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October 31, 2010

Odds & Ends for October 31

I used to talk about the success of South Carolina in attracting foreign investment in the Greenville-Spartanburg area. It was one of my hardy perennial issues when I was in Krakow, since leaders in southern Poland were trying to attract investment and appreciated the successful experience of others. The people in SC are still at it.The latest example is the expansion of BMW. We sometimes complain when American jobs are outsourced to others. The Carolina uplands show how to get them to come to us. They have workers with strong work ethics; living costs are low and unions are scarce. Read a little more here & here.

Better land management in Northern Arizona.  The Forest Service regularly burns the ponderosa pine forests.  The ponderosa pine ecosystem is fire dependent.  When we excluded fire, often limited grazing and made thinning difficult, we created lots of trouble.   The forests grew too thick (what they call dog hair forests).  This overstocking of trees allows bugs like pine beetles to destroy forests (when the trees are too close, the bugs can easily move from tree to tree) and excluding little fires leads to large, disastrous fires.We may not be aware of how much shift has indeed occurred and how industry is now more decentralized, often rural. Nucor Steel, headquartered in Charlotte, NC, is a good example of an American firm that flourishes among Americas medium sized cities and small towns. The trademark rural occupation is agriculture, but when we think of the old guy on a tractor doing what his father taught him, we are more than a generation behind the times. Agriculture in America is high tech and becoming more so and agricultural tech is informing other fields, such as pharmaceuticals. I was recently reading articles about how the North Carolina Biotech Center is using tobacco plants to help develop vaccines. Tobacco used to dominate much of North Carolina and Southern Virginia. It used to be associated with rural poverty, but now that is changing too.

When we think of high tech, our thought usually run to computers and electronics. But the high tech of the near future will be biological/agricultural (biotechnology) and structural (nanotechnology) and a lot of it will be produced far away from the cool and very expensive high tech places we know today.

I still am surprised at how much science goes into something as old fashioned as forestry. We have better trees that grow twice as fast as the species used to, while producing better wood, with fewer inputs & less disease. They are even better looking, IMO. Working smarter allows us to create a more sustainable society.

Land Management

The Brazilians are trying to figure out ways to both conserve and develop the Amazon. They get fairly annoyed when we preach at them and have even developed elaborate conspiracy theories about UN takeovers of the Amazon. It doesn’t help that some activists have indeed proposed an internationalization of the Amazon. It is easy for us living comfortably in North America or Europe to demand that they preserve the “lungs of the world.” Brazilians will develop their country, as we did and development need not mean permanent destruction. When I first studied this issue more than twenty-five years ago, I was convinced that forest cutting would in short order result in destruction of soils and essentially the creation of deserts. We now know more about soils and the ecology and, not surprisingly in such a large area, it depends where you are. Some soils are deep and could be developed; others not. One size does not fit all.

I have been reading a book called The Big Burn. It talks about Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt and the establishment of our own forest service. The story is heroic in many ways. It takes place in 1910 the American environment and describes events around the great blowout fire, which destroyed an area the size of Connecticut in the course of two days. (It was bigger than the great Peshtigo fire, but killed fewer people because it burned over even less populated places.) The fire burned way inland in Montana and Idaho, but smoke was reported 500 miles out in the Pacific Ocean and as far east as New York.

What does 1910 America have to do with 2010 Brazil? Our experiences are remarkably parallel. Many people don’t understand how bad things were 100 years ago in the American environment. There were all sorts of land grabs, destructive mining techniques and illegal logging. All the things we hear about happening in the Amazon were happening in America. We probably reached the nadir sometime in the 1930s, but the years from around 1890 to 1940 were really terrible. Our country was burning, washing away or blowing away. Experts predicted we would run out of wood in a generation and it looked like the high plains would soon be just a desert. We learned a lot since then. And of course we are still learning. Our significant success in preventing fires and belief that nature was self regulating led to disastrous fires and then to different management techniques. By costly error, we learned. We can and we are sharing our experience. We can learn a lot from each other about sustainable development.

The picture up top shows the results of better land management in Northern Arizona. The Forest Service regularly burns the ponderosa pine forests. The ponderosa pine ecosystem is fire dependent. When we excluded fire, often limited grazing and made thinning difficult, we created lots of trouble. The forests grew too thick (what they call dog hair forests). This overstocking of trees allows bugs like pine beetles to destroy forests (when the trees are too close, the bugs can easily move from tree to tree) and excluding little fires leds to large, disastrous fires. We learned the lessons.

October 29, 2010

Transitions (Sic Transit Gloria Mundi)

Lincoln Memorial at sundown 

You don’t think of yourself getting older. But you do. At the cafeteria today, an acquaintance was talking to the checkout woman about coffee. He told her that he could remember when coffee was a quarter. Then he looked up, noticed me and said, “And that guy can remember when it was a nickel.” Actually, I can’t, although maybe it is just because I didn’t drink coffee.  But the young checkout clerk seemed to accept it w/o serious doubt. She looked at me and asked, “Really, you used to be able to buy coffee for a nickel?”  I suppose it is better to be talked about than not talked about. I just mumbled “yep” and let it go at that. This is my last day here, so I don’t need to maintain my credibility.

US Capitol waiting for the John Stewart show 

I am done and the day is not even over yet. I turned in my Blackberry, did the final checkouts, said my last goodbyes and reduced the size of my email box (according to IT, the most important thing). Nothing remains but to slip out the side door. Transferring within the Washington Metro area is not very hard. I look forward to the adventure of language at FSI and then to Brazil, but it is always sad to leave.

US Commerce Department in late afternoon from Smithsonian Mall 

Of course, I will miss the big things like the people I work with and the job. But I am past that now. Now I am thinking about some small, prosaic things that have contributed to quality of life.  For example, the shower/locker room downstairs is what really made bike communing possible.  It was very refreshing after a hot ride.  It also made lunchtime running a realistic option.   It is really important to integrate exercise into the day, because you will usually be too tired, busy or have some other excuse for avoiding workouts in the evenings and weekends.   A valid excuse is weather and darkness.  In the winter you can run during the middle of the day, when it is often sunny and reasonably warm even many days in January. By evening it is dark and cold.

Another pragmatic benefit was Gold’s Gym, although when we moved to our new building that became less useful.  But when we were in our old building, Gold’s Gym sat between my office and the Metro.  There was never any excuse not to work out.  In fact, I felt compelled to go in, even if I was “tired from a long day.” I have been lifting weights fairly regularly since I was fifteen, which is now forty years, but over the past six years (except for my Iraq time) I lifted MORE regularly because it was just more convenient.  FSI has a gym, although I haven’t looked closely at it.  It probably will not be as good. Gold’s Gym doesn’t have the really fancy equipment, but it is a place more attractive to people who really want to work out, as opposed to the dilettantes who just want to be seen looking good.

Well, one door closes and another opens. I am sure I will find plenty to like in my new incarnation.  I am eager to get to the kinds of work I do well and the intellectual challenge of the language and area studies is attractive.  

Time passes slowly but before you notice it has lurched forward and the future has become the past. The many days of doing routine things and seeing the same places seem to merge.

It is funny how things end. That is why it is more important to have goals re what  the type of person you aspire to become, rather than attaining particular jobs or positions. The day after you leave your job, no matter how exalted, is the day you are a former-whatever it was you were. You cannot take the nice office with you and the fancy title is meaningless once it is done. But you always take yourself along wherever you go, so it is a good idea to get to like what you are and to work not so much to win respect as to be worthy of your own respect and that of others, not matter what position you currently hold, or not  Sic transit gloria mundi.

The pictures show the Lincoln Memorial at dusk.  Next is the Capitol with the preparations for the John Stewart/Stephen Colbert show.  Last is the Commerce Department from the Mall. 

October 27, 2010

The Lasts

an informal football game on the fields in front of the Washington Monument.   

Fall is always the season of finishing. Another growing season is done. Days are getting shorter and cooler; the last flowers are blooming; the last leaves are falling. It is both a sad time and one of contentment of harvest and jobs completed. This fall has more of these characteristics for me than usual. I won’t be here next year. This is the last time I will be seeing some parts of Washington for maybe some years, maybe forever. 

Main State Department - Harry Truman Building 

Of course I will be back at the Main State, but my visits will be episodic and not the continuous presence I have now. I probably won’t be going over to Gold’s Gym, for example. I expect to be in Brazil for three years.  Who knows after that? I like to live in Washington, but the work here is not as interesting as what I can do overseas. There just aren’t many good jobs at my level. Many of the lower-ranking positions are more fun, if less ostensibly prestigious. I don’t like the political interface or the endless meetings. That doesn’t bode well for a triumphant return sometime in the medium term future. 

I am not a big coffee drinker, but the next picture shows them that do.  The little wagon is owned by a guy from someplace in the Middle East. It is good coffee, I guess. People wait for him to show up in the morning.  

I have never had much of a long-term career plan and I don’t have one now. I have always relied on serendipity and opportunistically taking advantage of what comes. You don’t have to be smart if you are lucky and I have been lucky. Brazil, Norway, Poland and even Iraq were places that I wanted to o and places where I was content to be. There is not much time left anyway and I suppose I should be thinking about career transition.

Horse cops patrolling the Mall on Clydesdales 

The story I recall, the one I tell myself and others is that I learned about the FS randomly. I remember waking up from a nap at the student union in at UW-Madison and finding a booklet about careers in the FS left on the table in front of me. I was only vaguely aware of the FS before that time. The booklet had a practice test that didn’t look too hard, so I decided to try for it. For me that has become a kind of creation myth. I really no longer know how much is certainly true and how much is embellishment borne of the retelling. But I think the story has colored how I view the job. I guess I still see it as more of a gift than something I worked hard to get. And it has usually been fun. A sort of career plan that I did have was to work in the FS for around seven years and then leverage my experience a well-paying executive job. It never happened because there has never been a significant amount of time when I wasn’t either having too much fun at my current assignment, too excited about the next one or both. 

Jefferson Memorial with fall color maples 

It was more like a hound-dog following the next scent than a step-by-step progress.

US CAPITOL 

Anyway, I think about these things as I walk around in the still warm fall days and evenings. I came into the FS in October and got to know Washington for the first time during this time of the year. That was twenty-six years ago, but the area around the Mall has not changed much. I remember walking around the first time. It was like in that movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” I was so excited to see the monuments: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and so many other things. It is no longer a new experience, but it is still exciting. What a privilege to be able to be among them all the time. That is something I will miss. So this fall has a special poignancy for me.

African Art Museum 

Let me tell you about the pictures. They are simple things taken around Washington. First is an informal football game on the fields in front of the Washington Monument.  Next is the Main State, the Harry Truman building. It is not one of Washington's most attractive. I am not a big coffee drinker, but the next picture shows them that do.  The little wagon is owned by a guy from someplace in the Middle East. It is good coffee, I guess. People wait for him to show up in the morning. Horse cops patrolling the Mall on Clydesdales in the next picture. Jefferson Memorial with fall color maples. Another of my Capitol pictures. The African Art museum is just above and below is the statue of Casimir Pulaski on Freedom Plaza.

Statue of Pulaski 

Below is the Washington Memorial and the last is just the moon.

The moon 

October 24, 2010

Getting to Know a Few Things More

Main Street in Roanoak, NC 

Mariza’s boyfriend wanted to attend mass, so we went down to Roanoke Rapids, which was the closest Catholic church with a Saturday service. The priest at St. John the Baptist was out, so they had a temporary priest who has done a lot of work with local forestry in Kenya. You can read more about it here.

Cotton warehouse sign in Roanoke Rapids, NC.  The town is near the fall line, where the piedmont meets the tidewater and the rapids were the original reason for the town.  It was as far up as barges could go and the water power was used in the textile industry. There are still lots of cotton fields around the area, but today the big industry in town is a paper mill called Kapstone. 

After church, we went to a nice Italian, simple Italian restaurant on the main street in Roanoke Rapids. It is a pleasant little down, but not really exciting. This is probably the place where my thinned trees will end up.Below you can see the trees on the Freeman place, planted in 1996 and ready to be thinned.

trees on the Freeman place, planted in 1996 and ready to be thinned.  

We were down in the southern part of the state so that Mariza and Chris could see the forests.  Mariza had never seen the Freeman place and had not seen the CP property recently. Things have changed a lot. It was good to be able to show them the trees and explain a little about forestry.  Some of these trees will belong to Mariza someday. It is good if she gets to know the land and can become a good steward of the nature on it.

Wildlife clearing on CP in front of six year old pines 

I got to ride down and back with Mariza, which was good. We had a chance to talk a little.  I don’t see Mariza that much anymore. We used to take walks and talk when she was a little girl, but since then not so much. It gets harder to keep in touch when they move away. She has become a wonderful young woman and I want to get to know her better. Above shows Mariza and Chris in one of our wildlife clearings in front of the CP pines, planted in 2004. The picture below is Mariza and me (I think she is just a little taller than I am). Right underneath is a picture from around the same place in 2006. I always like to show the contrast, which each year gets more pronounced. It was not that long ago, but already the difference is remarkable. Below that are Mariza and Chris walking among the mature pines at the edge of the property.

Loblolly pines planted in 2004 

Two year old loblolly pines in 2006 

There was a lot of activity on the farms. On both places, guys from the hunt clubs were exercising and training their hunting dogs. The guy on the Freeman property was going to run down some coyotes. I don’t think he was hunting the coyotes when we saw him, just training the dogs. You can hunt coyotes all year around on private land in Virginia. I have no problem with coyotes either way, but if somebody from the hunt club wants to chase them on my land, I don’t have a problem with that either. Coyotes are not native to Virginia and they are a nuisance to local farmers. 

Mature pines 

The guys on CP were training their dogs for rabbit hunting, which starts next week.

We are getting more and more bear in the area and I am not enthusiastic about that. I know bears are mostly harmless, but the “mostly” part worries me a little. I bring my lunch with me when I work on the land and I am often there alone.  I really don’t want to have to think about attracting bears or not. Southside Virginia was not "bear country for more than a century, but now they are back. We sometimes see bear signs and people have taken pictures with those motion activated cameras.

Of course, absolute proof of bears is that a local guy killed one with a bow and arrow.  I would be a little nervous going after a bear with a bow and arrow.  It just doesn’t seem like that is “loaded for bear,” but I guess that some of those new bows are really effective. I am glad that the hunters go after the bear.  I want them to retain their fear of humans. In different seasons, it is legal to hunt bear with bow, black powder and ordinary firearms.  Dogs can be used to hunt bear in some situations.  Brunswick County has a bear hound training season, where hunter can train their dogs to chase bear, but cannot kill them if they chase them down.

Hunting and trapping regulations are available at this link.Below is Genito Creek. I like to go down there, since it is quiet and ever changing. I explained to Mariza and Chris how the creek keeps on moving as it undercuts one bank and then the other.  It floods an area of at least fifty yards on both sides. This is the kind of place that someone would like to have a house or a cabin because it is pretty and pleasant. Of course, this is also the kind of place where nobody should build a house, since it will regularly flood.

Genito creek keeps on moving as it undercuts one bank and then the other.  It floods an area of at least fifty yards on both sides. This is the kind of place that someone would like to have a house or a cabin because it is pretty and pleasant. Of course, this is also the kind of place where nobody should build a house, since it will regularly flood. 

October 22, 2010

Weekly odds & ends for October 22

Why neither Republicans nor Democrats can win permanent majorities – both parties coalitions are unstable, writes Michael Barone, the smartest independent political analyst in the U.S.. It is a good history lesson.

Unhappy Americans - Gallup finds only 21% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time. If that does not improve in the next two weeks, it would be the lowest level of U.S. satisfaction Gallup has measured at the time of a midterm election in more than 30 years of tracking.

Wal-Mart goes even greener - People like or dislike Wal-Mart for lots of reasons, but nobody can doubt that when it sets its policy toward a goal, things happen. That is why it is very good that Wal-Mart is making a commitment to sustainable agriculture. I have no doubt that Wal-Mart will accomplish more than many hundreds of those earnest conferences held around the world for the chattering classes and big-name celebrities. I suppose the goal of “raising awareness” is to get firms like Wal-Mart to make the right decisions.

Environmentalism is becoming mainstream and a routine part of doing business. I understand that having the big capitalistic firms on their side makes the lefty-wing of environmentalists a bit uncomfortable, but for everybody else it is a great development. It makes sustainable progress more likely.

Most Americans think we are too politically correct - And 74% considered political correctness a problem. In an earlier, but related poll 63% believe that PC thinking contributed to overlooking warning signs that might have prevented the Fort Hood massacre. Most of us have avoiding saying things we believe true for fear of crossing the PC lines.

IMO – PC has led to a decline of humor, which often depends on making fun of odd behaviors and characteristics. The only group it is safe to ridicule anymore is bald white males, and there is only so much you can humorously say about them. Ironically, PC has made humor more nasty & coarse. What gets laughs is often crude and rude, but it doesn’t step on any PC protected toes. And crude leads to cruder as shock wears off and requires more.

Why European productivity lags the U.S. – No matter how you slice or distribute wealth, prosperity ultimately depends on productivity. Europe was catching up with the U.S. in terms of productivity until the middle of the 1990s, when they U.S. again pushed ahead. US productivity grew by 22 percent between 1995 and 2005; in Europe, productivity grew by 15 percent, of which only one-quarter came from these service industries. The fact that Europeans tend work less than Americans doesn’t explain the gap. This Mckinsey Report explains some of the causes.

Atlantic wind connection - I was happy to hear that a group led by Google was planning a $5 billion transmission backbone cable 15-20 miles out in Atlantic to connect future wind power generation to the Eastern U.S. grid. It would have a capacity of 6,000 megawatts. The biggest challenge to wind power is transmission. This would address that. There is some gnashing of teeth that it is not worth it, but the beauty of the free market it that investors get to make that call, risk their own funds and make profits if they are right. There is some Luddite opposition, of course. Interesting for me is that it is also viewed with tepid enthusiasm by environmental groups, who fear it might weaken political support for more wind.

I wonder sometimes if they believe more in politics than in the environment.

I have never seen a mature American chestnut tree and never will. The blight that was first discovered in 1904 destroyed the giant trees that had dominated Appalachian forests before I was born. They were not annihilated, however. Even a century later, they still sprout from roots and grow until the blight takes them down.

It was a true ecological & economic disaster when they were laid low by the blight, but people did not give up on them and generations of cross breeding may be about to bear fruit, literally, in the form of chestnuts that will grow into blight resistant trees. I will be getting my two seeds for next growing season from the American Chestnut Foundation. My land is a bit outside the native range of the chestnut, but still within the acceptable climatic zones. I have already identified a spot for them among the oaks, beech and tulip-poplars in the stream management zones. Maybe they will grow blight free, but even if they do, I will never see them at their former glory size. But my kids can show their kids.

October 19, 2010

A Crippling Season

 

I am always limping around in October. It is prime time for running injuries, which I feel especially acutely as I see the enchanting but ephemeral season pass by. They are mutually reinforcing.   I want to run because of the beautiful weather, so I run more. Eventually, I run too much and pull something and then I cannot run.  I understand the problem, but I cannot seem to address it.  Even after many years of lessons, hope triumphs over experience.  

It is an almost perfect storm. October is the end of my bike season, so I am in good general condition. But I run less during the bike time, so specific running muscles, i.e. those that propel the legs differently running than riding a bike, are relatively weak even though it feels good until something gives.  It would be better if I was in generally poorer condition. If all the muscles were similarly weak, the strong ones wouldn’t be pulling the weak ones out of joint.  Add that to the beautiful weather and the sense of urgency that it will not last long and I find the combination almost irresistible.

I am fatalistic. I figure that this has been going on for more than twenty-five years.   Even though I know it, it doesn’t seem to matter. I have to admit that I am probably unteachable.   So I am limping around today as a result of yesterday’s mistakes. I will take today off, but I figure that come Friday, I will be limping around again from overdoing it on Thursday. It is a kind of compulsion. I reach equilibrium eventually.

Maybe November is actually the best running month.

October 15, 2010

Eclectic Sources

This is my new feature, a weekly blog posting with links to things I found interesting this week. They are not representative and in no particular order. I am posting it as much for my own use as others, since I often find interesting things and then forget them.

some textCurrencies out of Whack

In China a McDonald’s Big Mac costs just 14.5 yuan on average in Beijing and Shenzhen, the equivalent of $2.18 at market exchange rates. In America the same burger averages $3.71. That makes China’s yuan one of the most undervalued currencies in "The Economist's" Big Mac index, which is based on the idea of purchasing-power parity.

On a more serious note, "The Economist" also has an article about how to avoid a currency war.

Environmental Politics in Brazil

What the Green Breakthrough in Brazil Means - The loser in Brazil’s recent presidential election scores a win for the environment— the Nature Conservancy director of conservation strategies in South America explains. I also bookmarked this guy’s nature blog & traced down a link on Brazil’s new forest code. I have not found good, non-polemic, articles about the forest code in English and may have to do some research on my own to figure it out. The Brazilian minister of the environment is coming next week. I suppose she knows.

Forest Certification

People usually are unaware the most of the timber harvested in the U.S. comes from privately owned land, often family or individually owned. The American South produces 58% of the country's timber. It is important to most owners, to be good stewards of their land, but sometimes it is hard to know if you are doing a good enough job. That is why many of us look for certification that kind of assures us that things are okay.

My tree farms are certified by the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) the oldest certification system, founded in 1941. ATFS is a good organization. It is easy to figure out what you have to do and it doesn’t let the perfect interfere with the good. In 2008, ATFS was accepted under the aegis of Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. As you can tell by the spelling, it is not an American-based organization. In forest harvesting, it is good to be part of an international system, one that sets high standards but does not over interfere with management. Most of the things you do in sustainable forestry are reasonable. The only thing that I have some concerns about is that PERC is prohibiting GMOs. It hasn’t really come up yet as a problem, but with all the nasty invasive bugs flying around the globe catching rides on our airplanes or on our container ships, I think GMOs will become necessary to forest health within the next ten years. I suppose the ban can be reconsidered as science and circumstances advance.

Horrible Dictators of the Past

“The Economist” had a good review of a new book called “Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.” It talks about how Hitler and Stalin complemented and enabled each other in their massive crimes & how most of the destruction was in Eastern Europe. A couple of historical facts were mentioned that I am familiar with because of my Polish experience but I realize are little known or appreciated in outside. One is that the only government that took direct action to help Jews during the Holocaust was Poland. Seven of the first eight operations conducted in Warsaw by the underground Polish Home Army were in support of the ghetto uprising. After the war the communist authorities executed Polish soldiers who had helped the Jews and tried as best they could to wipe out the memory. I remember talking to Polish heroes like Jan Nowak Jezioranski and Jan Karski, who risked their lives to call attention to the Holocaust during the war. Jan Karski had to take a train through Germany, so he had some of his teeth knocked out to give him an explanation for his poor German. Somebody should make a Schindler’s list sort of movie about them.

Karski, Nowak and most all the other heroes of those time are dead now. Soon they will all be gone. "old men forget yet all shall be forgot ..." We may not soon see their like again, and that may be a good thing. Great men are forged in hard times most of us hope we will never endure.

Index of Government Dependence

The 2010 Index of Dependence on Government - The number of Americans who pay taxes continues to shrink—and the United States is close to the point at which half of the population will not pay taxes for government benefits. This new report talks about that.

Rare Earth

China’s Choke-hold on Rare Earth Minerals - China holds the largest reserves of the minerals required to manufacture cell phones, smart bombs, wind turbines and other high-tech products. In recent months, industries reliant on rare earths have encountered increasing delays, quotas and price hikes amid heightened demand. In 1990, the US was the industry’s dominant force, but because of costs, ceded control to China.

Wasting Money

Tax Spend & Shovel - Back in early 2009, President-elect Barack Obama was asked on Meet the Press how quickly he could create jobs. Oh, very fast, he said. He'd already consulted with a gaggle of governors, and "all of them have projects that are shovel-ready."

Oh Wow Man

Drug Decriminalization Works - Next month, Californians will vote on Proposition 19, a measure to legalize marijuana. Because no state has ever taken such a step, voters are being subjected to a stream of fear-mongering assertions, unaccompanied by evidence, about what is likely to happen if drug prohibition is repealed.

October 14, 2010

The New Brazil

I attended a  launching of a book “The New Brazil” at the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute yesterday.  Riordan Roett, the author, is a professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University & director of the Western Hemisphere Studies and Latin American Studies Programs.  He claimed that he had been studying Brazil for more than fifty years and seemed to be telling the truth. The book’s main emphasis is on the last sixteen years during the Presidencies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The discussion at the meeting centered on what or who should get credit for Brazil’s remarkable success since the middle of the 1990s.  Like most success, it is the result of good decisions and good luck and it is hard to tell where one leaves off. 

The most obvious place to start is with government policy.  Many other things about Brazil remained the same, so the change in policy was probably a major factor.  The big change in direction came with the “Plano Real”.  Fernando Henrique Cardoso, as Finance Minister, led the team that created the plan and then as president brought it to maturity. I won’t go into details about the plan, since I have not yet studied the details, but in general is stabilized the currency and created economic stability. It took many of the economic decisions out of the hands of politicians and privatized many state enterprises.  And it opened the Brazilian economy to foreign investment and trade by lowing tariffs and making it generally easier to do business.

When I lived in Brazil twenty-five years ago, we talked a lot about the fact that the Brazilian people were very enterprising but that obsessive rules and government interference kept the country from achieving its potential.  Extensive parallel markets developed, which drained much of the energy out of the official enterprises.

The Plano Real seemed to work and Brazil has leapt forward.  Of course, there are also aspects of good fortune.  One of the biggest factors working in Brazil’s favor has been the rise of China.  Brazil remains primarily a producer of primary products, agricultural products, minerals etc.  The rise of China, and to a lesser extent other Asian economies, vastly increased the demand for products that Brazil could profitably produce.  

(My one good investment (which unfortunately I have to sell before going to Brazil to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest) was in the stock of a Brazilian company called Vale do Rio Doce, or just Vale (pronounced VaLay).  Vale is a mining company, mostly iron ore.  I bought the stock in 2003 and I only wish I had bought more.  The Economist just published an article about it.  It is one of those world class Brazilian firms that were quickly able to take advantage of opening markets.)

Another piece of good luck, for Brazil if not others, was the rising price of oil, which made profitable their investments in ethanol produced from sugarcane.  Now Brazil has also discovered vast reserves of oil and gas off the Atlantic coast in a formation called pre-salt. To help finance exploration and exploitation, the Brazilian oil firm, Petrobas recently floated a $67 billion stock share offer, the largest in history.  These developments will make Brazil energy independent and maybe even an oil exporter.  The Brazilians already produce most of their electricity from renewable hydropower.  They have developed ways to produce hydropower w/o the extensive ecological damage associated with previous large water projects.  Of course, no energy source is worry frees and there is still controversy, but manageable.

There is some bad news, of course.  Brazilian infrastructure is poor.  This already impacts prosperity and will do it more in the future.  The price of sugar, for example, spiked a couple weeks ago because of backlogs at the Brazilian port of Santos.   Brazil is the world’s second leading producer of soybeans (behind us).  Infrastructure is what keeps them from becoming #1. They can grow soybeans in the grasslands of the cerrado, but they often cannot ship them to market.  Many of the connecting roads and even some important highways are poorly maintained and sometimes not properly paved at all.   Brazil will need to invest heavily in improvements and it will have the incentive and money to do it, which will be a great opportunity for construction firms.

Human infrastructure is also a weakness.  Brazil has excellent public universities and produces great engineers, doctors and lawyers.  But the level down is very bad and there is a big gap.  Many people remain functionally illiterate and significant numbers are just illiterate, period.  The lack of basic education in the work force makes it difficult to devolve decision making and innovation to the workers on the shop floor, as is required by many modern processes.  

Again to interject a personal note, I remember when Mariza was born in Brazil.  The doctors were great, as good as anything we could expect in the U.S., but the quality quickly fell off and you had to be very careful with the nursing staff and especially with the aids.  I had some dental work done in Porto Alegre.   The dentist was great, but his assistant was less well trained. He was putting a cap on one of my teeth and had exposed the nerve. As he stepped away for a minute, he told his assistant to keep the area on the tooth clean.  She alternatively squirted water and compressed air onto the raw nerve until I begged her to stop and wait until he got back for the final cleaning squirt.


Brazil’s educational system is very uneven and counter intuitive to an American. The best universities are public.  They are tuition-free and open to all through a highly competitive test.  But the only way to properly prepare for that test is to go through private grade schools and HS, since the public schools at the lower level are generally bad.   In America, our top universities (Harvard, Yale, & Stanford) are often private and smart rich people want to go there.  Private universities in Brazil are not on top and poorer Brazilians are more common in them.  It is a little odd that those who could afford to pay get to take advantage of the public universities while the private ones are the ones that serve the others.

Professor Roett thinks that the educational system will soon improve, as people will demand it.  The Brazilian middle class has grown significantly during the boom times. For the time being, they are happy that they can afford new refrigerators and nicer apartments.  But there is a Maslow principle at work here.  As their material needs are better satisfied, they will start to want more intangible, such as better education for their children.  Beyond that, the more developed economy is demanding higher level skills.

Somebody asked the question about evangelicals.  Brazil has traditionally been a casually Catholic country, but you cannot help noticing the vast numbers of evangelical protestant churches, often in storefronts or other general buildings.  The evangelicals also exhibit a lot of energy and a strong work ethic. Brazil is actually exporting evangelical missionaries to Spanish speaking America and Africa.  Evangelicals could play a pivotal role in Brazil’s presidential election at the end of the month.  This is the first time they have been recognized as a political force.

Anyway, I am enjoying learning and relearning about Brazil.  My Portuguese starts in November and I will be able to devote even more time to learning about my once and future post. 

October 12, 2010

Around the Mall & Left Over Pictures

Washington Memorial 

I walked from State Department to Gold's Gym in SW.  Since we moved to Foggy Bottom, I don't get to the Mall as often. Too bad. It is pretty and relaxing. I usually find something to look at or something to admire, even if it is the same old monuments that never lose their appeal. I have a couple of pictures with not much text to go along, but I wanted to post them.I also have a few left over from our drive up country. Above is the Washington Memorial at around 6pm. The Washington Monument is the only one w/o any inscriptions carved into the stones. I guess Washington was so great that he requires no explanation.

Peace Camp 

Above is a "peace camp" on the Mall. The sign said that they were going to hang around until peace was established. I think that their camping permit will run out sooner.  I didn't go in. It seemed like a bunch of hippies. I didn't mind that, but they had some kind of ritual when you walked through their gate. I didn't need that. Below is Stonewall Jackson's grave in Lexington, VA. I wonder how famous Stonewall would be if he was just called Thomas Jackson? He was a good general, but the South had many such.


Below is a bit of over-protection at the cemetery where Stonewall and lot of other Confederates are buried. I guess I have been endangering myself for a long time walking under trees.



 

 

 

October 09, 2010

Which Do you Prefer?

 

Pictures can tell the story better than words and I will use both. Above is a picture of the recently destroyed wisteria vine in better times earlier this year. With the permission and encouragement of the HOA at the time, I planted that vine and tended it for the next five years, falling a little behind in trimming only during the time I was serving in Iraq.  I finally got it to grow completely over the trellis about a month ago. We looked forward to a profusion of flowers next spring. The landscapers evidently thought it was out of control. Look at the picture below. Tell me which you would prefer. The little straps you notice on the boards, BTW, mark places where we had tied and trained the vine, so you can see the progress. Let me add the flowers were free, while the blank wood cost hundreds of dollar to achieve.

 

Below is lily turf behind our house on Quinn Terrace. I don’t have a “before” picture, but before I planted it (again with the permission and encouragement of the HOA at the time) there was a gully about a foot deep on the far end of the picture. It was worse than the dirt you see to both sides of the picture, since my plants slowed the erosion in those places too.

The area in back of the houses is shaded by the houses and decks. There is not enough sunlight to support most plants, so only shade tolerant plants can grow there. But they CAN grow there.  The plants you see stopped and reversed the erosion problem where they were growing and made it a lot less serious problem both above and below by slowing the velocity of rain water. In addition, the plants allowed water to soak into the ground, helping in a small way to make our complex healthier for local streams and the Chesapeake Bay. 

Above you see what it looks like from ground level looking west; below is the same thing looking east. This small plantation has trapped enough silt and runoff to raise the soil level by around six inches. Our containment pool used to be yellow with muddy water after a rain. No more. Not since the plants filled in. The only time erosion was a problem recently came when our landscapers scalped the plants down to the nub. It took them a couple months to grow back, but they did.

 

You can see from the ground level picture that the plants have spread a little to the next lot. They are very adaptive. I volunteered to help plant such cover all along the back of the houses, which would completely solve the erosion problem. Beyond that, these sorts of plants require almost no care. Instead of the landscapers cutting every two weeks, they can trim them back in spring every two years. I understood that there was a plan to make some plantings, maybe also involving river rocks to further help the water flow, but nothing came of it.

Please refer to the pictures above and below for an example of how to solve a problem in an environmentally unfriendly and ugly way and still manage to waste money doing it. There has been a lot of uninformed talk about putting in some kind of drain to improve the landscaping behind the houses. One piece of advice is that you should not take recommendations from people who want to sell you something, and we have experience with exactly this sort of thing. An earlier HOA "solved" a drainage problem by installing drains. They are right across the street from my house. I don't know how many thousands of dollars this cost, but I think my free planting of lily turf is nicer. I have seen the landscapers mowing that area above, BTW. At least they keep it well trimmed.

Sometime the least expensive solutions work the best. We have paid thousands of dollars to do damage. Maybe an approach that takes into account actual conditions on the ground would work better.  Finally, I have to put in the maybe cheap shot of the landscaper's tree trimming. Good job, guys. I sawed off that branch before it broke off and hurt somebody.

So the choice is between green and growing plants that some people might think are "out of control" (judge for yourselves from the pictures) and neatly trimmed mud and empty pressure treated wood.  Which do you prefer? And let me add that the flowers and plants are cheaper or free, while the mud and bare wood costs thousands of dollars in maintenance.

October 05, 2010

Happy Brazil

I have just finished reading a Pew Research Report about Brazil and I am convinced even more that I am lucky to go there at a particularly auspicious time.  The issues I am most comfortable and competent in addressing, environment, energy and economics, are the ones that by far are the most important in Brazil and Brazilians are generally in a good mood. 

According to Pew Research, 62% of Brazilians have a favorable opinion of the U.S and only 7% don't like us.  Not only that, more than 60% think foreign companies are having a good influence in their country and 75% think that people are better off in a market economy.  This may seem to be no big deal, but I remember that when I was there last time it was our goal to encourage these kinds of attitudes, but we were not having much luck.  It is amazing what a few years of prosperity will do. People's attitude toward others often is closely related to what they think of themselves. The funny thing now is that Brazilians more often have favorable attitudes toward the market economy than Americans do.

On the foreign policy front, Hugo Chavez is the most unpopular foreign leader among Brazilians and 85% of Brazilians are against Iran getting nuclear weapons.   Of those, 65% are willing to consider stronger sanctions and a surprising 54% might favor military action.

So the country I will be going to next year is very different from the country I left in 1988. I look forward to getting to know the country again – or maybe really for the first time.   I remember last time I was there it seemed the most individuals were happy, but the country wasn't.  Maybe now everybody will join in.

October 03, 2010

Crossing the American Nation

 

I wanted to take a trip across the U.S. – again – to remind myself about the America outside what I see in and around Washington.  It is easy to forget that there is a lot of America far away from Washington when you live around here.

 

Driving is different than flying to particular cities because you see the places you cross close up. It is impressive how long it takes to get from place to place. You quickly understand that it is a big country, with pretty good roads.  I tried to get off the Interstate when I could. The Interstate is faster, but you see less and you never get the feeling of the open road that you do when you are the only one on a county road. You also cannot usually stop on the Interstate, so if you do see something interesting all you can do is race past it at 70mph. 

 

I enjoyed driving most on the old U.S. Highways. They are usually smooth and fairly straight. They were designed for more traffic than they get now in most of the rural areas, as the Interstates have drained the traffic, so it is often a comfortable and almost traffic free experience. I like the diversion when I slow down through towns. The Interstate bypasses them or hurries you through them on ramps above, artificial valleys below or man-made canyons of noise control walls if you stay at ground level. You miss a lot of history.

 

I drove through sixteen states, including the State of Missouri. I mention Missouri specifically because Missouri was the only one of the continental states I had not visited before. Missouri is just about right in the center of the U.S., so it is strange that I missed it so many times. I really didn’t see it too much this time either. All I did was stop at a rest stop and put my feet on the ground for a few minutes.But I got a picture.

 

I noticed the changes in the physical landscape. Once you cross the thickly forested eastern mountains, you get into relatively flat formerly-forested landscapes until you get to about fifty miles out into Kansas.  Rainfall drops off below the amount (about 30 inches a year) needed to support natural forests at about the 98th meridian. This divides prairies from forests. Historically, the prairies extended farther east because the Native Americans used to set fires to maintain the grassland. Today, our own civilization has brought trees into the grasslands and grasslands into the trees, but you can still clearly discern the differences as you pass over. The mountains in the West have all sorts of variations of climate. That is the attraction of the West. You can drive 100 miles in the East w/o noticing big changes. In parts of New Mexico I crossed dozens of biomes in that same distance.

 

I am not sure if it was Texas or New Mexico that were most surprising. I had been to both before, but not really through them. New Mexico, as I mentioned in one of my posts, is truly a land of enchantment, with a great variety of environments in very close proximity because of the mountains. Texas was also very surprising. I wrote several posts about that. Texas is such a big state that I should not have been as surprised by the variety, but I was.

 

The geography and topography was very different, but I found that Americans were very similar everywhere I went. I am in a good position now. I am old enough that I both am not too shy to approach and talk to strangers and I seem harmless enough that they are willing to talk to me. Actually, I am repeated surprised at how friendly people are and how much they like to tell you about themselves and their home towns.  The pride is palpable and everybody thinks his/her place in unique. And they are all right. But what is not unique is the feeling of unique pride in being different. It is a kind of a paradox.

 

It makes me a little sad that the regional differences are weakening. As each part of the U.S. becomes more diverse the country is becoming less so. You find the same restaurants, stores and outlets wherever you go. And it is not only the well-known chains. You can find the same sorts of independent Chinese, Mexican, or Japanese restaurants in San Antonio or Dodge City as you do in Milwaukee or Nashville. Everyplace is diverse now. All these places were less diverse internally a generation ago, but they were more different from each other. The whole country has been blended. It is great that you can get all the same things almost anywhere, but maybe also not so great.  You can tell this by what you CANNOT bring back home that you can't already get back home.

 

What is becoming more important is what you might call the back story. We are becoming a lot more concerned with the origins and the “stories” of the things we eat, drink, wear and enjoy. We can get to know these stories when we travel. As our country blends, we all look for the special things and we are reviving or recreating traditions, especially on the high end. This is how we connect in a world that doesn't tie us to our roots. For example, the Bourbon makers we visited have been working harder to make “craft” products and people are willing to pay more. Farmers are developing or rediscovering heirloom fruits and vegetables. I saw longhorn cattle like those that were essentially eliminated a century ago. Somebody is reviving the herds. I think this is healthy. It is usually not mere antiquarianism.  People are respecting traditions but also working and applying their innovation and intelligence to make them better. New traditions are being evolved from the old ones all over our country, so while we are becoming more homogeneous we are also developing new diversity.

 

I have a few miscellaneous pictures from the tip that I have included. The top picture is art work in the grassy hills above a Missouri rest stop. They are flat steel cutouts of Indians hunting bison.  Next is a water town in Franklin, Wisconsin.  A ranch in Kansas is below followed by a replica of the Bonnie & Clyde "death car." In the middle of the page the Polish-American Center in Franklin and then the Bay View "Redcat" football team in early season practice. The rocks in the next picture is off I-10 near the place where the Apache leader Cochise hid out.  Next is a gas station in New Mexico with the railroad in the background. The next two show an old school house in Mead, Kansas and then an oil pump on the Permian basin in New Mexico. Below is a mural in Fort Worth, Texas honoring the Chisholm Trail

 

October 02, 2010

The Best Thing that ever Happened to Corn

Jim Beam distillery 

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail connects six Bourbon makers in Northern Kentucky. It is a very pretty drive and you get the added benefit of visiting distilleries and tasting their whiskey. We stopped only at Jim Beam and Wild Turkey. I think you might need a couple of days to do the whole thing, not least because you probably could not drive if you visited all the distillers in one day, even with the very small samples you get. Below is the center of the district, Bardstown, Kentucky the "Bourbon capital of the world."

Bardstown, KY 

Bourbon is a true American product. The Congress declared Bourbon to be America’s native spirit and there are specific requirements for making it. For example, it must be at least 51% corn. In early American times, distilling bulky corn and other grains into whiskey was the best and sometimes the only way farmers on the distant frontier could get their products profitably to markets across wilderness with no or bad roads. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S., but around 95% is made in the State of Kentucky, near where this sort of whiskey originated. Northern Kentucky has good water for making whiskey because of its limestone and limestone soils that filter water and make it “sweet.” 

Bourbon in barrels at Jim Beam 

All Bourbon must be aged in new white oak barrels. The barrels can be used only once, after which they are sold to Scotch whiskey producers and makers of other alcohol products. They are charred inside. The raw whiskey – called white dog, this is as far as they get when they make moonshine or white lightning - is clear and essentially flavorless. No artificial colors or flavors may be added to the finished whiskey. During the seasons of the aging process (the aging barns are not heated or air conditioned) the whiskey expands and contracts soaking up woody flavors and color from the wood and charcoal of the barrels. When you take a drink of Kentucky Bourbon, you taste the forests, creeks and at least four and maybe ten years' worth of Kentucky seasons. Below shows Kentucky along I -64.

I64 in Kentucky 

We bought a couple of bottles of whiskey at Jim Beam. I got a bottle of Jim Beam Black. It is older than the white label and has a noticeably smoother feel. If you want to drink Bourbon, this is the one I recommend.  I keep around a bottle of “Old Forester” because I like the name, but the Beam Black is better. We also got a bottle of a new product called “Red Stag”. It is not officially Bourbon because it has some cherry flavor added.  At the Wild Turkey distillery, we got a bottle of rye whiskey. This also was technically not Bourbon. It tastes a little more like Scotch. You can see below the distribution of grain in two Jim Beam products, Basil Hayden and Knob Hill. I don't like the Basil Hayden. It is a little too harsh. Knob Hill is good, but a little too pricey, IMO.

Whiskey grains 

We should all drink responsibly, of course, but I think we should all drink a little. Beers, wines and whiskeys are deeply embedded in so many of our traditions, both in the creation and in the consumption of the products.  There is just much more than the schluck going on. I suppose you could have specific health or religious concerns, but besides that, it is a silly person who refuses a drink when offered.

Booker Noe 

Above is Booker Noe, the grandson of the eponymous Jim Beam. Booker created the modern Jim Beam distillery.  His son, Fred is the 7th generation of the Beam family to run the business. If you look in back of Booker and below at the ginkgo tree in the front yard, you notice the black bark. This is caused by a fungus that grows on the surfaces around distilleries because of the evaporation from the whiskeys. The lost alcohol is called the "angel's share" and in humid climates it feeds the fungus. It makes it look like there has been a fire, but it is evidently harmless to the trees.

Gingko tree at Jim Beam 

Below is a truck moving the barrels. 

 

October 01, 2010

Nashville

 

The State Department has a good, but generally underused, program that lets us to volunteer to speak to people around the country when we travel. I often give them my schedule when I am traveling and sometimes they can arrange meetings in my free time.  I find I get more out of travel when I get to talk to interesting people and this is a good – official - opportunity for that. I learned a few things about Nashville at a meeting arranged by State public affairs.


 

I think of Nashville as the capital of country music and that is still true. The Grand Old Opry is here and musicians come to Nashville from all over the country.   But I learned that Nashville is much more, with a diverse economic base. The biggest industries are education, health care & tourism.  

 

The most famous local university is Vanderbilt, but there are many others.  The guy at the mayor’s office told me that around 60% of the students who come to the area to study stay after graduation, enriching Nashville with their “human capital”.   He pointed out that young people today often choose where they want to live and AFTER that look for the schools and the jobs that will get them there.   Young people today, especially those with the most marketable skills – the kind of people cities are trying to attract – are more mobile than we were.  On the other hand, they are a little less likely to move once established.  This may be because they choose the place in the first place and like it and/or because relationships hold them in place.  

Nashville competes with – and “benchmarks” – cities like Austin and Charlotte, NC. They are around the same size and have similar compositions.  Austin also has a strong music scene.

Chrissy and I had lunch at a bar and grill called Piranha’s.  They had a truly odd sandwich made of roast beef with the French fries jammed in.  It tasted okay and was very filling, but I don’t think I would order it again.  You see in the picture above that they have some kind of contest going about eating a 10lb cheese steak.   Nobody has won, so far, and I am not surprised.   I think the whole thing might just be a bridge too far even for the biggest eaters.   I recall that the “Big Texan” in Amarillo has a 72 oz steak challenge.  If you can eat it, you get it free.  Some people succeed in that and a solid meat meal would be a bit harder – maybe – that something including bread, but I just cannot figure out how eating 10lbs of anything would be possible. Maybe I misunderstood the challenge.  Across the street from Piranha's was the Charlie Daniels Museum, actually just more of a shop, pictured above.

The other pictures are the cheese steak challenge, some interesting buildings and a music festival being set up in front of the courthouse. I understand they have live music most weekends. 


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