselves and accept the criticism of others because we don’t learn foreign languages. Well … what foreign language should we all learn?  It is an easy choice for non-English speakers. English is the world language.  Learn English. No other language is so widespread or universally useful. We already know English. So do we learn Spanish, which is no use anywhere besides Latin America and parts of the Iberian Peninsula? Chinese has the greatest number of speakers, but it is not the language of business of commerce even in Asia. What about all those poor kids whose parents immersed them in Japanese, back when Japan was supposed to take over the world in the early 1990s?  How useful has that been for them, I wonder?

If you don’t know where you are going, you should just keep and improve English or maybe simplify it into Globish.

I have to caveat – again – if you are going to live in a country, learn the language. I learned several and hold myself to a high standard (i.e. I actaully want to speak it well enough the people know what I want and don't feel the overwhelming urge to compliment me on how well I speak their language.  You know you doing poorly when they compliment you in the first couple minutes, especially if they do it in English). That is why I question the idea of general language learning. I am now working to get my Portuguese back. I once spoke it well and will again, but in between not so much.  One of my tasks is to purge out Polish and Norwegian, which are now flowing back into my brain as “foreign”. When my Portuguese is again very good, I won’t be able to command the Polish, Norwegian or German that I once could. 

Language must be used to be kept and few of us have enough time in the day,opportunities to practice or actual talent to remain "mulitlingual," even if we ever mange to achieve it. Most of us also have more important things to do than practice a language we rarely use. Learning languages in college won’t cut it, unless your standards are very low. Which brings me in complete circle back to the Greek or more broadly the classics. I studied both Greek and Latin in college and, as I admitted, I really cannot remember the languages well enough to read them anymore. But I do remember the content of much of what I read. Classical languages give you access to a full panoply of Western thought and literature. 

IMO, if you want to just learn “a language” in college, with no more specificity than that, you are probably better off studying Latin than any “living” language. You will get access to many more centuries of literature of history and when you forget the language, as you inevitably will, you may remember some of that literature and history. When/if you figure out where you want to go in the non-English speaking world, learn the language then. Latin will probably help with that.

June 28, 2010

Due Dilligence v Data Sufficiency

Studies show that you feel more confident about a decision as the amount of information you have grows.  Unfortunately, the same studies show that increasing information does improves decision making at a diminishing rate and at some point, usually around seven discrete pieces of decision criteria information, the efficacy of decision making actually declines.  But confidence continues to rise. It is usually a bad thing when confidence overtakes capability.

I am facing this problem all day, every day, on my promotion panels. I take this responsibility very seriously and I feel empathy with everyone I am judging.  Aways I am looking for the additional piece of information that will make my decision more certain and my certainty grows with each additional fact I find.  But then I recall the science on human decision making.  Perhaps my certainty is unjustified and undesirable.  I feel better about what I am doing but I am not doing any better.

Seven is the magic number or maybe the logical limit.  It is no coincidence that many thing in literature and myth come in sevens.  You have the seven deadly sins, seven wonders of the world, seven samurai, seven habits of highly effective people, seven voyages of Sinbad etc.  It is also why telephone numbers originally had a maximum of seven digits, of course broken up into smaller subsets.  Our minds simply aren’t well designed to keep lots of information both available and sorted.  We are not the logical decision makers portrayed in the movies and maybe in our own minds.

So we make lots of our decisions using heuristics – rules of thumb roughly derived from experience and previous successful decisions.  These work fairly well if the current situation is well understood and analogous to past ones and if we are aware that we are indeed using these rules, so that we can make appropriate allowance and adjustments.  I think a lot of this is happening in our judgments.   I also believe that it is working reasonably well because of the diverse and relevant experience represented on our board.  Of course, I have to keep reminding myself about that problem of growing confidence and declining effectiveness.

Sometimes you just know all you can. It may not seem enough, but it is time to decide. All decisions are made under conditions of some uncertainty. Otherwise there is no need to make a judgement.

Our scope for serious errors is not great. Almost all the people we are considering are well qualified.  Beyond that, we reach fair convergence among those near the top and the bottom of the distribution. This tends to happen BEFORE we talk it through, so it is not based on overt groupthink. Since the numbers of promoted and low ranked are relatively small percentages of the total, I think we can be confident that most of those “belong” or “deserve” to be where they ended up.  I worry a little about those right near the cusps.  But I don’t see any way to increase effectiveness, although it is pretty easy to increase confidence.

June 26, 2010

Gulf Dead Zones (Before BP)

A nearly 9000 square mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was there before the BP oil spill. Most well informed Americans were aware of it, if only vaguely, but we didn’t think much about it. It was like the situation of New Orleans before Katrina. Everybody knew about the environmental disaster, but w/o a triggering event or – more importantly – a villain to blame, we just let it slip out of our attention.

It is very hard to focus the public attention on anything that is not urgent, no matter how important. (On the other hand, it is fairly easy to get attention for things that are urgent, even when they are not important.) This is a problem of human nature that goes back to and probably beyond the first recorded civilizations. Reacting to immediate threats comes naturally to us. Thinking about slowly developing long-term situations seems to hurt our brains and tax our cognitive abilities, so we tend to avoid it. But then when the story line becomes compelling enough, we quickly jump to often unsupported conclusions and demand inappropriate action in a kind of self righteous orgy of guilt and blame.

The dead zone was not caused by oil spills. To explain it in a simplified version, it results from nutrients washing off lands as far away as Montana, Minnesota and New York. These nutrients overwhelm the ecology of the waters of the Gulf at the outflow of the Mississippi, causing unusual growth of aquatic plants. When they die back, their decay robs the water of oxygen creating the dead zones.

Almost all this nutrient runoff is from non-point sources. That means that there is no pipe to shut off of villainous industry to close down. The Mississippi/Missouri/Ohio river watershed covers much of the country and includes 42% of the U.S. population. If you live there, each time you fertilize your yard or each time the exhaust from your car condenses on the pavement, you are contributing in a small way to the dead zone off the coast of Louisiana. Of course there are bigger players than weekend gardeners. Agricultural fertilizers are a big contributor.

Environmentalism is full of ironies. The successful quest for alternatives to oil could INCREASE the extent of the dead zone if it leads to more acres planted in corn or other bio-fuel crops. And switches to palm oil as a biofuels stock is causing serious deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Another big contributing factor is flood control and channelization. In its natural state, the Mississippi flooded extensively and changed course promiscuously. Also near the delta were extensive wetlands that slowed the water. All these things allowed sediment to settle and gave opportunities for plants to absorb nutrients and grow faster and stronger. But flooding is inconvenient to people living near the banks of any river and wetlands are tempting targets for development. I am not saying that we can or should abandon the many good engineering works we have done along our great rivers, but we need to choose priorities more carefully. Not every place should be protected from floods and there are some places where we should just not build houses etc.

The problem of the dead zone and the general health of the Mississippi River system will require a collective solution, but not the big government collective solution some people have in mind. Usually, very big problems require lots of small solutions. They require a common understanding and a common commitment but usually not central direction, since detailed decisions need to be made based on local and changing conditions. In other words, we have to let the nature of the situation determine the nature of the solution. A centralized Czar just cannot have real time access to all the necessary information, nor be able to understand all the nuances if he did.

Government must set the framework with laws, regulations and incentives, but they must tread lightly since firms, individuals and NGOs will come up with most of the real innovative solutions. Independent organizations such as the Nature Conservancy have long taken a flexible and holistic approach, working with governments, industries and individuals to protect , preserve and RESTORE important ecosystems. Farmers across the region are switching to low-till of no-till methods, which is having a dramatic effect. A recent indicated that on average, conservation practices have reduced sediment loss from fields by 69 %; reduced nitrogen lost from surface runoff by 46% and reduced total phosphorus loss from fields by 49%, and decreased the percentage of acres that are losing soil organic carbon from 41% to 25%.

Finally, all of us have to learn to cut nature a little more slack. Urban and suburban development is inexorable reaching into the countryside. Ironically, the leading edge is often populated by people who love nature the most. They want to be closer to it. New developments are often very politically correct. They “set aside” significant areas for wildlife preserves or nature protection. But they too often miss a central concern. A big problem for natural environments is fragmentation. A 100 acre intact forest is almost always better than 10x10 acre forests divided by roads and buildings. It sometimes does very little good to create a “preserve” if it is isolated from the larger environment. This is not an insurmountable problem but it does require some forethought, some management and maybe a little less imposed orderliness. For example, corridors connecting preserves, along with so called “soft edge” can vastly multiply their effectiveness. The challenge to this is the chain aspect and the nuisance problem.

The chain aspect refers to the old saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. You can have a wonderful network of nature, but a break in the connections can cause significant declines very far away. Real nature includes bugs and varmints. It also may tend to smell bad. And those nasty much depressions. Just call them vernal ponds and leave them alone. That is where the amphibians breed. Neat lawns, with all the weeds chemically controlled and all the grass the same height is a kind of desert. It tends to support a lot of geese, which may not be a good thing, but not much else. We have to be a little more “diverse” in what we call neat.

June 25, 2010

Resisting Calls for Active Managment

Government big and small suffers from the admirable if often misguided urge to complete tasks assigned to it w/o thinking through the larger systemic consequences of what happens if it succeeds.  Of course, this is a problem for all fallible humans, but because of the challenges of agency and its ability to command resources, government has it worse.
 
My homeowners’ association shows on a micro level what scales up to bigger problems for bigger organizations. We have had a recurring problem with successive homeowners’ boards to get them to do little or nothing about a “problem” with shade and drainage.  (Yes, for me a good outcome in this situation is that nothing be done.)  I won’t go into details.  Suffice to say, we have an area with growing trees that do the things trees do; they shade, drop leaves and create humid conditions near ground level. These are good things from the environmental prospective
 
People say they like the trees and nature, but they don’t seem to like most things about them. I have found that very often they want to protect the environment, as long as it is not too inconvenient.  You get the picture? So with monotonous regularity, we get calls to “fix” the problem in back of our houses.   

People have complained that there are too many mosquitoes and I hear that a couple people have demanded that the board install French drains, a kind of open storm sewer trench filled with gravel and rock, to quickly channel water away from the houses so that mosquitoes cannot breed. Sounds reasonable.  Here’s why it’s not when you take the time to understand the problem.
 
First, the mosquitoes in question are Asian tiger mosquitoes.  They are another of the many gifts we have recently received from China like the Asian long-horned beetle. These little pests have the nasty habit of being active during the day. The thing to remember about tiger mosquitoes is that they are “container breeding insects,” products of co-evolution with humans that breed only in man-made objects such as pots, discarded bottles, rain gutters or even folds in plastic tarps where water pools up. They do very well in cemeteries because of the presence of plastic flower vases. They specifically do not breed in puddles with dirt bottoms, of which, BTW, there are not many anyway in the area in question. So a French drain would do nothing to slow the mosquito population and in fact the standing water in a man-made drain might increase their breeding opportunities.
 
Second is a bigger thing – the Chesapeake Bay.  Industries, Federal & local governments  eliminated most significant point source pollution (i.e. industrial and sewage plant discharges) years ago.  Today most of the pollution comes from dispersed non-point source runoff.  Agriculture is still the largest source, but it is diminishing.  The only category where this problem is growing is in runoff from urban and suburban areas. What you do in your yard and around the house affects the crabs and fish in the bay and silt covers growing water plants.  One way to mitigate this problem is to slow the runoff and allow water to soak into the ground, where it will find its way into water tables and/or be cleaned by natural processes, i.e. simple things like silt settling, nitrogen and phosphorus being absorbed by living plants etc. Slowing the water flow is also important to avoid storm surges that overwhelm and erode stream and waterways.  This has become more and more a problem as the amount of pavement has increased.  The bottom line is that you don’t want to do things that would discharge rain water more rapidly. A drain system is designed to do just that.  
 
Of course, that assumes the system will work, which may not be a valid assumption.  The saving grace, from an environmental perspective, may be that the drains rarely work as promised to quickly shunt away storm water for long distances.  They tend to clog with mud, making them useless unless constantly maintained.  Actually, they are less than useless, since you have the initial expense of building them and then their presence tends to make it more difficult to grow plants that would do some of the ecological services such as slowing and filtering storm water. 

Specifically for the mosquito problem, what needs to be done is for everybody to get rid of pots, containers, tarps etc that can hold water. This may include very small things, like a broken cup or piece of plastic. All homeowers should also make sure that their rain gutters are not clogged. If all these things were done, the population of tiger mosquitoes would collapse locally, although the chances of all these things being done is slim to none and slim has just left the building.
 
As for the more general moistness problem, the best possible solution is to plant shade tolerate ground cover under the trees and celebrate the ecological benefits of a small moist forest floor environment.  (I have done that on the section in back of my house and there is no longer a problem with erosion or mud.  Interestingly, the ground level is a couple of inches higher now than it was five years ago, as the plants have slowed and captured silt, just like they are supposed to do.) If Association wanted to spend a little more money, we could build a rain garden to create an even more diverse environment.  A low cost solution would be simply to stop mowing the “grass” in the area under the trees.  In places the workers have neglected or consistently forgot about, a decent cover has volunteered. 
 
So if we sum up the possible solutions, the best is the semi-passively systemic – working with nature solution.  Next best is doing nothing at all, actually doing less than nothing if we stop mowing. The worst is the active what we might call an engineering project to build drains that will cost a lot ot establish and require subsequent maintenance.  So which do you think keeps on popping up?
 
The more passive, but effective solutions do not “solve” the mosquito problem. That is true.  (BTW – tiger mosquitoes are easily managed if you just wear long pants. They are low fliers and don’t tend to sting above the knee.) The more active solutions actually make the problem worse and cost a lot of money, but they have the illusion of action and leadership can loudly claim that they are working on the people’s concerns.  Beyond that, contractor can make money off the projects.  They come with nicely done sketches and bogus statistics beautifully graphed on shiny paper.   They dislike it when you ask people to walk across the street to see the clogged French drains installed a couple years ago, now providing only mosquito heavens and lots of mud.  Of course, not many people will follow you when you ask them to look for themselves. There are too many mosquitoes and too much mud.
 
I am afraid that this is how it goes. Big solutions make lots of people happy and some people rich, even when they don’t work – especially when they don’t work because there is more activity required to fix each problem serially created by the initial solution.
 
We should remember that if it is not necessary to do anything it is necessary NOT to do anything. But with an attitude like that, you are unlikely to get elected to anything. Very often the politician code is just the opposite, more like "Something must be done; this is something; therefore we must do it." Much easier to promise and to be like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise.

BTW – I have written on this subject before and if you follow this link you can see what happens when a really big rain lands on area.

June 23, 2010

Not Like Law & Order

We attended the hearing for the six guys accused of beating Alex.  It was painful to hear the story of how these thugs attacked him, unprovoked, and started to kick him in the face.  Evidently there was  a pattern of attacks.  

I don't want innocent people to get in trouble and I know that is why we have all the complicated legal procedures. It is good that the system is stacked in favor of defendants. But their lawyers were clearly fishing. They asked the cop on the stand all sorts of questions clearly designed to tax his recollection, things that really didn’t matter and/or things he could not have known.

Alex took the stand to tell what he knew, which wasn’t much. He only knows that he found himself on the ground being kicked. None of the lawyers for the defendants cross examined him. I was glad for that; he could not have added anything, but I thought the lawyers might try to cloud the issue somehow.  

I made a special point of staring at the defendants as they were identified. They didn’t show emotion. During the recess they all went into the bathroom and I got to wait in line among them.  None of them looked at me. I don’t know what that means, if anything. Maybe they had to go to the bathroom really bad and that was all that was on their minds. I cannot tell who is guilty just by looking. I was hoping they would brag or say something that I could bring to the attention of the authorities, but they were completely silent. They were very savvy defendants, which I think is significant.

The authorities are still waiting for DNA evidence. Human blood was splattered on one of their shirts. You have to wonder how it got there and if it is Alex’s it will prove that the guy in question at least came close enough to get splashed. Until that comes in, they had enough evidence to hold only one of the guys.  As I wrote above, I don’t want innocent guys punished. But they caught these guys at the scene where they were identified at the time by witnesses. Maybe they were not all involved, but the probably all know who was involved. There is no honor in protecting bad guys.

Alex is philosophical about this. He doesn’t want them punished very much, since they are young and perhaps inexperienced. But anybody who would hit a stranger from behind and then commence to kick him in the head and face is dangerous to society. I can understand, if not accept, assault during a robbery, but they didn’t try to rob Alex. It takes a special kind of evil personality to want to hurt a stranger purely out of hatred. I have never even contemplated doing anything like that and I don’t think many people do. It is our civic duty to get these kinds of people out of circulation until his attitude improves or his energy diminishes.

A witness clearly identified the one guy they were able to hold. That is how they got him. She said she had seen him earlier too. Evidently he attacked a customer headed into the gas station with his money in hand. The witness said that the perp hit the customer in the face, took the money and taunted him saying, “What are you gonna do now?” and walked away. That is why she could identify him with such certainty as the one who attacked Alex when he showed up a second time. I stood next to him when waiting in the bathroom line. He just looked at his shoes and seemed very harmless. He was wearing a suit and had cut off the dreadlocks he sported a couple months ago.  He didn’t look much like the picture we had seen before.You cannot judge guilt by looking at people and they tend to behave differently in the courthouse than they do on the street.

Towing the Line

Smithsonian castle on June 21, 2010 

Despite my move to the new building, I still have to go down to the old area both to work out at Gold’s Gym and to make it possible to get on the Metro.  

As I think I have explained before, I ride only one way. It is 17 miles from my house to the my old USIA building by the route I have to take on my bike to avoid traffic. I used to ride both ways, but 34 miles a day is a lot and it is daunting to have to ride home after a long day’s work. Maybe I have just become wimpier in my old age, but I enjoy the ride to work most days, while the ride back was just a chore. I have developed several rationalizations, the foremost of which is that the one-way trip extends my biking season because I don’t have to worry about darkness in spring and fall.  I also don’t worry so much about the weather.  If it is not raining in the morning I am okay.  I don’t have to worry about late afternoon storms.  Finally, it is fairly comfortable in the early morning, but often enervatingly hot by the afternoon.

Beached cars 

Besides all that, I think my Metro-bike combo helped get me promoted. I cannot get on the train with my bike until after 7pm, so I used to hang around work until then waiting.  Sometimes I actually did some useful work, but probably as importantly I was SEEN to be at work. I always told the truth; I told people that I was merely waiting for the train, but they didn’t believe me, so I got points for consistently “working” late.

Now I generally leave work around 6:30, which give me plenty of time for a leisurely ride along the Smithsonian Mall and my vigorous but short workout at Gold’s Gym. You can see the Smithsonian with the shades of evening on the longest day of the year.  Along the way I have observed traffic enforcement.  Cars can park along the main streets during non-rush hours and lots of people evidently don’t know when that period ends.   When rush-hour starts, tow trucks fan out to ticket the cars and pull them off the road and onto the grassy verges.  It must come as a bit of a surprise to hapless tourists. It is a little hard on the grass.  The tow truck below, BTW, is NOT doing the grass towing. I don't think it is ever legal to park on that part of 14th Street and we all pity the fool who parked there just before rush hour. His vehicle is going to a public impound in DC, from which it may never emerge.

towing  

BTW – my title “tow the line” is a variation on the saying, “toe the line.” I know the difference. The latter saying is based on conforming to a military line. The former is just wrong, but it does create an image that could make sense. A tow truck, I suppose, could tow a line.

June 22, 2010

Intuition in Decision Making

ChimpI said that I wished I had done promotion panels before, but in many ways this could not have come at a better time. Almost every file I read gives me some ideas and examples (sometimes negative sometimes positive) of what I should do to prepare for my post in Brazil and what I should do when I get there.  Reading file after file and being able to compare various activities, personalities and responses over diverse situations has been an excellent “case study” education.

We did case studies in business school and the method is generally used in most professions for good reason. It provides the benefits of experience w/o having to suffer all the hard knocks it would take to get it yourself. Of course, in many ways it is not as good as personal experience, but it does have some advantages (besides knock avoidance).  

When you read through lots of cases, you can discern patterns. You develop a kind of intuition. Intuition has a mysterious connotation, but it doesn’t have to. Intuition develops as you get familiar with many situations and many patterns.  You cannot always explain why you know something and intuition has an aspect of a feeling, which is why it is seen as mysterious. I don’t think you should rely on intuition alone, if you can gather facts and make distinctions. You should use all available tools to make important decision, but developing a feeling for patterns should be one of the tools. This is wisdom.

Along with intuition comes the capacity to reason by analogy. This is another “mysterious” process that people often cannot quantify. They just see the connections or the similarities.  Many great ideas and successful ventures start off when somebody reasons by analogy. As with intuition, this methods should also be tested and supported by facts and analysis. I call this “due diligence.” I am actually using the term technically incorrectly, but it conveys to me the need to check out assumptions even when you don’t think there is much need to do so. I think it is good to make very clear the nature of the analogy and how the new situation is similar AND different.   

If you have a successful pattern, it is tempting to use it everywhere you can. This is a solution in search of a problem. Give a man a hammer and everything starts to look like a nail. People are often enthusiastic about  intuition because it can mean not having to do the hard work of thinking. Careful analysis can compensate for this enthusiasm.

With these caveats, intuition and reasoning by analogy are very powerful tools that deserve more respect than they sometimes get.    

June 21, 2010

Killing Ticks Working in the Woods

baldcypress on the farm

I went down to the farms yesterday and did some spraying, chopping and rock moving. Above is the baldcypress in our wet area.

On the plus side, the road that the utility company repaired along their right-of-way has settled nicely and their plantings are growing vigorously. I also saw a lot of quail and almost a dozen wild turkeys.  I tried to sneak up on them, but they flew off. I think they have good eyesight.

I sprayed down some resurgent tree-of-heaven, many of the vines and some of the hardwoods mixing in with my pines. It was really hot and not very pleasant work. I got a four gallon backpack sprayer, which makes it easier to do the work, but it is heavy. Today I have a stiff neck from reaching and spraying while carrying that thing on my back. The good news is that I found a product that keeps off and actually kills ticks.  It is called “Repel.” You can apply it to your boots and clothes. It irritates the skin, so it is good only for heavy duty tick killing, not casual mosquito avoidance. I pushed brush all day and picked up no ticks or chiggers, so the stuff works.

One interesting thing I heard at the local gas station in Freeman is that there may be plans to open a wood pellet (the kind they use for heating) plant near Jarratt, VA. This would be a good development, since it is near my forests and would provide a market for thinned trees and pulpwood. Maybe the prices will go up a little. They are abysmal now, so it cannot hurt.

Making small wood into pellets for home heating is a better idea than trying to turn it into liquid fuel like ethanol, which takes as much energy as it produces. You are usually better off being as simple as possible.

June 19, 2010

Internet & Politics in Brazil

As I wrote earlier, I am learning what I can about Brazil and improving my Portuguese by watching Brazilian television via Internet.  This is another of my exercises.  Readers not much interested in Brazil can feel free to skip it.

How will Internet change the way politics is done in Brazil?  How can social networks bring officials closer to citizens?  Doctor of Sociology and political scientist Rodolfo Texerira and marketing consultant Claudio Torres talk with Alexandre Garcia about those things on this TV Globo Program.*

Alexandre started off by pointing out that during the World Cup, most journalists weren’t really watching the game but rather paying attention to their computers to get results and comments.  He asked if the new age of social media would separate people further from reality.

Rodolfo thought that the opposite was happening.  Before the Internet, politicians could MORE easily not interact with the people.  The communication was one way and passive.  Now it is engagement.   He pointed out that 40 million Brazilians have access to Internet, either at work or at home, and that this number is growing.   (Unfortunately, a majority of the big users of Internet today are two young to vote, many under fourteen.)

Political parties get free TV airtime in Brazil, but the exposure is national there are lots of candidates and if you do the math, the average candidate has two seconds on TV;  probably not enough to even say his name.   Most candidates don’t have any real TV time.  Internet gives them a place to explain their program to the local people who are interested.

Many of politicians have been resisting the use of new media.  They like the old fashioned, maybe slower paced, methods.  But this is probably only a short term phenomenon.   The new media may make politics less personal in the physical sense, but will make it more personal in the informational sense.  It may also expand the idea of engagement.   Pre-internet, there was a specific time for politics on TV.  Today people can engage when they want.

Claudio contrasted the old days with the emerging new paradigm.  In the old system, candidates were essentially engaging with the media and the citizen – the voters – were merely spectators.    Now citizens are more involved.  They are sometimes engaged directly with the candidates or at least with their folks.   He thinks that Internet makes politics more personal and perhaps less party based.  He also noted that even among the lowest classes (DE) 21% have access to Internet.  

Claudio used the example of Obama.  He mentioned that Obama really didn’t use the Internet to convince people to vote for him.  Rather, Internet was a way to recruit volunteers and activists.  They were on the Internet convincing their friends and contacts to vote for Obama.   He said that this has the added effect of giving volunteers something useful and engaging to do.   A young person interested in helping out before Internet would be relegated to the boring work of handing out leaflets or calling on the phone.  Internet makes them players.  It is more fun and helps keep them in the organization and motivate them to action.

Alexandre asked where people find the time to get so involved in blogging, tweeting etc.  Claudio explained that he has incorporated a lot of the social media into his daily life, so that he is often connecting and communicating.

IMO – this is the same sort of discussion we could have in the U.S.  Brazil seems different mostly in the extent of Internet participation, except for one thing.   The Brazilian electoral system is not like ours in that candidates are connected to parties.  Internet creates more personality for candidates.  In America this merely accentuates something that already is part of the system.  Introducing more candidate personality into a party based political system may have more profound implications.

* Como a internet vai mudar a maneira de se fazer política no Brasil? Como as redes sociais podem aproximar mais os governantes do cidadão? O doutor em Sociologia e mestre em Ciência Política, Rodolfo Teixeira; e o consultor em marketing digital eleitoral, Cláudio Torres, são os convidados de Alexandre Garcia.

June 16, 2010

Learning from Experience of Others

US Capitol from Smithsonian Mall on June 12, 2010 

I wish I had served on the promotion panels before. It is grueling work & eye bugging, but all that reading is paying off in terms of vicarious experience. Each individual report is an encapsulated history/biography for a year and a whole file paints a picture of the progress of a career. My colleagues have done lots of interesting things, achieved some great things and made their shares of mistakes and in these experiences are valuable lessons.

After reading and thinking about what the texts tell, you see patterns in individual careers, in the ways of the FS and – excuse the hyperbole – even in the development of the world in the last decades.  For all the important things that happened, some of us were there, close up and personal.  These sorts of files will someday make excellent primary historical sources. I am sure they do already.  

So serving on the boards has been personally enlightening. I can see how the kinds of work I do fit in – or sometimes not – with the bigger events.  I think it is nearly impossible to see this perspective when you are thinking about your own career or when you are down in the day-to-day fight.  We all like to think we are unique and that the problems we face and solve are special. In detail, they are that; in general they are not.   

The names and the places change, but the situations recur … monotonously. I think we can learn from history and that with the wisdom of experience we may be able to avoid some problems, but not all.  They mutate enough that we just cannot always recognize them or anticipate all the permutations. Experience might allow us to minimize pain or pass through hard times easier and faster, but we will still have hard times.

Progress in careers is never linear. I don’t think it can be.  Not every year can have bigger achievements than the one before.  I can read that there were times when the people involved must have thought their careers were finished.  Often this comes just before a big opportunity or a jump to a bigger achievement. I don’t think this is a mere random occurrence.  Opportunities may come and go, but being able to see them and take advantage of them is a skill and a choice.  Maybe the setback or the career doldrums give the affected person the chance and incentive for introspection and reinvention or maybe just a time to rest before continuing up the mountain.  

It is success that can be more dangerous. It breeds arrogance & complacency and makes you less likely to consider changes, improvements and alternatives. A very successful person may be blind to opportunities. Failure is a better teacher, as long as you can see a way out of it. Of course, if you fail consistently, perhaps you taking the wrong lessons, or none at all.

I can see patterns of success and failure in the files and when I look back I can see them in my own career. They are repetitive and faults are astonishing persistent; it is hard for people to get away from them.  You can travel 1000 miles and leave everything else behind - except you always have to take yourself along on the journey. I recall one of those “de-motivating” saying, “the only consistent factor in your failed relationships is you.” The same goes for success. Of course, we tend to blame failure on outside factors or bad luck, but assume success is earned and maybe overdue.  All those things are true, and vise-versa.

June 14, 2010

Life Nasty, Brutish & Short

skull with a hole in the head“I need it like a hole in the head”.  I always thought it was probably a direct translation from a foreign language because of the peculiar grammar.  But I don’t really know where it came from and I figured it was just a saying. 

Alex and I went through a forensic archeology exhibit at Smithsonian. Take a look at the skull alongside and try to guess what killed this guy. I don’t suppose you would need a degree in forensic anthropology. Most of the other exhibits were less obvious. They can read various types of sickness on the bones. Evidently significant numbers of people died of toothaches in the old days, or more precisely from infections related to abscesses. What a way to go? There was a lot of misery back then from things that we just no longer think about. I stroll through this exhibit will cure even the worst case of nostalgia for the good old days.

Life in the old days was nasty, brutal & short for most people. Even the rich people lived rotten lives if you look at the things they had to put up with and suffer from. The old palace looks good, until you recall the state of plumbing, air conditioning and medicine that the fat cat had to live with. None of us would willingly trade places with Louis XIV if we had to really live his life.

Speaking of living nasty, brutal & short lives, take a look at the map below and try to find North Korea. It is truly a benighted place - literally. When you go to museums and think about how rotten life used to be in the dark old days, it is useful to recall that in some places it never got any better and I have no doubt that living in a fever ridden colony a couple of centuries was better than living in a place like North Korea today. It must be like living in a giant, endless concentration camp, where technology is used to create misery and control rather than improve lives.

Nightime map showing East Asia with North Korea totally benighted 

BTW - the map is just supposed to show the world's bright lights, but when you look at it you cannot help noting that North Korea doesn't have many. 

Finally, we have something that makes life better, IMO, something even the richest king couldn't have before the 1880s - Coca-Cola. Below are Kola nuts, used to make Cola flavored soft drinks. I recalled an old commercial for 7up talking about the un-cola nuts and with the wonders of YouTube we can see it again.

Kola nuts 

Human Origins

Ice man model in SmithsonianAlex and I visited the “human origins” exhibit at Smithsonian.  I have trouble keeping up with the changes.  As I recently wrote, I had to change my opinion of the Neanderthal man now that I found out he is a closer cousin and probable ancestor.   You would think that all these prehistoric things would be more or less consistent, but they are not.  Scientific perceptions change.

Anyway, the exhibit is very good.   Most of the artifacts are copies, but I wouldn’t be able to tell the real ones anyway.  The picture on the side is the "ice man" discovered frozen in the Alps. He may have been the victim of a murder more than 5000 years ago. Anyway, the exhibit is mostly set up to educate kids, but old people like me can enjoy it too.

The thing that made the biggest impression on me were the wax museum recreations of pre-humans.  If the Neanderthal man walked down the street today, you might notice that he was unusually husky and unattractive, but if we was properly groomed you might not give him too much of a second look. Of course one reason not to stare would be to avoid eye contact with a dangerous looking weirdo.  But my point is that I think you would consider him human.  We do share genes with this guy, as we have recently discovered.  Not so the others like the Homo-erectus.  It was interesting looking into their eyes, or at least the eyes that current science has provided them.

Neanderthal man recreation in SmithsonianAnother surprising part of the exhibit was a skull from Lapa Vermelha, Minas Gerais in Brazil.  (I will put that on my list of places to visit.)  This fossil has been carbon dated to 11,500 years ago. The interesting thing is that the ancestors of today’s Native Americans were not supposed to be there yet.  There is a lot of political argument over very old human fossils in the Americas.

Native American tribes often have creation myths that say they have always been in or near their current locations. Science and anthropology indicate that their ancestors wandered over from Asia via a land mass at what are now the Bearing Straits. The discovery of ancient skulls that do not resemble the current Native American populations upsets some people. They can go to considerable lengths to prevent the evidence from being uncovered that contracts the myths or threatens their positions as “the first Americans”, as with the Kennewick man, who looked more like Jon Luke Picard than Sitting Bull and was evidently most closely related to the Ainu people from Japan.

History is never really simple and when it gets tied in with current political sensitivities it is really hard to get things right.   It is really hard to believe that things that happened more than 10,000 years ago still make a big difference to today’s politics, but they do.

It is a little silly.  When you go far enough back, none of the current ethnic distinctions make any sense and all human history is the common heritage of mankind.  The more we learn from archeology and genetics, the clearer that becomes.

June 13, 2010

Being Middle Class - In Brazil

I am watching Brazilian news programs (through the wonders of Internet) to learn more about Brazil and improve my Portuguese. I especially like “Globo Rural” about agriculture and environment. But it is time to step it up. If I don’t take notes, I will certainly forget, so am taking notes on some of the – for me – more interesting and evergreen topics. Today I watched the “Globo News Painel” about the profile of the Brazilian middle class (Qual o perfil da nova classe média brasileira?). Tonico Ferreira was the host.  Guests included, Waldir Quadros - Economist/Unicamp (State University at Campinas),  Bolivar Lamounier - Augurium Consulting & Jose Pastore Sociologist from University of Sao Paulo.  

Millions of Brazilians have moved to something like a real middle class lifestyle in the last decade. Research shows around 30 million. There has been a great reduction of absolute misery, according to panel members. They pointed out that many of these people are no longer poor, but that they are still not very secure. Most of the mobility has been from the very low to the not so low. The panel members agreed that they are not yet looking at a middle class society as we have in the U.S. or Western Europe, but in some ways this initial movement is more satisfying to the people involved.  In fact, as aspirations come to outrun results, richer people might feel that progress has been less advantageous.

Some progress came from better return/profitability of work, i.e people were paid better. But a key factor was the economic reforms and currency stabilization gave people the ability to save. Stable currency gave security that allowed people to save and plan. The big inflation Brazil experienced before created a cash, fast-turnover society. Families couldn’t buy on credit, because nobody wanted to sell on credit w/o charging fantastic risk premiums. On the other hand, they couldn’t really plan to buy later because they had no idea what kind of prices they might face later and they were never sure if they could ever catch up.

I was in Brazil during one of the great inflations and I recall how it was nearly impossible to comparison shop. If you noticed something in one shop and the next day saw it in another for a higher price, you couldn’t usually tell if price were higher in the second shop or if the general price had just gone up. I remember thinking at the time that high inflation was corrupting for a culture. It create a nation of gamblers and threw even prudent people into a casino state of mind. IMO the better habits that we are seeing these days are evidence of that, as people are behaving much more responsibly and prudently now that inflation is under control. A reasonable ability to anticipate future events is a prerequisite for a stable and good society.  

A panelist pointed out that the difference between TYPES of consumption of the upper, middle and lower classes has diminished.  Much of this has to do with generalized technological and economic progress. The rich person might have better quality clothes, mobile phones or refrigerators, but now most people have those things. This was not true in the past. There is a kind of threshold.  There is a huge difference between those who have and those who don’t. After that threshold has been cross, the relative differences in quality matter much less.

Brazilian sociologists divide their society into classes A, B, C, D & E based on income. Classes AB make up around 10% of the population, make most of the big decisions and pay most of the taxes. When Brazilians in earlier times called themselves “middle class” they really meant the lower rungs of this AB group. The new middle class in actually the one in the middle, class C. Class C makes up around 50% of the Brazilian population and account for around 68% of the total jobs. The panel was mostly talking about changes within this class C and movement into it from lower classes.

The new middle class family has family incomes from around 1200 – 4800 Brazilian Real (about $650-2600).  This doesn’t sound like much money but it allows much greater consumptions.  The Commercial Federation of Sao Paulo estimates that from 2003-2010 the increase in consumption among classes CDE double that of AB. 

Brazil has significant social mobility, but it remains a country of great inequality. Much of the mobility has been in the lower part of the pyramid. The problem has been what we would call human capital and it will probably get worse. People achieve mobility by hard work, cleverness and gumption, but such things will take most people only so far.  You can open and operate a small shop if you have the above characteristics plus some common sense. But as you get bigger, you need things like accounting skills, for example. Of course, you need specific skills for professions or technical work. To make the jump to AB, poorer people need education and specific skills, increasingly technical skills.  The educational system and their life experience tend not to give them these skills.

The panel agreed that Brazil needs to step up its investments in human capital. Brazil, in many ways, is in the same position relative to the countries of the world, as its class C citizens are to the other classes. The country has achieved impressive gains in development, but many of those big gains have come because of the high prices of commodities that Brazil produces mixed with the good effects of economic reforms made in the 1990s (the Real Plan).  I will not say that “this was the easy part.” That would incorrectly diminish the extraordinary success. But we can recognize that the skills and techniques that brought Brazil so far in the last decade and half may not be the skills and techniques the country needs to move forward from here. 

Another pitfall is ordinary infrastructure. Brazil has underinvested in roads and facilities. This is already creating problems for continued growth. This is easy to overlook if you drive around the Southeast on what seem to be very good and not especially crowded roads in the countryside, but if you turn off the highway the pavement often stops and maybe there is no bridge.  Anyway, what was good enough won't be good enough tomorrow.  The better you get, the better you have to get to keep on going.

Success changes the rules of the game and often what got you here won't keep you going. That goes for individuals and for whole societies.

June 08, 2010

Biking

Today was simply beautiful bike weather.   It is unusually fresh and cool for the season. It was around 60 degrees for my ride this morning, with a nice tail wind and beautiful blue skies and low humidity.  This is not the usual middle of June weather in Washington. 

I manage to fall off the bike yesterday. I tried to jump onto the path too precipitously after passing some pedestrians spread all across the path. I left a little skin on the pavement and today it hurts like mad.  I guess it is like a burn.  It is a scrape just deep enough to excite all the pain receptors but not deep enough to turn any of them off. The leg is a bit worse, but they are not the kinds of things that take too long to heal.   I had to wear short sleeves so as not to stain a good shirt, since some blood is still rubbing off.

Way back when I first came to DC, I had a spectacular fall near Arlington Cemetery.  I fell and slid on my back across the wet pavement.  It made a very conspicuous but not deep wounds, much like today's but all over my back. I washed it off when I got to work, but it wasn't finished and I ruined one of my shirts.  Lesson learned.

There is a sequel. I was discussing biking a couple years later with my colleague George Lannon in Brazil.  He said he would never ride to work because of the danger.  When I inquired further, he said that he had once seen “some a-hole” slide clear across the road on his back near Arlington Cemetery. That evidently put him off biking forever. Small world.

I ride past that place almost every day.  I haven’t fallen there for twenty-five years.

Promotions

I have not been writing much on the blog because I am serving on promotion panels, which are sapping all my psychic energy.  I am on the “threshold panel” which recommends FS-01 officers from senior Foreign Service.  There is a lot of reading to do and lots of things to consider.  It really is making me sad.  So many great people and not enough places for all of them.   It is like a deadly serious game of musical chairs.  Some people’s careers will end because of our decisions.   

I make the choices as best I can and it is my responsibility to do it, but I find it harder than I thought it would be.

I have learned an amazing amount in just a few days.  There are things I thought that were wrong about how the system works, but mostly it is just a different perspective.  After the panels are over, we can talk and write about the process in general terms, but not yet.  For now suffice to say that the process really is as fair as we can make it.   I was very impressed by that and will do my best.

Seeing all these good people makes me wonder how I ever made the leap.  It is truly a humbling experience, but it also makes me proud to be a member of such a group.

Anyway, if I write less for the next couple of months that is why.  I write about what I am thinking about and right now I cannot properly do that.


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