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December 30, 2010

Groundhog Day

 

“Groundhog Day” is one of my favorite movies.  I was watching it this morning, dubbed into Portuguese with Portuguese subtitles, so I could assuage my guilt for not studying enough.

I like it for several reasons.  One is unrelated to the movie itself.  The movie was on cable at the Condo where we stayed when we took the kids to the theme parks in Orlando back in 1994. It seemed to be on over and over, so I recall it being on the whole time.  It was a good time.  The kids were excited about Disneyland etc.  The weather was perfect that October when we went and our sense of relief was accentuated because we were coming from Krakow, where the weather was turning bad and – more significantly – the air pollution in those days was horrendous.  So I remember being in a clean, green place with Chrissy and the kids having a good time.  Everything associated with that basks in the glory of that moment, including “Groundhog Day”.  But there must have been other things on too that I don’t recall.  “Groundhog Day” had other things going for it.

Fairfax Honda 

The setting is comforting.  The movie is set in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but it was filmed somewhere in Illinois, so it has a thoroughly Middle American feel. Of course, I have never actually seen a small-medium sized city that is as lively or has so many diverse things to do, but it is nice to imagine.

If you have not seen the movie, you should. A brief summary is that a weather man comes to Punxsutawney for the annual groundhog festival, but each day he wakes up to the same day. It repeats, over and over. They never say how long this happens, but it is a long time, maybe thousands of years’ worth of February 2. The main character, Phil Connors played by Bill Murray, goes through predicable stages. At first he is confused; after that he takes advantage of life with no consequences; then he gets depressed and kills himself many times in many ways, but each day he wakes up in the same place. Finally he decides to live in the moment. He improves himself by reading and learns to play the piano.  He also improves the lives of the people around him w/o any expectation of personal gain.  He does these things essentially because they are the right things to do at the time when he does them.  Finally, after living the perfect day, he progresses to the next day and that is the end.

Borders Books 

The movie raises lots of philosophical questions, but it does it in a stealthy almost unconscious way, which makes it such a unique film. I suppose you could watch the whole thing just for the fun of it w/o getting any deeper than the funny lines and situations.  But I think it would be hard not to think about it, if you were at all paying attention. Most of us have thought about how we might do things differently if we could do things over again, if we had a second chance. This takes us a little beyond that. What should be your ethics in a world where there are no permanent consequences to your actions? I think that the film leads to the conclusion that there ARE permanent consequences, even if external conditions don’t change, because the consequences are contained in the person, who chooses, or not, to do the right thing. The movie is a story of personal development, of redemption.

Sidewalk end 

Phil starts out a selfish a-hole, who after many renditions of the same day develops into a man balanced and at peace with himself. It is not the he just becomes unselfish and helpful to others. More profoundly, he becomes selfless in the true sense of the term. He merges himself with the people, things and the place around him.  He becomes his task no matter what it is, he becomes what he does and loses himself in it. He no longer works on being good, no longer thinks about doing the right thing, he just does it because it has become what he is.

I suppose I am reading way too much into a Bill Murray movie. But I have read many books of wisdom: the Zen of this, the Tao of that or meaning of everything. I am not saying that watching the movie is the one-big-thing.  There is no one-big-thing; however, if someone asked me about the great spiritual sources, I would include this movie. Like all works of philosophy, it should be watched, considered and discussed over time. The book – or in this case the movie - doesn’t change but your different experiences make it different each time. That is why it is impossible to understand any philosophy at the first sitting.  It takes a while to sink in, maybe years with differing conditions.

Lately I have been giving a more philosophical career advice. I tell the young people who ask me that they should strive to become the person they want to be, become the person who deserves success rather than strive for success itself. Success can be limited. Only a few people can be the bosses, champions or among the best at anything.  But everybody can aspire to become what they think is a good person. Reasonable success will almost assuredly follow anyway, but no matter what, you will have something of value when you are finished.  

The picture up top I took of the TV with "Groundhog Day" playing. The other pictures I took when I was wandering around getting the car serviced.  You can see Fairfax Honda and the Borders Book where I got the Hadrian book I wrote about yesterday. The last one shows the respect that pedestrians get around there. I was clearly in the middle of a car-preferred zone.  It is no place for old men, since you have to make a run for it when you want to cross the road.

December 29, 2010

Gossip about Dead Celebrities

Roman city of Jarash in Jordan

I took the car in for routine maintenance at Fairfax Honda. They always treat me well; however it takes time to get it done. But I didn’t really mind.  I wandered over to Barnes & Noble across the street, bought a book – “Hadrian” by Anthony Everett – and for the price of a cup of coffee, and I suppose the book, got to sit and read in the Seattle Best coffee shop associated with the bookstore.

Roman ruins in Jordan 

Anthony Everett specializes in biographies of famous Romans. I read his earlier books about Cicero and Augustus, so I figured this one would be good too. So far, so good. I haven’t really gotten that much about Hadrian yet. The author is talking about the Roman world, which is as interesting. He admits that it is hard to write a real biography of ancient people.  The sources are just not that good and they tend to be sensationalized.

Hadrians arch in Athens 

For example, the big biographer of the first “Twelve Caesars” is a guy called Suetonius. He wrote distant in time from his subjects, so he includes lots of gossip and legend. The stories you hear about Caligula and Nero probably come from him.  In some ways ancient biography is like trying to get information from tabloids.  I read parts of the “Secret History” by Procopius when I was in school.  He writes about the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, who had been a circus performer and maybe a prostitute before she met Justinian.  Some of the parts are sort of like classical “Penthouse Diaries,” which is probably why these histories survived for more than a thousand years. I recall the line from one of those teenage films, that history is just the story of dead celebrities. That is not wrong.

Hardian's Arch in Jordan 

Everett point out that some new, or at least overlooked sources of information about the life of Hadrian are those architectural monuments you see in the pictures. When Hadrian visited or caused them to be build, there was always an inscription marking the event. Modern scholars can follow in Hadrian's footsteps by following the monument trail. Of course, archeology has its limits and is subject to significant interpretation. It can also tell you little of the person's inner thoughts, which is what many people really want in a biography.

Hadrian has recently become much more interesting to some segments of modern society because he was gay, or at least bisexual. To many modern readers, establishing justice and sound administration in the world’s greatest empire takes a back seat to sexual preferences of a man now dead for 1800 years. I think this is the “history as dead celebrities” school. But anything that gets people exploring the classics is probably a good thing.  Hadrian is one of my favorite emperors for equally venal reasons.

My mother bought me a Roman coin when I was ten or twelve years old. Alex has it now.  It was a silver denarius from the time of Hadrian and featured his profile on the coin. Roman coins are less valuable than you might assume, BTW.  (I think my mother paid around $10, which even in those distant days was not a great deal of money.) The Empires coin stampers made a lot of them w/o distinctions that excite collectors, such as dates and consistent mint marks. I suppose they are also easy to fake, although you can tell some fakes because they are smooth, like our coins today.  Romans stamped their coins, i.e. the pounded them with hammers, so the real ones, and good copies, show the evidence of that. I was happy to have it, nevertheless.  It put me in touch, I thought, with the brightest part of the golden age of the Roman Empire. I also have a “relationship” with Hadrian because of all his statues.  He was a vain individual and, anyway, it was imperial policy to make a cult of the emperor. So you find his statues all over the place.  I saw dozens in the “Roman” places I visited, such as Italy, Greece, Jordan & Egypt. Hadrian traveled all the time and evidently left a statue of himself wherever he went.

Although he was from a Roman family from Spain with some Carthaginian/Phoenician/African ancestry (the empire was becoming cosmopolitan) Greece was the place Hadrian came to admire most and he made Athens into a kind of spiritual capital of the Empire.  You can still see the evidence of his largess in Athens today.  Lots of what you think is classical around Greece is really from Roman times, or at least rebuilt by the Romans.

Everett talks a little about the ambivalent attitude Romans had toward Greeks, whose cleverness and sophistication they both admired and despised. This was no short term thing, BTW.  It persisted for many centuries and ultimately was one of the dividing lines between the Eastern & Western Empires.

“Greece” in those days did not include only the little country we think of today. Most Greeks and certainly most people who aspired to Greek culture, lived in places like Sicily, North Africa, Asia Minor (now Turkey) and Syria.  Alexandria, in Egypt, was a completely Greek city. Cleopatra was a Greek in ancestry, language & culture, descended from Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals.  Greeks of at least people who had become Greek in culture and outlook, ran the place from around 300 BC until around AD 700 when Muslim armies conquered them. Even after that, Greeks persisted until recently as merchants and craftsmen in Egypt and the Levant. Greek was the language of the whole Eastern Mediterranean, which is why the original language of the New Testament is Greek.   

The world would not see anything like this kind of cosmopolitan culture again until the 20th Century, when English came to play the “world language” that Greek played. 

Hadrian recognized the power of “Hellenism” and used it to strengthen the Empire.  He was not the first or the only person to try to melt the Latin & the Greek cultures, but he was among the most effective.  It is probably one of the reasons we call it Greco-Roman sometimes today.

I am a little ahead of myself. I have not finished the book yet. In fact, I have to put it off for a while.   During this week I am doing “self-study” for my Brazilian-Portuguese. I have to keep up with Brazilian news and finish two books.  One is relatively easy. It is “the Accidental President of Brazil” a memoir by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who with his "Plano Real" was the individual most responsible for reforming Brazil into the very promising country we have today. It is a very easy and interesting book to read, and it is in English. I am learning a lot about modern Brazil from learning about Cardoso's life experiences. My other book, Brasil, País do Presente – O Poder Econômico do Gigante Verde” is much harder because it is in Portuguese.  It is not difficult Portuguese and since it Is mostly about economics many of the words are familiar variations of English terms. Beyond that,  the book is conveniently broken up into manageable sections, but it presents a challenge. I have to write up decent notes on both books by the end of this week, so Hadrian will have to wait.

The pictures up top show Roman ruins in Jordan at the edge of the empire. The picture with Chrissy is one of Hadrian's arches in that city, now called Jarash in Jordan, and the other one is Hadrian's arch in Athens.  You can see that he stuck with a kind of formula, but it worked for him. I was going to put in the pictures I took around Fairfax Honda, but I suppose I can post them separately. They don't seem to fit the story.

December 25, 2010

Generations: Boomers XYZ

 It is easy to over define something as fluid as a generation. Old guys think young folks just are not quite as hard-working or tough. Younger generations always think that they are unique in world history. Stereotypes are not w/o merit. My father’s Depression-WW II generation was tougher than mine since they grew up in harder times. As for today's young people, until the recent economic downturn, nobody born after 1980 really remembered hard times and despite all the gnashing of teeth the general level of affluence remains high. They are unique.

But the most unprecedented generational changes have to do with connectedness. We thought we were connected because we grew up with television. My father’s generation thought radio was the cat’s pajamas.   And a generation before that they had the amazing possibility of getting new transmitted by cable printed in morning newspapers.  When you get farther back than that, not really very long ago in the great scheme of history, speed of communication had not really changed too much for thousands of years.  News traveled as fast as a horse could walk or the wind would push a ship.

The speed of communication really has not changed much since they laid trans-Atlantic cables during the reign of Queen Victoria.  The fastest messages have essentially traveled at the speed of light for more than a century, but the reach, breadth and the interactivity has grown with each technological advance and the astonishing spread of Internet and cellular phones represents a quantum leap that changes the rules not only of communication but also of society.

I am a member of the “baby boom” generation, born between the end of World War II and the early 1960s. We were THE youth generation, even after we got older.  After us was what they called generation X, born from the middle of the 1960s until around 1980 and then generation Y, born beginning around thirty years ago, now entering the labor force.  Some people talk about a generation Z, which would be kids around ten years old.  The borders between generations are not very distinct and a generation means  than just being born during certain years.

Generations pass through events that shape their members.  Baby boomers, for example, experienced the post-war prosperity and then the upheavals of the 1960s.  We then went through the hard times of the 1970s, which made us more conscious of the need to get and keep jobs.  It was nothing as hard as our parents Depression experience, but it made an impression.  The generation X folks in many ways had a harder time.  They are a smaller generation (birthrates dropped after the baby boom)  that grew up in our shadows.  They felt the hard times as kids, but generally did okay in the 1980s and 1990s.  Their biggest challenge was baby boomers, who hogged a lot of the good jobs. This problem is not going away, but it may be made even worse by the arrival of generation Y.

It is hard to arrive just a little behind. Others entrench themselves in the better jobs and you can be second place for most of your career. The boomers were supposed to retire, and the older ones have started to move off, but the recent downturn has kept more of them in the labor market. So generation X waits its turn.  Unfortunately for them, generation Y has arrived and is ready to go.

Generation Y has advantages.  They grew up with technology and so they are very good at computers and social networks. Their knowledge is up-to-date, which trumps the experience of many generation X folks.   Beyond that, the boomers, who are getting ready leave – finally, like generation Y. They are qualified, as I mentioned above. They are energetic and they are literally the children of the boomers. Imagine a boomer (age maybe 55) thinking about a successor.   He can choose as “steady” & “solid” person of around forty-five, who has served the firm well, but maybe never rising to the higher levels (blocked by boomers).  Or maybe he can look to the techno-savvy, innovative & energetic thirty-year-old, who reminds him of his own smart kids.  Notice the adjectives.  Do you think I am choosing the wrong words?

This is causing significant tension in many workplaces. The Generation Y folks don’t much respect hierarchy.  They feel perfectly entitled to take their new and innovative ideas to the big boss (still often a boomer), bypassing the middle-manager, who is likely to be generation X.

Some generations get the breaks.  There was a similar dynamic with the World War II generation and the boomers. Like the boomers, the World War II generation dominated the scene, until they were replaced by boomers. We forget about the “silent generation,” those just too young to go to war, but too old to be boomers, the ones born from around 1930 to 1945. Take the symbolism of the Presidency. From 1960 to 1992 all the presidents were World War II era veterans (Although Carter was not active duty, he was at the Naval Academy during WWII).  The office then passed to baby boomer Bill Clinton, completely bypassing the silent generation. George W Bush was a boomer and so is Barack Obama.  His likely Republican challengers in 2012 are boomers, so we are virtually assured of boomers in office until 2016 and maybe 2020.  By that time, the younger boomers will still be in their late fifties, still prime time for the presidency, and generation Y will be knocking at the door by 2028.  We could skip a generation again.

Of course, everything for me now has a Brazilian angle. In fact, I was moved to think about this subject after watching a series about generational change in Brazil on TV Globo. They are in Portuguese, but if you want to watch, they are here, here, here & here.

The Brazilian generations do not correspond exactly to ours, but they are close. The difference is that the differences are sharper there between generation X & Y.  Generation X grew up during the time of the dictatorship.  They were concerned with establishing their positions in society and their status, maybe more than American generation Xers. Beyond that, Brazil was economically isolated in the 1970s and 1980s.  Protectionism and import substitution were the rules. That meant that lots of the products were substandard and relatively more expensive.  Computers, for example, were always behind the curve.  Making matters worse was the poor economy, high inflation and external debt. This tended to keep Brazilians down. The 1990s saw revolutionary changes, perhaps as stark and rapid as the more famous changes in Eastern Europe. Brazil opened and its economy improved remarkably. Technology poured in, essentially allowing Brazilian to skip a technology generation. Younger Brazilians, at least the educated ones we are thinking about in firms, suddenly had communications and travel options that were unheard of for most of their immediate elders.  

So in Brazil, the X-Y divide is even sharper and the Brazilian equivalent of baby boomers is acting similar to their American cohorts. In addition, the younger Brazilian generation is more open to risk taking and innovation.  They are starting firms and hopping jobs in ways the more cautious generation X folks find frightening.

I expect this to be a factor when I am managing staff in Brazil and interacting with firms there. I do not believe that demographics is destiny. There will be many variations, but I think it is something to keep mind.

December 24, 2010

Transcontinental Railroads for Soy

Brazil is the world’s second largest producer of soybeans. The country made great advances over the last quarter century, thanks in great part to the work of EMBRAPA and the development of Brazilian agriculture. I wrote a note about the expansion of the Brazilian agricultural frontier at this link. They have learned how to make the formerly non-productive soils fertile and developed new varieties of crops, such as soybeans adapted to the tropics that have revolutionized agriculture in the country and may soon help less developed countries in places like Africa.

The intractable problem remaining is infrastructure. Infrastructure is weak all along the chain from the farm field to the ports. Infrastructure that we take for granted just does not exist in many parts of Brazil. They have no network of paved trunk roads, for example. These webs of roads bring agricultural products to markets and greatly reduce prices and waste. We don’t even think about this most of the time, but I understand their worth sometimes when I drive down one of my dirt roads after even a light rain. It is not hard to imagine how bad it would be if traffic was more and heavier just me, not hard to imagine, but it would be hard to work with it.

Freight rail is an often out-of-sight but crucial part of infrastructure in any large country. The state of Brazilian railroads is even worse than the roads, outside small areas of the Southeast.  A truck can, with difficulty, drive across an undeveloped path; a train obviously cannot go where there are no tracks and there are no tracks laid across most of the Brazilian agricultural frontier.  

As part of my quest of getting to know Brazil, I was doing a little research on infrastructure in the interior of the country and found an interesting article about the “soy railroad” or what Brazilians call Ferrovia de Integração Centro-Oeste (Fico) – the trunk railroad for the Central-West. Look at the link to see where the railroad will go. It will be part of a massive transcontinental railroad that will cover 4,400 kilometers. Work is supposed to begin April of 2011, initially with R$ 4.1 billion from the Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (PAC) – program for the acceleration of growth. The rail project has been slowed by environmental concerns, as well as management challenges of such an ambitious project.  

The project is supposed to be completed in two phases. The first phase will go from Campinorte in the state of Goias, connect with the north-south railroad, and end up in Lucas do Rio Verde in the state of Mato Grosso.  I didn’t know where these places were either, but you can look them up with Yahoo Maps. The railroad would be a straighter line than the road and I think be better environmentally, since RR traffic is more easily controlled.  As I wrote above, the trains obviously cannot leave the tracks.

When the project is up and running, it will save R$ 1 billion in the annual cost of freight for producers in the region, according  to Glauber Silveira da Silva president of the Mato Grosso Association of Corn and Soy Producers.  He also talked about the need to complete BR-163, the highway that is supposed to connect Cuiabá in Mato Grosso with Santarém in the state of Pará. It was started in the 1960s, but  much of it is a dirt road with ruts big enough to swallow cars. The completion of this infrastructure would change the direction of the product flow from the central-west. Most of the freight currently goes south and east, toward to overloaded ports of Santos in São Paulo state or Paranaguá in Paraná. A good road/rail connection could take the products north to Itaqui, in Maranhão, or Vila do Conde, in Pará, closer to export markets.

These heroic infrastructure projects are very exciting for me. I have read a lot about building our own transcontinental railroads and I am generally fascinated by trains and roads. (One of big advantages that I noticed when I was there was the Iraq's great rail potential.) The challenge for the Brazilians is not only to build these things, but also to do so in a way that protects the environment. I believe that we can indeed have sustainable development and I look forward to seeing how/if that works in Brazil

December 22, 2010

New Forestry Plan

 Property map

There is an exciting (at least for me) development in my forestry business. I am working with Eric Goodman from the KapStone Mill in Roanoke Rapids, NC to make our Freeman property into a kind of experimental/demonstration tract. 

We are going to thin to different densities, with two residual basal area targets of 80 & 100. In addition to that, we will have a five acre control block where no thinning or treatment will be done and another five acre area (labeled “CC”) that will clear cut and replanted with a combination of loblolly and longleaf next year. 

Planting longleaf is particularly interesting. Longleaf pine (pinus palustris) was once common throughout the south. It is a beautiful big tree, that forms in grassy groves and park-like palisades. But it is hard to grow and fire dependent, so it has not been propagated as much loblolly.

A National Wildlife Federation study says that longleaf pine ecosystems may be particularly well adapted to expected climate changes. The longleaf is well adapted to extremes that might become more common in the Southeast. You can read the study at this link about longleaf and climate change.

After thinning, we will experiment with other management techniques, such as burning, herbicides, pruning and fertilization.  It seems like it will keep us busy.

The picture/map up top shows the plan.

December 21, 2010

Encounters with the Legal System

Flag flying at FSI on December 21, 2010

One of the punks that attacked Alex is up for trial.  He is summoned to give testimony.  He doesn’t remember anything, but he has to go anyway.  I don’t know how strong a case they have against this particular guy.  I am fairly sure he is guilty, but as I mentioned before he is one of six guys who attacked Alex.  The bad guys are taking legal refuge in the confusion about which of them actually did the kicking and stomping.

The attack on Alex has made me a lot more sensitive to random crimes and hate crimes.  He is very lucky that he was not hurt more seriously or permanently.  I read in the paper about a kid about his age who was in a fight that put him into a permanent coma.  Of course, Alex could have been killed and for nothing.  He was just in the wrong place and had the wrong appearance.  I like to think that the world is rational, but not always.  Life can change in a second and all the hopes and aspirations can be gone.

Alex really had a hard time last year.  He starts a new school, away from home for the first time.  That is stressful enough.  Then he gets set upon by six thugs.  He still finished his exams on time and never complained about his bad luck.  He didn’t even want to tell his professors why he missed a week of class and why he had some trouble concentrating after he came back.  I admire him for it, although I thought that he should have at least played for a little sympathy.  It must have impacted his grades.

My other contact with the legal system next month will be jury duty.  I have been a registered voter for nearly thirty-seven years, but I have never served on a jury.  Of course, I was overseas a lot of that time, but I don’t think I was ever even summoned before.   We are lucky to live in county with lots of voters in relation to criminals.  Some of my colleagues who live in DC, where the ratio tends to run less favorably, serve on juries with monotonous regularity.

I don’t know if I will actually get to/have to serve on the jury.  I just have to report and see if they need me for anything.   I want to serve on a jury, to have the experience, but I would prefer not at this particular time, when I am focusing all my energy and attention on learning Portuguese and about Brazil.  I suppose there is never a really perfect time to do jury duty, but last October would have been good.

December 19, 2010

Going Back up Before Finally Going Down

Old people are happier than young people, according to an article I read in the Economist.  Studies show that people have a declining happiness from youth until their mid-40s.  In your forties, many people go through the mid-life crisis, when you realize that you probably won’t achieve all those things you aspired when you were still a callow youth.  Age 46 is the nadir, but also the turning point; after you start to get happier again.

I suggest you look at the article linked above for details.  The authors discuss some of the objections that might be raised about the data-sets.  But they explain that the results hold even when you control for income, education, location etc.   Of course, these things make a difference. Richer people are generally happier than poorer people, for example, but the age differences hold when adjust for such things.

There are a few interesting permutations. Women tend to be happier than men, as a group, but women also suffer depression at significantly higher rates.  Some people are naturally happier than others in ways that you might expect. Some neurotic Woody Allen types can never be happy even in good times, while outgoing people are often happy even when conditions around them suck.  Another interesting apparent contradiction is that when asked about OTHER people, both young and old say that younger people are happier, but when you ask them about their OWN happiness, the older guys come out on top.

It is hard to remember with certainty, but I think I am happier now than I was twenty-five years ago. I don't remember being unhappy back then, BTW, but I have reasons to be happier now. Life is easier.  It is exciting to start out in life and a career, but it comes with lots of stress and uncertainty. I used to feel like I was falling behind.  At this stage of my life, I know what I have achieved and what I am likely to in the future and it is good enough. Maybe you just get used to being "average."  The article quotes the philosopher William James who said. “How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young—or slender.”

December 17, 2010

Diversions on the Way to Pick up Alex

 

I picked up Alex at James Madison today and brought him home for Christmas vacation. I am glad to have him home and I like to ride with him, so I don’t mind the drive up and back.  The road has become familiar and I have developed routines. For example, I always stop off at the Wilco Truck stop on the way home. I have around fifteen cents a gallon on gas, as compared to the prices in the Washington metro area. They have everything I need, a Hess gas station, a Subway Sandwich shop & Dunkin's Donuts. But I don’t save any money despite the cheaper gas because I waste a couple dollars in quarters in the gambling machine you see up top.  

You drop quarters in and sometimes they push more quarters into the tray and you “win.”  The quarters perch enticingly on the edge, as you can see. In fact, there is no way I can win at this game and I know it. Oh yeah, I can win a few rounds. Sometimes I get the joy of hearing a pile of quarters fall into the tray, but those just permit me to play a little longer. It is just a diversion. I can afford it. I suppose it is more transparent than bigger deal gambling in casinos. At least with these machines it is easy to understand that you aren’t really going to win.

Speaking of things you cannot win, I used to play “Space Invaders” when I was in college. Sad to say, I got very good at the game, which indicates how much money I wasted. It costs a quarter to play, and that was back when a quarter was a lot more money for me. I could “beat the game,” which meant that it went through nine cycles and started back at the easier level. You never got your quarters back, but you could put your initials on the high score board. For a few glorious months, there was status in winning at video games. That was when college students (i.e. semi-adults like I was) were the champions. But we were soon replaced by teenagers and then children who had even more spare time than college students and more capacity for the mindless repetition it takes to master games. There isn't much honor in beating a kid & even less in being beaten by one. In fact, finding an adult too good at any video game is not a good sign. I had a colleague who was master of Minesweeper & computer solitaire; not a good worker.

Of course, today games like Space Invaders are hopelessly primitive. My kids laugh. I explain that it used to be a bigger deal and that it is more challenging to play in a bar after you have had a couple of beers. My other favorite game was Missile Command. That game took more coordination than Space Invaders, so I played that one earlier in the evening.

On my way to pick up Alex today I got out a little ahead of the rush hour traffic, but I still was happy that I could use the HOV lanes on the way out.  One of the advantages of the hybrid is that I can use the HOV lanes.  Frankly, I don’t think it should be allowed.  We have HOV lanes to cut congestion. Conserving fuel is only a secondary goal.   My car does indeed save fuel, but I noticed a single guy in a Lexus SUV hybrid who also had the special right to use the HOV lanes.  I suppose a Lexus SUV hybrid gets better mileage than an ordinary SUV, but I bet it gets poorer mileage numbers than an ordinary Honda Civic.

December 16, 2010

First Snow of the Season

f you can read the sign in the picture, you can read that this area was built between 1937 & 1953. It was supposed to be a low density garden city community in the colonial style popular at the time.  It is a nice setup. They originally were rental properties, but many have now been converted to condominiums.  

We got our first snow today. It was only a couple inches, nothing like some other parts of the country have been suffering. Still, it is a big deal for Washington, a city that combines southern efficiency with northern charm.  Schools closed; the government had liberal leave policy, i.e. you could take unscheduled leave if you wanted.  Most of it will melt soon, even if it stays cooler than usual, as it has been.  You can tell we are in the south by the leaves on the magnolia tree near the sign, still green with the snow swirling around them.

 

The pictures show some of the buildings near FSI & Balston. If you can read the sign in the picture, you can read that this area was built between 1937 & 1953. It was supposed to be a low density garden city community in the colonial style popular at the time.  It is a nice setup. They originally were rental properties, but many have now been converted to condominiums.

 

It must have been fairly remote back in 1937, but now it is near densely developed cityscapes. The Balston Metro made the development more attractive. You can see above across the street and below the new construction just down the block.  I felt sorry for the poor guys working high up in the snow.

 

 

December 13, 2010

Blustery Day with Intellectual Challenges

US Captiol on Dec 13 with statue of US Grant in foreground 

I attended a lecture this evening on Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive movement. It was an interesting talk, but the whole thing made me feel a bit inadequate.  There were lots of smart people in the audience, such as Michael Barone and Ben Wattenberg.  They asked insightful questions, but it wasn't just that that made me feel lower.  I have never been able to keep my experts straight. These guys can compare subtle differences between works of various people and between philosophies. I have a more mix & match mind.  It works well in many things, but I am outclassed by the big brains when it comes to straight intellectual debate.

US Grant in front of Capitol.  Notice the half moon above him 

FSI gave me a kind of an aptitude test recently. I didn't pay much attention, but it did "reveal" that I don't set clear boundaries, meaning my learning style is find similarities instead of differences. They spend a lot of time developing these tests, but they never really tell you what you can do about it, since they always say that all the styles are equally okay. IMO, the holistic approach works for lots of things, but it doesn't work for the intellectual parsing I talked about above. I enjoyed the talk and I took notes.  I will use the information for something in the future, I suppose.  But I will be unable to keep it straight.

Statues of US Grant 

That Michael Barone is a genius. I have long read his books and watched him on TV. He seems to be able to remember the details of every political contest, down to the county level, since the founding of the Republic.  The interesting thing he brought up was the hypothetical about what would have happened if Roosevelt had not died in 1919.  He probably would have run for president in 1920 and almost assuredly would have won.  How different would history have been?  Would he have repeated the energetic presidency of his youth, or would the second act just have ruined his reputation and maybe hurt the country. Of course we will never know.

On the plus side, I had my informal first Portuguese test and I got - unofficially - 2+/3.  This means nothing to most of you reading this, but it is a decent score after six weeks of instruction for someone who has been away from a language for twenty-five years.   The assessments are on a five point scale.  Zero is when you cannot say a word in the language; five is educated native proficiency. Even many native speakers in a language cannot get a five, since it is an educated speech.  We have to get a minimum of 3 speaking and 3 reading, which is "minimum professional proficiency." 

Skating near Capitol Mall 

I would like to get to 4 both speaking and reading and I think I have a good chance, but it is hard, since the difficulty rises exponentially.  It is a lot easier to get from 1 to 2 than it is from 3 to 4 and - as I said - almost nobody gets to 5, even if you are born in the country.  Four is good.  Everybody knows what you are talking about and you don't make any serious mistakes, but you retain a (no doubt) charming accent, think Ricardo Montalban. Language is such and important part of my job that I think it is worth the effort. I had a 3+/3+ in Polish, which served me fairly well, but I can do better than that in Portuguese. I already have some background; besides it is an easier language & State is giving me the time and instruction I need to get the job done.   Back in 1985, I went to Brazil with 3/3.  During my time there, my language improved, but I didn't test when I came back, so I don't know what I had.  I don't think it was better than a 3+.  I was very fluent, but I lacked the polish that I hope to get this time around.

Portraits hanging along path 

The pictures are from my walk around the Mall today. It was cold with a very strong wind, but I walked from State Department to the Gold's Gym at Capitol after my Portuguese class and it was okay because the wind was from the west, i.e. at my back. I took the Metro up to the stop near AEI for the lecture this evening and so avoided the freezing wind most of the time. 

The top pictures are of the Grant Memorial near the Capitol.  In the second picture, notice the half moon above Grant's head.  Below is the skating rink on the Mall and some portraits along the path.  I recognize Washington and Napoleon, but I don't know the other two.

More photos are at this link

BTW - I am sorry that I am not writing more. Portuguese and Brazil is taking most of my intellectual energy, as I mentioned.  I watch the Brazilian news every day and read some books and magazines. After the homework is done, there is less time to write. language training is serious business, but rewarding.    

December 06, 2010

Loaded for Bear

Hunting is good. It puts people in close touch with nature and enobles both. But hunting evokes strong emotion. NPR ran an article about a girl in Mississippi who likes to hunt deer.  It got more than 500 responses, so far.  These things usually get one or two.  Of course, the anti-hunting voices were louder, especially on NPR, but a poll that went along with the piece showed that around 70% of the people liked the article.  

The State of New Jersey is allowing bear hunting this season. There are an estimated 3,400 bears in the state, up from only 500 in the 1990s.  State officials would like to reduce the number by around 500-700.  Hunting at the expected levels won’t be enough to reduce the population by these numbers, since past hunts have yields only around 300 bears. What they need is a yearly hunt to create a steady and experienced bear hunting population. Unfortunately, no bear hunts have been held in New Jersey since 2005.  Animal rights folks often dislike lethal wildlife management and they have sometimes been successful in getting judges to suspend hunts.

Around 6500 bear hunting licenses have been sold, of course few of these guys will actually successfully shoot a bear and most will not even encounter one, maybe because of the lack of experience mentioned above, hence the probable yield of around 300 bears.  Currently, New Jersey bear hunters can use only shotguns and black powder to bag the bears.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, bears have been spotted with increasing frequency around our farms. The bear population is growing down there too. I remain unenthusiastic about bears in my woods. They are generally harmless, but the qualifier “generally” worries me. I like to take my lunch with me. I don't want to worry about attracting the big hairy beasts by leaving my ham sandwich on the seat of the truck and I would prefer to be easily the winner in any potential wildlife struggle. Fortunately, I have reasonable confidence that the bears will be kept under control on the farms.  We have lots of well-armed hunters in Brunswick County, loaded for bear.

The greater problem nationwide is that the number of hunters is declining. Hunting is something rural people do more than urban ones, so when the rural population shrinks, so does the hunting population. Beyond that, more and more land is being closed to hunting. I am glad to have hunters on my land, but not every landowner is so enthusiastic.

Meanwhile the populations of many animal species are exploding. There are more deer in Virginia today than there were in 1776. They have learned to thrive in close proximity to humans.  The same goes for coyotes, raccoons, woodchucks, squirrels and many others. Turkeys have made a successful comeback and I am afraid that bears are next.  Animal populations will get out of hand.  This was hard for me to believe a few years ago.  I grew up when wild populations were generally much lower and sometime locally endangered. Those times have passed for most game animals.  Hunters are now the “endangered species” in many locations. 

The alternatives to volunteer hunting are much more expensive and troublesome. Imagine creating a government bureaucracy and hired bureaucrats as hunters. Hunting requires reasonable skill. Hunters spend a lot of time exposed to the weather. They get up early and suffer in silence.  Imagine hiring somebody to do that.  Think of the overtime you would have to pay?  Now imagine hiring someone to do it and him joining some kind of public employees’ union. I suppose the animals would be safer.

Endangered species no longer

Related to hunting is an announcement that grizzly bears and wolves may be taken off the endangered species list.  These species have made a comeback. Nature is resilient & species that are/were successful can leap back. The problem for many endangered species is that they were marginally successful in the natural environment.  The very cute panda bear is a good example. The species is headed toward an evolutionary dead end.  It cannot reproduce well; it eats only a limited type of food, for which its digestive system really is not well suited to process. Human intervention just pushed it sooner. Wolves and grizzly bears don't have this problem.

Populations of wolves and bears can be managed and should be managed by hunting, among other tools.  the endangered species law doesn't allow for much flexibility. It assumes, as it must, that larger populations are better. But with a healthy population, this is not always true. In fact, a smaller, more genetically diverse population, might be better than a large one with different characteristics. A commitment to preserving each individual is rarely a good idea when you are talking about species. All animals are not created equal. Nature is not concerned with rights.

We also need to decide  WHERE endangered species should be defined. EVERY species on earth is "locally" endangered somewhere because every species range ends somewhere. Take the example of the common and familiar sugar maple tree. It grows from Canada to Florida, but it is common in some places and thin in others. Eventually, it just peters out at the end of its range. If you made a map with all U.S. counties where sugar maples had ever grown, you could argue that the species was locally endangered and even extinct in some places where it had once been reported to have lived.  If you looked hard enough, you could identify local varieties that could be declared endangered or extinct. And you could call it science.

Wolves are a successful species, but we would not want them to re-inhabit every place they were found in 1607. This does not indicate a failure of wolf protection.

I used to study wolves way back in the 1970s when I still thought I would have a career in wildlife and forestry. Experts believed that wolves were doomed and that the best case scenario would be to slow the loss. At that time, wolves lived in Alaska, a shrinking area in the arrow head region of Minnesota & on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, but they had not been seen recently in other places in the U.S.  Today the population has returned to places like Northern Wisconsin and the Rockies.  We won this. The wolves have been saved. Now we have to manage the populations.

IMO, we have to change the paradigm that includes the word "save" or features those dreadful countdown metaphors that imply soon it will be all gone. This may have been appropriate in the 1960s or 1970s, but today the better words would be some like "manage" or "prioritize."  We are no longer defending the ever shrinking territory.  Now we have to figure out what to do with the options.  

December 05, 2010

New Music for a New Brazil

Paula Fernades 

Brazilian TV had an interesting program on the types of guitars in Brazil.  Even if you cannot read Portuguese, you can see the pictures of the various types of Brazilian guitars (viola) at this link. There are six major types.

The latest music sensation in Brazil is a variation of Musica Sertaneja, which I talked about in an earlier post.  It is not the type of music that immediately comes to mind when you think of Brazil.  It started off similar to country music; often with duos singing harmony, but it has recently developed into something more like a type of country-rock.   Although it is popular in cities, it is keeping some of its country roots.  At first, Sertaneja singers were mostly men, but now some of the most successful are women, such as Paula Fernandes, whose picture you see above (looks sort of like a younger Emmy Lou Harris.) She is proudly from the State of Minas Gerais.  You can see some of the state and hear her sing at this link. 

You can get a taste of the new Sertaneja at this Brazilian TV program.  I don’t think you really need to understand all the language. Just look at the people and listen to the music.

It is only a supposition, but I think that the growth of Musica Sertaneja is related to the growth of the lower middle classes in Brazil.  Sertaneja was/is a kind of bottom up phenomenon that comes from the aspiring interior of the country, from the new cities of aspiration such as Cuiabá or Porto Velho, rather than among the establishments of the older cities nearer the coast.  

I listen to the words in the songs.   Of course, most of them are the usual mix of lost love and longing, but they often have a meta-theme of going back to simpler life with traditional values.   This is often a theme of the upwardly mobile, people who have moved somewhere else to improve their life chances.  They know that they are better off now, but they also would like to hang on to some of what they left behind.  I think it is the same feelings expresses in the old Bobby Bare song “Detroit City.”  Bobby Bare is also known for his other hit “Dropkick me Jesus through the Goalposts of Life.”

Anyway, Samba and Carnival are not going away, but there is a lot more to Brazil than those things. The new Brazil has a new feeling in many ways and different sounds.

December 04, 2010

How to Manage Climate Change

Adapting to climate change is getting more sustained interest lately. The Economist magazine had a big story last week and NPR Marketplace had several stories this week. The impression you take away from this and other related stories is that we can expect pretty much nothing from all those international conferences, but the people are making decisions now that will help us all adapt.

Permian Basin“Marketplace” had a good article on Wednesday about the insurance industry and how they are adapting when they are allowed. Insurance rates are rising where risks are higher because of weather patterns. Insurance firms can work more efficiently. They don’t have to wade into the debate about whether climate change is man-made etc. They just look at the numbers and project costs.

Insurance and the ability to manage risk has been one of the most important, if unheralded, contributors to our well-being in the last couple of centuries. These guys figure the risks and then charge a differential which gives people incentives to be smarter. For example, if it costs you way more to get insurance to build a house on low ground, you move higher and avoid the risk. Insurance companies have been instrumental is improving fire safety, reducing accidents and making us all more healthy. But this only works when the costs can be passed to those who can affect decisions.

Short-sighted politicians sometimes circumvent this process. For example, many areas of Florida are smack in the path of hurricanes already. No private insurance firms will willingly sell insurance to homeowners in some places, at least at rates they want to pay. This should tell us something. If a firm whose business it is to insure doesn’t want to sell you insurance, maybe there is too much risk. Unfortunately, the State of Florida has stepped in to offer cut rate insurance insurance for people who should move elsewhere. This is just like setting a time bomb that makes some people happy in the short run, but will create much more expense and suffering in the future.

I don’t know how much the climate will change. Nobody does. But there is no avoiding it as a general proposition. We don’t have to know all the details in order to know some of the steps we need to take. If we believe sea levels will rise, we sure should not expand construction in places that are already subject to flooding at today’s levels. Trees take time to grow. We should plant varieties of trees that are adapted to a wide variety of possible climates and develop new varieties. Buildings last around fifty years. We should make sure we are adapted. These things are not rocket science, just common sense.

We can live in a variety of places WITH the proper adaptations. We are not powerless. We renew our infrastructure all the time. It just seems permanent to us. Most of the buildings we live or work in are less than 50 years old, and among the older ones virtually none have not undergone major renovations. If we start now, much of the adaption can be almost business as usual. Just incorporate smart changes.

Most of us have trouble envisioning anything really different. We intuitively project the future in sort of a straight line from the present. It has never worked like that. We have a kind of punctuated equilibrium, with long periods of stability and burps of change. We have chances to adapt when times are “stable.” Once the change hits hard, it is too late.

I know that some people want a “collective” decision and that is what we will get. But it will be a collective decision by billions of individuals, firms and organizations. Governments will need to kick in some big infrastructure investments, but all should be made with an eye to the future, not simply saving things of the past. Adaption might often be hard, but it will not be impossible.

The picture up top is the Permian Basin in New Mexico. It used to be the bottom of a warm sea. It is higher & drier now. The Permian Period, for which this place is named, ended with the greatest mass extinction in earth history. Things change. Life adapts. We need to too.

BTW - I had to skate over the top of this issue, so as not to write way too much. If you want more detail, do read the "Economist" article. The EPA has a general report with some links.

I also saw a couple of really good TV reports about adaptation to climate change. Unfortunately, they are in Portuguese. One of the specialists explained that the city of São Paulo has ALREADY warmed a couple degrees and storms are more severe. This is because large cities are ”heat islands”, i.e. buildings and paved surfaces concentrate heat. The city has been adapting to these changes, as we will more generally need to do.

December 02, 2010

Learning Brazil

Round window at FSI showing late fall colors in treesLanguage learning is really a total experience, at least for me. I have not been writing as much to the blog for that reason. This is the fourth time the FS has given me language training, although only the third language, since Portuguese is a repeat. Now I watch Brazilian news and read Brazilian papers and books every day. 

I have only four hours of actual instruction, but I think that I am doing at least ten hours of Portuguese-Brazil related stuff every day. 

This even goes for my walking around IPOD.  I loaded on Brazilian music. The kind I like is “musica sertanja.” It is a lot like country or maybe more like Western music. It kind of reminds you a little of Marty Robbins. I have learned that it is very popular in Brazil, especially in the interior of the country. 

My favorites are Jad & Jefferson.  I bought one of their albums from I-Tunes. They do a great harmony.  One of my favorite songs is Não Aprendi Dizer Adeus, a song that seems to be an old standard. I bought a version by a duo called Leandro e Leonardo and also one by a guy with a famous name Julio Caesar. One of the singers who sound the most “country” is a guy called Sergio Reis.   But if you watch the Youtube, you see that he still has the Brazilian arrangements with the pretty girls backing him up.     

Much of the music has to do with traveling the country roads and being on the sertão, which is much like our home on the range. A nice calming song is Deus e Eu no Sertão, by Victor & Leo. That means God & me on the open range and it is what you might expect, extolling the simple pleasures of being out on the range. The clip linked above shows what the range in Brazil looks like. I think that the pictures are mostly from the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.  One of the singers popular with young women is Zezé di Camargo.  Watch him sing the Brazilian national anthem at this link and you will understand why.  They even made a movie about him and his brother Luciano.   It is the story of a couple poor guys from the state of Goiás who make good.  

I also bought a bunch of Brazilian movies. I mentioned “Tropa de Elite” in my earlier post, but I pretty much buy whatever I can find on Amazon that is still in Portuguese. I don’t have any particular desire to watch dubbed movies, although I am happy for the subtitles. They are sort of gritty sometimes. I will do the English titles.  One called “Man of the Year” could have been made by Quentin Tarantino. It has the feel of “Reservoir Dogs.”  A theme seems to be journey movies too, which is okay with me since I get to see Brazilian countryside. In this general theme, I have “Central Station,” “God is Brazilian” & “The Middle of the World.” Two more that I really cannot characterize, but are a bit depressing are “House of Sand” and “Behind the Sun.”

I notice some of the same actors in the movies in widely varied roles. An older woman called Fernanda Montenegro seems to have first opportunity to be in any movie made in Brazil. She also has a big part in a currently popular soap opera called Passione. I tried to watch it for a while, but I really cannot follow it. TV Globo provides only scenes, so you have to keep on clicking on them to keep the action going. Anyway, it seems like a good soap opera, but it is still a soap opera.

This has been my most holistic language learning experience. It is more fun, because I have been able to jump over a lot of the boring drills and get more into the substance of both the language and the society of the country.


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