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January 31, 2011

A Couple Days in January

Pictures from some ordinary days.  The winter has been colder than usual for Virginia. We have managed to avoid most of the snow, but what we have is hanging around.

Gas prices on January 30 

Above - gas prices are going up again. Given the events in Egypt, maybe these prices will look low after a little while.  Below - not a good time for the Red Cross disaster truck.

Branch on top of Red Cross truck 

Below is a welder at a construction site near Balston. 

Welder at construction site near Balston, VA 

Below is the top of the building.

Construction site near Balston  

Food TOO

They seemed to be going in opposite directions. The report I watched on “Globo Rural” talked about transgenetic crops. Much of the soy produced in Brazil (in the U.S. too, BTY) is genetically modified. The reasons are clear. It is easier to grow. One farmer in the State of Parana explained why he went completely over to genetically modified soy. He could use a lot less fertilizer, almost no herbicides or pesticides and he did not have to run his machines in his fields nearly as much.   

Transgenetic foods are labeled with a “T” in a triangle, so that consumers can recognize them. Evidently some people don’t like them as much and so are willing to pay more for non-T-modified products. Non-T foods are also sold to the EU. People there, no doubt egged on by strong domestic interest groups, want non-T products and are rich enough to pay the higher prices. I am not really sure about that term non-modified, since all the field crops we grow are significantly modified by plant breeding. I chose to use that instead of “natural” since they are also very far from whatever ancestor they had in nature. This leads me to the second article.

The second report on “Jornal Nacional” talked about organically grown food and labels proving that the food on the shelves is organic. 

To some people this means natural, but all that it really means is that the farmer did not use synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.AND for the time being “organic” does not include foods genetically modified by specific biotechnological means. This distinction is also important, since almost all the foods we eat are genetically modified.All the apples you eat, for example are from clones.Apples do not breed predictably.The only way to guarantee a red delicious apple is to clone it.Every one of the red delicious apples (or other varieties as well) are the identical tree, genetically). But people who care about labels consider plant breeding a different category.

Transgenetic foods are labeled with a “T” in a triangle, so that consumers can recognize them. Evidently some people don’t like them as much and so are willing to pay more for non-modified products. I am not really sure about that term non-modified, since all the field crops we grow are significantly modified by plant breeding.  I chose to use that instead of “natural” since they are also very far from whatever ancestor they had in nature.  This leads me to the second article.

The second report on “Jornal Nacional” talked about organically grown food and labels proving that the food on the shelves is organic. To some people this means natural, but all that it really means is that the farmer did not use synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.  AND for the time being “organic” does not include foods genetically modified by specific biotechnological means. This distinction is also important, since almost all the foods we eat are genetically modified.  All the apples you eat, for example are from clones.  Apples do not breed predictably. The only way to guarantee a red delicious apple is to clone it. Every one of the red delicious apples (or other varieties as well) are actually the identical tree, genetically). But people who care about labels consider plant breeding a different category.  

People favor organics for a variety of reason. Some people think the organic products are better for them.  Others say the organic products taste better. (This could be true, although probably more because organics often are grown by smaller, local operators who can cater to tastes.)  But a big part of the choice is that organics are perceived to be better for the environment. This last is not true. 

Organic farmers tend to be less productive (per unit of labor and land) than those who use a wider variety of techniques. I don’t want to make too big a distinction between organic and non-organic. Much of “non-organic” production, BTW, is very organic.  Dairy farmers, for example, produce and use tons of organic manure and most farmers follow rotations, planting nitrogen fixing legumes, for example, which add nutrients and organic materials to the soils. No farmer uses only synthetic methods. The difference is the organic farmer will not use any synthetic products in addition to organic ones. This makes them less productive, which is why organic products cost more.  But the environmental cost is harder to understand.  Less productivity means that more labor and land must be used to produce the same amounts of food, which means more land must be cultivated, leaving less land in a “wild” state. 

It seems to me that one of the best ways around this dilemma would be transgenetic crops.  As the farmer in Parana said, he chose to plant transgenetic soya because he could use less fertilizer, less herbicide, less pesticide and he needed to use his machines less in the field, i.e. burned less fossil fuel in the cultivation of his crops.   It seems like a win-win to me. 

Transgenetic crops can be very good for the environment since they require less of all the inputs that currently cause concern. Properly deployed, transgenetic crops could solve, or at least address the problem of lower yields for so-called organic crops. Something that produces more, on less land, with fewer inputs of fertilizer, herbicides & pesticides and lets farmers use less fossil fuel should be welcomed, don’t you think? Maybe we should come up with a new category that is environmentally friendly. It could include organic products and transgenetic ones that use fewer of those inputs above.

We can call it trans-genetically- organic. How about this? We call it a Transgenetic- Organic-Operation for food production. The label can be “Food TOO.”

January 30, 2011

Making it Right

Mudslides in Brazil have killed around 900 people in the last few months. These are not natural disasters. Although the proximate cause is heavy rain, it is the deforestation and the uncontrolled building on steep hillsides that turned weather events into deadly disasters.  Brazilians understand this and have been looking around to other countries that have done better.  The most current example is Australia, which suffered the worst floods in decades with significantly less loss of life.  But Brazilian TV has also gone to New Orleans to assess the successful American response to Hurricane Katrina.

One of the hopeful aspects of the recent Brazilian disasters was the response of Brazilian society.  There were more volunteers to NGOs than could be used and people were lined up to donate blood for the victims. This may seem unremarkable from the American point of view, but this is an evolution in Brazil.

Until recently, Brazilian civil society was relatively weak with a centralizing government taking the predominant lead in most situations. The fact that the government by itself was often not up to the job did not discourage the belief that it should do it all. Like most developing countries, Brazil was thick with laws and rules, but there was often little enthusiasm for following or enforcing many of them.  There was the tacit agreement that the network of rules could not work and finding a way around them (Jeitinho Brasileiro) became a fine art. This had the beneficial effect of keeping things working, but also contributed to lots of trouble.  The uncontrolled building and deforestation that caused the recent disasters, for example, was almost all illegal, but laws could not be enforced.  In some ways, the laws were “too good.”  Their provisions were not executable by actual people in real situations.

What impressed the Brazilian television reporters about New Orleans was not the government’s response, which remains inadequate in many ways. The success in New Orleans is Make it Right, a non-governmental organization spearheaded by actor Brad Pitt.  Make it Right is doing innovative things quicker than any government bureaucracy could manage. Rather than building cookie cutter projects or maybe not really building much of anything at all, as is often the government response, Make it Right is constructing homes that different and unique. They are adapted to the environment, so that when the next flood comes, these homes will survive.   

The lower 9th Ward of New Orleans is becoming a place where homeowners can experiment in new ways of building environmentally sustainable communities, not just individual homes, but whole communities with local vegetable production, rain gardens and open space. The unique thing about all this is that it is not top-down, nor really bottom up. Rather it is a partnership with ideas moving both ways. This is a development to watch.It might seem that I am critical of government because government has “failed” to do what Make it Right is doing. On the contrary, the beauty of the system is a government that allows, enhances and encourages  the efforts of private individuals and groups. The government cannot do these sorts of things and a wise government recognizes that it does not have to. The total society response is what counts; government is only one part of total, sometimes the most important part, often not.

Government contributes in a particularly American way based the choices of the people and on our tax code. For example, I decided to contribute money to Make it Right, and because of the nature of our tax system – i.e. the tax exempt status - government essentially matched part of my contribution. After granting tax-exempt status, no bureaucrat needs decide which charity is worthy. The individual Americans decide with their preference, knowledge and with their own money. This distributed decision-making is a total society response with a role for business, government and individual Americans. Balance is important.

Government doesn't have to and should not try to do it all. We fallible human beings don't know what a perfect society would look like, so we can't empower government to create one. We can create a government that contributes to conditions that help citizens prosper. A good society doesn't solve all problems; it enables citizens to do the right things & make their own choices. 

January 29, 2011

The Way Back

I thought “the Way Back” would be just an adventure movie. It was interesting from the adventure point of view, but I thought it was even more interesting from the point of view of politics & heroism.

The main character is a Polish officer captured by the Soviets after they and the Nazis divided the country between them in 1939. The Soviets massacred many Polish officers at place like Katyn forest, so that he escaped alive was an achievement. It was a terrible time in Poland and not very good in the world in general. It sometimes seemed that the world would be divided between totalitarian communist or totalitarian Nazis, with lots of petty tyrants mixed in but not much space left for freedom. In the movie, the communists throw the guy into a Gulag on the usual communist style charges. There are scenes of the brutality. The main character and some others escape and walk all the way across Asia from Siberia to India.

It has been more than twenty years since communist collapsed in Europe and Poland led the way to freedom. The horrors of communism have faded from popular memory. It is almost impossible to believe it really happened at all. Whole populations exterminated, people thrown into camps because of their associations, class origins or just for no real reason at all. The wars of the 20th Century were bloody with industrial strength, which makes it even more astonishing that more people died from the murderous internal oppression of revolutionary socialism, like communism and its cousin Nazism,  than in all the battle associated deaths.  

When the world started to wake up from that long nightmare, when the Berlin Wall fell and freedom returned to large parts of the world, our joy at the events allowed us to put aside some of the horrible memory. Few Americans have ever experienced anything even remotely like the horrors of the Soviet Union, but it is important sometimes to recall the carnage and suffering committed in the name of progress toward totalitarian utopias.

We like to think that the human race has grown past this kind of thing. People living in just societies in peaceful times can feel that way. History gets sanitized. But the study of history informs us that it good times represent just pushing back the wilderness, in limited times and geography. The demons still lurk out there and even within. World War I opened the door for lots of them and in many ways Lenin, Hitler, Stalin & Mao were made possible by the monumental disruption in the world order. With the passage of time, some of these events and personalities seem less pernicious; they become stereotypical characters, and their murderous henchmen, like Leon Trotsky or Che Guevara can even acquire a kind of radical chic.  

No matter the other merits of the movie, it helped me remember both the horror and the heroism of those who resisted tyranny and ultimately brought it down and also the dangers of revolutionary change. The mostly peaceful general collapse of communism in Eastern Europe may have made us too optimistic. In a place like Poland, it happened smoothly as power moved to a well-prepared and civilized opposition. Despite the past, there were no significant reprisals. As I write this, we are witnessing potential revolutions in the Middle East. I don’t know the details and I certainly cannot predict the future. But I am afraid that behind the revolutions there, there is no Geremek, Onyszkiewicz, Mazowiecki or Wałęsa. I am not sure what the historical analogy will be. When the Iranians knocked down the Shah, worse and more persistent tyranny followed. Just knocking down tyranny is not enough. Some will be there to pick up the pieces. Good does not always get there first with the most. The good people are not always the best organized and the violence, exhilaration and power associated with revolution can corrupt even the best people.

There is no solution to this or a formula that will work all the time. In the times of wrenching change, a lot depends on personalities and luck. Would our post-revolution been so successful w/o men like George Washington?  If the Germans had not “imported” Lenin back into Russia, might their revolution been more moderate and less horrible?  The farther we get from events, the more they seem to have been destined to unfold as they did, but nothing is determined.

Returning to the prosaic, “the Way Back” is a good movie, worth going to see. You can enjoy it as an adventure film and a tale of adversity & triumph and if it makes you think, so much the better.  Colin Ferrell does a great job of playing a murderously dangerous and dumb but somehow likable man.  Ed Harris always does a good job. And Jim Stugess, who plays the Polish officer in the main role, portrays an honorable and determined man in an almost impossibly challenging position. See the movie.

January 28, 2011

Shoes on the Other Feet

I remember going up to the Vale dos Sinos with George Lannon, the Consul in Porto Alegre.  Our mission was to talk to Brazilian shoe makers there.  There was a trade dispute back then. Brazilian shoe makers, many located in the Vale dos Sinos near Porto Alegre in Rio Grande do Sul, were producing inexpensive, good quality shoes that were beating the domestic producers in the American market. This was more than twenty-five years ago.

I recall hearing the competition talking about the various “unfair” advantages the Brazilian shoemakers enjoyed.  They were close to inexpensive sources of quality leather, because of all the cattle raised in the region; they had the advantages of cheap labor and a low exchange rate; some people complained that labor conditions were oppressive.  (At the factories, BTW, we found working conditions were good.  It reminded me of Germany in many ways, since many of the people there were of German descent and they seem to run their businesses on that model.)  On top of all that, they made good shoes  because the firms were well managed and the workers skilled.  They studied and brought back skills from the premier leather processors in northern Italy.  I really had to respect their initiative and follow through.

Times change. I understand that. Nevertheless, I was surprised to learn that many of those thriving factories were closed or suffering mightily, not only Rio Grande do Sul, but all over the Brazilian leather industry. They could not compete with the cheap imports from China.  Brazil tried to protect its leather industry, but the Chinese figured out ways around the barriers and their price advantage was just too overwhelming. 

Nobody has a permanent advantage and the apparently monumental Brazilian advantages evaporated in the last quarter century.  The Brazilian shoe makers complain that the Chinese have unfair advantages. They have access to cheap leather, a low exchange rate and labor that works under oppressive conditions. They might be right about some of these things, especially about the exchange rate, which the Chinese keep artificially low, but it doesn’t change the outcomes.

When American firms were faced with competition from cheaper products, one of the responses was to move to higher value added products.  Some of the Brazilian firms are doing that too. A report on Brazilian TV explains how Brazilian firms are making very high quality, customized products.  

Ironically, many of their most expensive shoes are aimed at the Chinese market. They evidently found a niche there among rich Chinese, who are willing to pay high prices and are impressed by the outward signs of quality as well as the snob appeal of having something expensive and custom made. 

People who study these things call them “positional goods” and refer to things that are valued less for their qualities than for their exclusivity. A rich person can only eat so much, drink so much or wear so many sets of clothes. In our modern world, even relatively poor people can partake in the luxuries once the exclusive domain of the rich. It makes it harder for the rich to express their status. The availability of tangible goods can expand. Everybody, or almost everybody, can have a refrigerator, good shoes or clothes of decent quality, but relative status is limited.  Status seeking rich guys look for things that are limited.   Returning to the example above, everybody can have good shoes these days, but the exclusive, handmade shoes are rare and so status enhancing for those who care about those things.   Thorstein Veblen wrote about this a century ago when he coined the term conspicuous consumption in his “Theory of the Leisure Class.”

For the time being, this redounds to the benefit of the Brazilian shoe makers.  The Chinese keep their currency artificially low against the Brazilian Real (against the dollar too, but that is another story), which makes Brazilian goods more expensive in China than they would otherwise be. But in the case of conspicuous consumption goods, price doesn’t matter.  In fact, the higher price, which keeps poorer people from owning the goods of desire, may actually heighten their attractiveness.  So the shoemakers get benefits from the high price they can charge enhanced by their overvalued currency, when they collect even more money from the Chinese fat-cats. 

Nevertheless, they should not rely on this situation lasting forever.

I have been following business stories for more than twenty-five years. I read about the decline and fall, and sometimes about the rebound and success.  Today's hero may turn into tomorrow's dog, as good times are followed by bad ones. But wait, you might make a comeback. Continued success depends on continuous adaption. The game is never over; there is no finish line. This is bad news when you are on top, but encouraging if you are not.  Veblen has an insight about this too. He talked about the advantage of borrowing and the penalty of taking the lead.  When you develop something that works, others can copy what works, leave behind the mistakes & then innovate some more. The Brazilian leather workers did this a quarter of a century ago, when they learned the best techniques from places like Italy & the U.S.  The Chinese did it after that. Everybody can do it, but we need to pay attention and be open to change.

January 27, 2011

Snow Days in 2011

Dunn Loring Metro Station on Jan 27, 2010 

We got our first heavy snow, with emphasis on heavy - as in wet and dense. It created no trouble for me with the Metro, but today I heard lots of stories of woe about people stuck in traffic for hours. Some were stranded in town and had to go to hotels. The snow landed on us almost exactly at rush hour, which I suppose explains the problem.

Dunn Loring Metro arrival 

The government had a two hour delay this morning, but things were mostly clear and during the day a lot of it melted off.Above is the Metro arriving. Below is Thomas Street in Arlington

 

Below shows the remnants of snow on the FSI fence.


January 26, 2011

Right Choices

We have been watching Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Theater. I usually don’t watch those soap-opera type programs about rich folks, but this one I like.  I think it handles the class system in an interesting way, a way that is not so common today.

Our usual handling of the social arrangements of any earlier time is to project our own values back onto them and criticize.  Most modern treatments pick villains and heroes.  The villains are the people in charge and they are villains because they are actively oppressing the plucky poor or the non-conformists, who are the heroes, of course.  It is an analysis along one dimension and allows both the viewers and the writers to lazily slouch into the familiar and well-worn rut.  

I am not old enough to recall events of 1912, but from what I read in history and literature of the period, I am fairly certain that it was not that simple. Downton Abbey gives us a more complete tapestry.  People live in the class system. Some like it more than others, but they live in a web of privileges and responsibilities. The servants feel pride in what they do and don’t want to lose their work.  People behave with grace and good manners.

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, is the boss of the estate, but he is as much a servant of the estate as its master.  This is what I like about the character. He takes very seriously the responsibility of maintaining the estate, sees himself as a steward of the place, not its owner.  He would understand the saying that he didn’t inherit the place from his ancestors as much as hold it in trust for future generations. The estate is “entailed” which means that it cannot be divided and must be passed along intact to a male heir. This creates a problem, since the Earl has only daughters. His heir is a cousin, Matthew Crawley. He is brought to the estate, but is unenthusiastic about inheriting and taking on the responsibilities.  By the third episode, which is that last one I saw, he is starting to appreciate his responsibilities. Meanwhile there are a lot of other things going on among the personalities.  Of course, there is the old dowager who defends class privilege. She is an old battleax but not completely unlikable.  There is a rivalry developing with the Cousin Matthew’s mother. The rich girls are sometimes nasty. There are a couple of malcontents among the staff, but they are not portrayed in a heroic light. The coolest guy is the Irish chauffeur, who claims he is a socialist but not a revolutionary, but so far he has a small part.  Anyway, I look forward to the next episodes.

Re another story of class and responsibility, last week I went to see “the King’s Speech.” It is easy to find reviews about it, so I don’t need to summarize it. I recommend you read about it and go to see it. It is about King George VI, who had a stutter. A king has to make speeches and so he went to an eccentric speech therapist to help him overcome his problem. He had to make the most important speech of his life to rally the British Empire during World War II. What I liked about this movie was how it emphasized work, duty and earned success.  

Earned success. Some people would scoff at that. He was king and inherited his position. This is true. But I think it has to do with playing the proper role, as I mentioned above re Robert Crawley. He played the hand that he was dealt. The key is how well - or poorly - he played it.

I am no believer in the class system and I firmly believe that individuals should earn what they get. People today have many more choices about the roles they will play in society, but I do recognize the need and honor to play well whatever roles you end up getting.

One of the people in my life who I most respected was our Bogdan, our driver in Krakow. He didn't have a lot of education & he did a job that many would consider low-level. But Bogdan had natural dignity & integrity. He took great pride in doing what he did. After we got to know each other, he used to give me advice about people and places. In his 25+years driving around southern Poland talking to my predecessors, meeting people and often sitting near meetings, he had learned a lot of things that were practically useful. I remember one university dean telling me that he had been visited by five U.S. consuls over the course of his career, but always that same driver. Most importantly, Bogdan told me the truth. He told me when my Polish was good, and when it wasn't, told me when I needed to improve my mood or my attitude.

So is it better to have more or fewer choices? Like everything else in life, it depends; it is not all of one thing or the other. Maybe in the past we had too few choices and too little emphasis individual options. But today, IMO, we talk way too much about rights and not enough about duty. You cannot sustain one w/o the other. I liked the old Stoic idea that contentment depends on identifying and doing the right thing. This may not be the fun thing or the most expedient one, but in the long run it will bring the greatest happiness. My favorite metaphor is forestry. I can make a lot of choices, but all of them are constrained by environmental conditions and subject to random chance. There is no single correct choice, but some choices are much better than others & some choices are just plain wrong. Success depends on making good choices and following through with them, but even the best choices do not guarantee perfect results. That's life.

Maybe happiness means finding the place you best belong, liking what you do there -being good at it -and knowing that all your choices are both free and constrained. 

The picture up top is Chrissy. It is not related to the story, but she looks good.

January 24, 2011

January Forestry Visit

 

Let me finish off my pictures from my forest visit. I went to both the tree farms. Let me caveat that this is the least attractive time of the year to visit, but also the most revealing because all the summer vegetation is gone and the stalks are as far down as they will ever be. I saw some ice-storm-wind damage at the CP tract. I didn’t take any pictures. I think that most of the trees will recover. Few are broken; a few are bent or leaning. The water is all running very clean. The boys and I laid some rip-rap last year and that succeeded in stopping erosion on the first little stream.

More about forestry is at this link

I like the stream management zones because they have big trees. They are mixed woods, with lots of big beech trees, as well as all sorts of oaks and tulip trees. There is lots of holly in the understory. Above is a picture of the SMZ where the road crosses taken with my new panoramic camera feature. Below is another beech showing the scares of a fire many years ago. Beech have thin bark, so it must not have been too hot a fir. The SMZs are moist, so maybe the fire couldn't take hold.This tree is at the edge of the SMZ, so what I have not figured out is why the fire scar is facing TOWARD the moister ground and water of the SMZ.

 

Below shows the roots of another beech reaching down the hill at the SMZ.  It doesn't have any significance. I just thought it was an interesting picture.  That tree is only a few yards from the fire scare tree, but it I couldn't find any evidence that one burned. Maybe it all healed over. Eventually, the evidence gets covered.Teh rough bark probably hides some of that. As a city boy, I notice something else strange about my beech trees.  They don't have initials carved into them. Beech bark is very soft and in any urban park they are covered with marks from generations of kids.

 

Below are rocks on the Freeman tract. We are not far from the Vulcan Quarry and I have a lot of boulders on this property. The rocks are attractive.  They demonstrate again the truth that value depends on location. I see boulders over at the garden center that cost hundreds of dollars.  My problem is that I cannot move these things with any reasonable amount of effort. 

 

The bottom picture is one of the loading decks used for the recent harvest. They did a good job of protecting the soil.  It is hard to see, but it is not packed down. This spring, the vegetation will grow profusely, creating great forest edge and bobwhite quail habitat. I will take another picture in June. It will be very different.


January 23, 2011

A Great Forestry Job

14 year old pine trees thinned to 100 basal area

I visited the farm to check on the thinning. You can see the plan at this link. Frank Meyer and Gasburg Timber did a great job. If this sounds like an endorsement, it is. You can see Gasburg loggers in action (on a different tract) at the links here and here. You can see for yourself from the pictures.  They left healthy trees w/o signs of damage from the machines or activities.  You won’t be able to see how they took care of the soils at the loading decks and used the slash to cushion the weight of the machines in the stands of trees. The picture above shows the "lightly thinned" trees, leaving a basal area of 100. Below is the stand from the front gate.

Pines thinned to 100 basal area.  

below is a heavier thinning, down to 80 basal area. A little more than half the total trees were removed. With the 100 BA it is a little less than half. I like the park-like appearance. It reminds me of the ponderosa pine out west. And for the first time I was able to walk through the woods in relative comfort. But this is humid loblolly Virginia, not dry SW ponderosa pine forests. The openness won't last. When the sun hits the ground, the brush will grow thick. By June, there will be chest high green and probably prickly. Good for the wildlife (the quail will love the overgrown corridors); hard on the guy (i.e. me) walking through. 

89 BA 14 year old pine 

Below is the 80 BA from the road. You can see my truck on the top of the hill, for comparison.  These trees were planted in 1996, so they have been there for 14 years and are 15 years old. 

89 BA pines  

The thinning will allow the trees to grow a lot faster. They were just about reaching the point where they would compete too much with each other for light, water and nutrients. Now there will be enough of everything. The decaying slash will provide nutrients for the next couple years. After that, when the canopy closes again, I will do a burn of the undergrowth and then apply biosolids. Everything in the appropriate time. Feed the trees when they need it and can use it best. There would not be much use doing those things now. I would be afraid to burn with all that slash and if we apply biosolids before the trees can shade out out the brush, biosolids will just make it grow that much faster. I have nothing against brush, but I am not in the brush business.

Below shows the stumps from the thinning. Below that shows one of the stumps with my foot for comparison. Notice from the rings that the tree grew consistently fast, but this was probably the last year it would do that before the competition set in. All the trees would grow slower and within a few more years, some of them die, doing no good for anybody and creating both fire hazards and an invitation to pests, like southern pine beetles. 

Stumps 

Stump for comparision 15 year old loblolly 

It is hard to tell, because they are well camouflaged, but below are wild turkeys. I couldn't get a great picture because they fly off when they see you. I don't have the patience or skill to do active good wildlife photography. I like to take pictures of trees. They don't spook or move. Turkeys have good color vision. I was wearing my red coat, so they could see me a long way away. There were at least ten of them.

Turkeys 

I went to the other forest too and have some pictures and comments from that one. I will write some more tomorrow.  

January 22, 2011

New Classics

Who would have thought it? A new edition of Polybius in Loeb Classics. The first edition came out in 1922.  According to the preface of the new edition, the translator, a WR Paton, died in 1921 before really finishing the work, but the editors figured it was good enough, so they went to print. It was good enough until 1964, when the editors decided to contract another guy to polish it up. Unfortunately, work did not proceed really quickly.  In the 1970s the demand for classics was not what it used to be and the project was put on hold. For reasons not explained, in 1993, the fortunes of Loeb improved and work resumed. It was finished in 2009, so now we have the pleasure of a revised edition of Polybius.

Loeb Classics feature the classical language original, in the case Greek, on the left page with the English translation on the other page. That matters not so much to me anymore. I cannot read any of the Greek.  I bought the book more for nostalgia than for actual reading. Polybius was the first Greek author that I studied in depth, when I had the seminar in Polybius at the University of Wisconsin.  

I couldn’t afford my own copy (Loeb Classics were expensive) so I used the library, where it was on permanent reserve at the Greek & Latin reading room. Yes, we had such a place. It was down in the basement at Memorial Library. You would never go down there or find the place by accident. There was the musty smell of old paper. I remember there was a giant Greek-English dictionary on a pedestal table in the middle of the room. We always called it a lexicon instead of dictionary. I am not sure if there is a difference. I spent many hours down there, I was often there alone and the place was quiet. Quiet as a tomb seemed to fit. The wall of the nearby bathroom had erudite graffiti.

A couple years ago I tried to go down there again to see if the Greek & Latin reading room was still there, but they wouldn’t let me in. The guard – yes they had a guard – told me that outsiders couldn’t just go into the library, since I had no current connection to the university. Evidently weirdos were hanging around and I couldn’t convince them that the desire to see the Greek & Roman reading room wasn’t something that a weirdo would do. I understand the need for security, but I liked the idea that libraries could be open.

Polybius was a good author for a not-so-talented classics scholar. His Greek is relatively easy to read, since he wrote in simple declarative sentences. Reading Polybius was a kind of a double payoff. He wrote in Greek but he wrote about the rise of Rome. As I said, I won’t be reading the Greek at all, nor do I intend to read even too much of the English.  Buying the book fulfills and old desire.

I read the introduction and the Polybius’ own comments on the importance of history. It reminded me of the old days (both my own and the much older ones Polybius wrote about.)  He says “…the surest and indeed the only method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune is the recall the calamities of others.”  It sounds a little like a schadenfreude advice, but I think that is an artifact of the phrasing and maybe the translation.   Maybe a better paraphrase could be “when we look back at the experience of other times and places, our problems don’t seem so tough.”

January 20, 2011

Ice Storms & Walking

Ice covered root 

I have not written much, since my language training is absorbing much of my intellectual energy and making my life predictable. All I do is walk from the Metro to FSI.  We had a little variety with an ice storm a couple days ago. It made walking harder, but produced a few good pictures.

 

It takes around 25 minutes to walk from the Metro to FSI, door to door. The walk there and back every day, plus other places I have to do give me time to listen to my I-pod and I have some good audio books, so it is not all Portuguese language. I am just finishing "the Pity of War" by about World War I.  My next one is "the Atlantic" by Simon Winchester. He is a great writer and I look forward to this new book. But language does occupy most of my thinking.

 

I think I am reaching a plateau. I understand most of what I hear and read, but i still make silly mistakes when I speak. It gets harder to make progress as you make progress. It is the old story of the more you know, the greater your recognition of the big area you don't know. The best I heard it described was that it was like a light bulb. The more powerful bulb creates more light, but also touches a bigger perimeter of darkness. I don't know what else to do, literally. I am doing all the things I think I should and acting on faith now that it will work. Of course, I will come up against the limits of my abilities. It is unpleasant to think that there are limits, but there are limits. I just hope mine is fairly high in this case.

There is so much language to learn and then so much to learn about Brazil. I can only really scratch the surface.  I go back and forth from the appreciating the exhilaration of the challenge  and talking joy in the new understanding to feeling crushed by the weight of what I can never do.  At this time in the training, the doubt predominates. I have been here before, so, fortunately, I know how it will work. This time it is better than during similar periods in other training, actually. I don't have any real worries about not passing the tests in good form. I recall when I was half way through Polish training I really wondered if I had somehow damaged by brain, since I didn't feel I was learning enough.  It was the cold winter of doubt. That passed; his will too.

There are so many more language learning resources today. Internet brings us all the sounds and sights of Brazil in real time. But the more you have ... it is that old light bulb thing again.

The top two pictures show the ice we had a couple days ago. The bottom picture is a crane. There is lots of construction.  The crane is braced, which makes it look like it is flying.  

January 15, 2011

Mud Slides & Popular Politics

 

It takes a brave man – and one with a secure job – to tell the truth in the face of great “natural” tragedy.  I saw that today on “Bom Dia Brasil”, where commentator Alexandre Garcia talked about the recent mudslides in Brazil that killed hundreds of people and left many thousands homeless.

The cause is easy to identify. People build dense settlements on steep hillsides, destroying trees and natural cover. This results not only in their own houses being destroyed by mudslides, but also can affect those down the hill who didn’t do anything wrong.

Garcia points out that Brazilian politicians love to make rules, but are less enthusiastic about enforcing them.  (This is not limited to Brazil, BTW. We have mudslides in our country true for some of the same reasons.) It is already illegal to build houses on most of the affected hillsides. But the poor, and sometimes the not-so-poor, invade the green zones and nobody has the political will, or maybe the actual force, needed to stop them. Local politicians, and sometimes even those at the Federal level, play the victim card and pander to voters. It seems unjust to not allow the poor people to have a place to live. There is also little support to solve the problem among the more established parts of the population, who are happy to have the poor living somewhere else.

And each time the predictable “natural” disaster happens, everybody can show solidarity and stick together to overcome the trouble.  Politicians can take credit for “solving” problems everybody should have avoided.

Garcia says that the Governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro, Sérgio Cabral, knows what everybody knows:  populism helped kill people. (Sérgio Cabral sabe o que todos sabemos:o populismo ajudou a matar.) But what can you do about it?In the mountains of the Serra Gaucha in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, there are very nice towns such as Gramado & Canela. They are built in the mountains and are surrounded by steep slopes. But they rarely experience these sorts of problems because the slopes are covered with trees and vegetation that protect the soils.  As Garcia pointed out, this is also part of Brazil. Above is based on what Garcia said. Don’t blame him for the rest, which is my extrapolation.

Finding space for people to live in growing cities is always a challenge, but you have to recognize real options and constraints.  It doesn’t matter if the people and the politicians want to build houses on steep hillsides.  They cannot do it and expect not to suffer dire & deadly consequences.  

In other words, expanding in steep and unstable places is not an option and cannot be made an option by anything government can do.  Some places need to be protected, not to achieve some abstract aesthetic perfection, but because the immutable laws of physics and ecology forbid some kinds of development. It will rain. Mud will slide. If your house is in a place where the dirt moves, you will slide with it. If you remove the vegetation, even more mud will slide and destroy houses and vegetation that would not otherwise be affected. In other words, if you build houses on an unstable slope, you are responsible for significant property damage and maybe for murder.

The government’s role here is more difficult. It has to go against the manifest “will of the people” and constantly suffer criticism. Those enforcing the rules will be characterized as heartless, mean and cruel. Inevitably, a few people will occupy part of the preserved area.  How hard will it be to evict these people, who seem to have no other option?  How much can “a few” little people hurt the big hill? And how can it be fair not to allow more if you allow some?  You see the problem.

Preserving land in steep places is a never-ending challenge and not always as simple as just leaving things alone (although that can be far from simple, as I mentioned above). I read about the forests and meadows in Switzerland.  That very pretty and effective environment has been carefully managed by the human inhabitants for centuries and many lessons were learned. Sometimes they cut too many trees, but sometimes they didn’t cut enough.  In 1876 they made a law to prevent deforestation. Today forest may be becoming too thick. A dynamic balance is what we need. I wrote a little about the dilemma at this link.

An ecosystem is a living thing in the state of constant change. What works today might not work tomorrow w/o modification. The Swiss established forests on slopes where nature would not have put them, since frequent avalanches knocked them down. Once established, however, the trees helped prevent further avalanches and became mostly self-sustaining. I say mostly, because there is sometimes a disturbance that kills the trees locally. If they were not quickly reestablished and a meadow formed on the steep slope, snow would slide quickly down that area, destroying forests below, expanding the treeless area until you had again the unfavorable “natural” conditions.

The Swiss learned how to manage their mountains through centuries of hard experience and no doubt sometimes paid terrible prices for their education. The people in Gramado have evidently also come to equilibrium with their mountains. Gramado looks a lot like Switzerland, since its Italian and German immigrants brought their building styles. Maybe they also brought some of their forest management skills.  

In any case, the sooner others can learn the better. Many disasters can be avoided. Then maybe we won’t need the heroism we saw in the wake of the recent tragedies.

PS - I have some experience in mud sliding on a smaller scale. I have seen that the ground is always moving near my creeks. It doesn't hurt anything and it is interesting to watch the changing conditions. It doesn't hurt because it is just moving dirt from one natural place to another. During a big rain last year, it looks like the water rose at least five feet above the usual water surface and deposited mud many meters away from the creek. The water soaked in and the mud deposits will help fertilize the woods. If you had houses there, however, they would have been severely damaged. Even worse, they would have prevented the natural process.  There are some places that are not suitable for some uses.

January 14, 2011

Useful Comparisons

I like to look at maps, but maps can be deceptive. They might lead us to believe that countries that cover a big area are more important. You can also be deceived by prominence in the news. An interactive map from the Economist puts in some perspective. Giant Russia has a GDP the size of Texas and oil rich Saudi Arabia is no richer than Massachusetts.

Your perspective changes when you look at the map that compares population. Saudi Arabia has a Texas sized population, even if it doesn’t manage Texas style prosperity. Cameroon has a population as big as New York’s. New York’s GDP partner is Australia.

Countries like Sweden and Finland would fit in well as states in both terms of population and GDP. Sweden has a GDP about the size of North Carolina with a similar sized population. Finland has a GDP about the size of Wisconsin’s and a population like Minnesota. Finland, Wisconsin & Minnesota all feature clean cities, cold weather, northern forests & lots of lakes, so maybe that is appropriate.

International comparisons are always rough and the United States is especially problematic because of its unusual size, population, prosperity & diversity. The only "country" that really can be compared to the U.S. on all counts is the EU. We are often fond of the cherry picking comparisons that seem to prove a point. In fact, as we can see from the map, that the unit of comparison might often be more at the state level. I remember an interesting comparison. The GDP per capita in Germany is about the same as in Arkansas.

January 11, 2011

The Doctor Lied-Kids Died

Kids used to die from diseases that are now preventable. Many of these diseases, such as measles & whopping cough were almost eradicated until a dishonest doctor published an article in the once reputable medical journal "The Lancet" blaming vaccines for autism. Crooked lawyers and opportunistic politicians jumped on the bandwagon. Measles is now endemic in England. California recently suffered a whooping cough outbreak that made 7,800 people sick & killed 10 babies.

This is a story with real heroes and villains. The obvious villain is "doctor" Andrew Wakefield and other researchers who used bogus data to reach dubious conclusions. Also villains are lawyers who quickly sued firms. Useful idiots are the parents who wanted to blame someone and maybe profit from their children's suffering. I am not sure where all the celebrities and politicians belong. They may not actually be villains, but they are worse than useful idiots.

The problem is that this kind of thing happens all the time. Remember when Merrill Streep, in one of her best passionate acting voices, testified before Congress about Alar? Celebries look so good and seem so earnest that you might almost think they knew what they were talking about. Many people laid off their healthy apples for weeks or months. By the time the truth comes out, or by the time it is actually proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that even crooked lawyers cannot spin, the damage is done. It is especially fun for them to go after big firms, something like what is going on with Toyota, BTW, right now.

And one of the biggest threats to human health and safety is the ignorant attacks on the sciences of biotechnology and nanotechnology, but those are all subjects for other posts.

I had all my kids vaccinated against everything they might get. I made sure they got their meningitis shots before going away to school. I get my flu shot every year. I grew up just after polio was conquered. I remember people not much older than I was telling about the horrors. I got my immunization to chicken pox, measles and the mumps the old fashioned way, by getting the disease. I survived, but it is not a harmless thing.

You have to be pretty dumb to avoid vaccinations unless you have a specific medical reason - a real one, not one you got from the Internet. But those who avoid vaccinations are worse just dummies. They harm others. Not everybody can get vaccinated. People with compromised immune systems cannot, for example, but they are extremely susceptible to sickness. The chicken pox that just bothers you and me might kill them. They depend on all of us to NOT to be the carriers of the germs. If you bring measles or mumps etc among them, you might be killing some of these people.

Just be smart and take the jab. If you won't do it for yourself, do it for others. And if you won't do it for others, go live someplace by yourself. You may both avoid the contagious diseases and avoid passing them to others.

References are here & here and especially here.

January 09, 2011

The Light Bulb Goes Off

The great Ronald Reagan said that you could accomplish almost anything as long as you don't care who gets credit. Of course Reagan was not the first person to say that. It is almost impossible to trace an idea to its "source" because there really is no one source. Ideas don't pass unchanged through the people who hold them and none of us ever has a truly original thought, which is why we might not fight so hard to take or give credit.
 
light
 
I proudly proclaim that I have never in my life had a truly original thought. I am well educated. The chief benefit of education is that you tap into the accumulated wisdom of other people, places and other generations. I spend a lot of time reading with the specific goal of appropriating the ideas of others. I cannot keep them straight. I often cannot remember where I picked them up and I mix them together in ways that complicate provenance. It doesn't bother me, although I suppose that some people of deceive themselves about their own originality might be upset that I "stole" their ideas. Footnotes have always been a challenge for me. 

The image of the lone genius coming up with a great breakthrough was always mostly mythical. Innovative ideas are created when they bounce off and recombine with each other. (Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist characterizes it as ideas having sex and producing synergistic offspring. His book, BTW, is among those I have assimilated in the Borg-like fashion I mentioned above.) They do not do well when they are contained in a single mind, the more people involved in an idea, the better.

I have little patience with the careful parsing of credit. That is a reason I had to flee academia, where the first ¾ of any research consists of summarizing and discussing the lineage of all the ideas you will be considering in the second-last paragraph of your thesis. It is just an awful long run for a very short slide and beyond that it does not reflect how people think or ideas are born outside the ivory tower.

Let me break my credit rule again by referring to another book I recently read called Where Good Ideas Come From. If you follow the link, you will find a good illustrated summary of the main ideas of the book, which saves me the need to write it all down here. The summary does not include, however, the point that in an academic sense I would give him credit for. That is that many people have similar ideas when faced with similar challenges and similar opportunities. Of course, this is not a new idea. I wrote a post with some of the same thoughts before I read the book and I think before the book was published. It kind of proves the point about ideas flowing around.

You can also look at the TED Lecture. If you are unfamiliar with TED lectures, you might want to take a look; they are usually interesting. On an unrelated note, one of my favorites was on the intelligence of crows.

Johnson gives some good examples. The most famous is probably Darwin and Wallace, who came up with the theory of evolution completely independently about the same time. The idea was gestating around in general at the time. Thinking up the theory was made possible by scientific advances that made analysis of species possible, by floods of communications that spread that knowledge and, not inconsequentially, by the society that had developed in the West that would not stone or burn anybody who published such ideas as infidels or heretics. In short, a person living in the 15th Century anywhere in the world or even living in the 19th Century anyplace else probably could not have thought of the details of the theory of evolution at all or, if he had managed the thought, would have died in a nasty way shortly after revealing it to anybody else.

When I studied anthropology and ancient history, we used to refer to diffusion. This was the concept that ideas and technologies were created in some place, in ancient history usually the Mesopotamia or Anatolia, and then they were carried - diffused - to other parts of the world. This led to a linear type of history, where your attention is first drawn to Sumer in southern Mesopotamia and then you move the "center" of civilization to northern Mesopotamia, expand it to include the Eastern Mediterranean, then to Greece, then Rome. After that you move to the Empire of the Franks, then to England and finally you end up in America.

Of course, I am conflating diffusion with an ethnocentric historical perspective, but diffusion is essentially an ethnocentric historical perspective and it is based on that bogus concept that ideas are invented and then spread, rather than the more correct one that ideas spread and then they are invented. (This diffusion thing gets even worse, BTW. Some people believe that space aliens came around and "seeded" ideas)

It is not exclusive. It is likely that people in different places, faced with similar challenges and opportunities came up with similar adaptations. It is also likely that when they came in contact with other ideas the mixed, matched and innovated. So did the use of particular tools, pottery or agricultural techniques spread through diffusion from originating centers or did they develop in many places at once? The answer is yes.

So the academic exercise of trying to find the "origins" can be fun, but it is isn't much use.

Next year we will essentially outlaw the traditional incandescent light bulb, and with it the long-time symbol of innovation and new ideas. We all learned that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but there are always wise guys who point out that he didn't. They are right. The Greeks invented light bulbs almost 3000 years ago. The problem is that they didn't work. Who had the basic idea first doesn't really count for much. It matters who can make it work and make it useful. The greatest innovators are not those who have the best new ideas, but rather those who can figure out how to make ideas work for themselves and others and those who can reformulate ideas into new mixes.

All ideas are old in their basic form. I am convinced that the Greeks, Chinese or Native Americans (if you want to be PC) pretty much thought of everything on a basic level. If you want to say that the concept of a chariot of the gods is essentially the same as the space shuttle, you are being silly and impractical but you have a nerdly rhetorical point. Just don't take that kind of thing to seriously and don't get annoyed when you don't get credit for having useful ideas.

January 06, 2011

Cooper's Hawk

Chicken hawk 

I think this is a Cooper's hawk, also called a chicken hawk. Hawks are more and more common and I even see eagles sometimes near the Potomac, but I never get pictures because they are on the fly. This one was chasing something by flying and then running on the ground, so I got the picture. Whatever it was after got away. The photo is not perfectly focused because I still had to shoot fast and the light was not great.

According to what I read, these birds eat other birds. I have noticed there are a lot fewer pigeons and I think the resurgent hawk population is one of the reasons. That alone would make the hawks a good thing in my book. A pigeon must be an easy meal for a hawk. This one was right next to Glebe Road just a little north of Henderson, in a fairly built up area. I read that hawks have adapted well to cities. Some of types actually prefer urban living because there are lots of slow witted pigeons and fat squirrels and tall buildings provide many of the attributes of cliffs.

I saw a really majestic bird up close a few months ago on Independence Ave. It swooped right past me, actually frightening a woman on sidewalk in front of me. It was a kind of white color. I think it was an osprey. It was bigger and more impressive than the one above, but it was long gone before I could even get my camera out.

January 05, 2011

Boldy Go Where No Man Has Gone Before

A green field investment is when you build a plant where none have been before. The term “green field” is exactly descriptive of the actual geography and contrasts with the “brown field” which is when you rebuilt or build on an old industrial site.   

Which is better depends on what you plan to do. Existing buildings and infrastructure can be worth a lot, but they can also be worth nothing and sometimes they even have negative value because existing structures must be demolished and the new owners have to take responsibility for perhaps years of pollution to ground water, soil etc. This can be a major liability and is a big reason why it is so hard to redevelop old industrial areas. Nobody wants to take on the liability. The green field has none of the baggage, but of course you have to build all the necessary infrastructure to support the investment. Circumstances dictate whether or not this is an advantage.

New transportation patterns, markets and changing technologies can make old locations obsolete and create opportunities for new ones. The raw geographical distance doesn’t matter. What matters is the practical distance, which depends on the quality of infrastructure and technologies of transport. A few dozen miles away on an unreliable dirt road can be farther away – practically – than a few thousand miles by sea transport.   A load of wood sitting at the Brazilian port of Santos might well be closer in the practical sense to a construction site in New York than the same wood stacked in a hollow in the hills of West Virginia. Geographical distance doesn’t change, but practical distance changes all the time, creating and destroying business opportunities.

Fortunes are made when somebody recognizes a new practical distance. For example, I have been reading about the Maggi brothers, growers of soy in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. It is worth pointing out that soy production in Mato Grosso became possible only within the last decades because of advances in agricultural techniques and plant science. They could not have done what they did fifty years ago. Nobody could, since the technologies were unavailable. But their business was almost killed by logistics. The Maggi family came from Southeastern Brazil and everybody continues to look in that direction to sell their products internationally through the Ports of Santos and Paranaguá. But the overland transport was too expensive. So they looked in the other direction and moved their product north west to the river port of Porto Vehlo in the state of Rondônia, where the products are put in barges, a very inexpensive way to transport bulky commodities, and shipped down the Madeira River, which eventually flows into the Amazon from which the products can be put onto ocean transport. Most of the soy ends up in China, a market that was unavailable twenty five years ago. 

So what we have here is a product that had not yet been developed twenty-five years ago, grown in a place that would not have supported it, sent over a transportation system that didn’t exist or was “undiscovered” and finally sold to a market that only recently came into existence. And you wonder why the world is a surprising place. 

Markets and productive capacity are created by human ingenuity. They are not "out there" waiting. 

What got me thinking about green fields was another story about Brazil; this time about a little city called Tres Lagoas, in Mato Grosso do Sul, the state next to Mato Grosso. I was surprised to learn today that Tres Lagoas is the world’s biggest producer of cellulous.  Who knew? I didn’t believe it, so I researched it and sure enough it is true. It only happened within the last couple of years because of a partnership between a big Brazilian firm called Fibria and International Paper. The reason they chose Tres Lagoas is because it was the classic greenfield investment, with a great capacity in the neighboring area to grow eucalyptus trees. Paper/pulp/fiber mills have trouble if the forests that supply the fiber are more than 60-80 miles away. This is not a problem in Tres Lagoas.   

Look at the slide show of the fiber plant at this link

Of course, once you get the wood to the mill, you still have to move the product to markets.  No problem again. Tres Lagoas is located in a region that is flat as a board. It presents no building challenges.  But the infrastructure is already there. The city sits astride rail, highway and canal infrastructure and is even on the right of way of a pipeline that brings Bolivian natural gas to Brazil. This has attracted other industries.   Petrobras is locating there to build a fertilizer operation. Natural gas is a feedstock and the growing areas (remember the Maggi brothers et al) are nearby. There are also steel mills expanding, among other things.

So how about that? People not very old can remember when there was nothing much in these places. Who knows how many other places in the world are languishing, waiting for a change in technology of a paved road. It is amazing how fast wealth can be created and how the practical landscape can change in years or months. Sometimes all it takes is a paved road and some imagination and vision. We sometimes think the heroic age of innovation is over. We are wrong … again. As long as there are humans, they will create opportunities and – to steal the phrase – boldly go where no man has gone before.  

January 04, 2011

More Thoughts on Telework

I used to manage a professional staff of around forty-five, most of whom telecommuted twice a week. Telecommuting is not appropriate for all jobs, but in the jobs where it is possible workers can be more productive away from the office. We have to get used to it, anyway, since President Obama signed into law the Telework Enhancement Act.

I wrote a lot about this on other occasions, in response to an an NPR story on Results Only Work Environments and when we was all kept at home by snow storms.

The bottom line for me is that telecommuting is a good thing that can improve morale and productivity. Take a look at the linked article and the links in it for the pluses But there are caveats & I believe that my experience managing telecommuting as well as telecommuting myself, sometimes between continents, give me some insights, which I can share.

One non-obvious thing that is necessary for telecommuting is a degree of arbitrariness.Some people can handle telecommuting; others cannot. The manager of telecommuters has an additional responsibility to use judgment to make reasonable distinctions among employees. This is very difficult to do. You will often be accused of being arbitrary or unfair.

Those that abuse telecommuting usually can come up with good excuses for why they couldn’t complete their work on time. A good manager cannot let them get away with it. It is unfair to the good workers. What I have seen too often, unfortunately, is an abdication of responsibility in the name of “fairness”. Managers either ignore the transgressions or they punish the innocent and guilty alike with onerous rules and restrictions.

Managers also have to get used to looking for results instead of “face time”. Most managers claim they are interested in results, but they reward presence. Beyond that, although few will admit it, many managers like to have people around that they can boss. We also have to admit that a properly designed telecommuting program may mean that we need fewer middle managers. The organization afforded by technologies can to some extent replace the organization provided by middle management.

Still thinking of this from the manager’s point of view, we have to learn not to ask too much from our good teleworkers. Flexibility is one of the advantages to telecommuting, but some managers think that flexibility means stretching work hours to … forever.

I learned this myself by my own mistakes. I work odd hours and my work and my leisure overlap, i.e. I actually enjoy many of the parts of my work, so I do them in my free time too. I used to check my email when I woke up in the morning and before going to bed at night. When I saw something that needed to be done, I would often make my comments and send it off to whoever was going to have to handle it the next day. What I quickly learned is that my best colleagues also checked their work early and late. They also sometimes took my comments as commands to get the work done right away.

People follow the lead of the boss. The boss often enjoys his work and doesn’t mind – even likes – long hours. More importantly, the boss is in control. He/she doesn’t feel the same stress that the subordinate does. When I sent along a comment, all I meant was that it would be a good idea to work on this tomorrow morning, or maybe just think about. When my colleagues got my midnight message, they thought it was an urgent command. It is a smaller version of the Henry II “command” about Thomas a-Becket.

I finally had to make a rule that nobody was supposed to touch their office work between 8pm and 7am. I know that people looked at the work. I did. But I didn’t send or respond to any emails.

This brings me to my last caveat. Telecommuting is part of the whole technology-social media world. It brings with it the same danger of magnifying the trivial, flattening priorities and destroying the whole idea of actual deliberation. The instant nature of communications creates the illusion of knowledge. It is tempting to act before you have all the information you need for smart decisions. We are tempted to see trends where none exist.

We used to have a saying that you should “sleep on” any hard decision. This gives you time to put things in perspective and it remains a good idea in many cases, but it is much harder to do and much harder to separate the important from the merely urgent when you are awash with information.

Teleworking is more than just letting people work at home or cutting the commuting time. It is not just something that can be tacked onto a workweek, like pinning a tail on the donkey. It requires a system wide adjustment. Some people will thrive in a telework environment; others not so much. It is a bigger change than most people think and a bigger opportunity.

January 02, 2011

The Worms Crawl In

This is something that just never occurred to me. 

I was watching a gardening show today about worms. Gardeners usually like worms. They help the soil remain fertile and aerated. That is what I always thought. But when I looked it up, I found out that worms are an invasive species. All those worms (night crawlers and the like) I remember as a kid were introduced from Europe.

Earthworms are destructive to forest soils, according to what I found at a University of Minnesota associated webpageWorms were wiped out by glaciers during the last ice age, which retreated only around 10,000 years ago. Without human help, worm populations move very slowly. Northern ecosystems developed in a worm-free environment. When worms arrive, they change the ecology. Evidently the worms eat the organic material too fast, taking away the layers of humus that all for the reproduction of forest floor plants and trees like sugar maples. Worms are small, but there can be lots of them and they don't stop.

I never knew this or noticed it. The maple forests around Milwaukee already had earthworms, so I thought that was natural.  It still seems pretty strange to me that earthworms could be a threat. I suppose that when you are talking about long-established ecological relations, almost anything new that comes in can be disruptive.

BTW - honeybees are also not native to North America and neither are a lot of the flowers we see in fields, along with most farm animals and most crops we eat. Actually, I suppose that I am an invasive species, so I am not sure I buy into the native is better idea as a general construct. I will have to find out more about it.

The picture up top is one I took way back in September 2003 near the Milwaukee Airport, it shows the northern hardwood secondary growth forest.  We made a trip across the U.S. in 2003.  I kept up a webpage, it was the predecessor of my blog.  The link is here

January 01, 2011

Bean Soup

My father subsisted on pea soup and bean soup, more or less, for the last twenty years of his life, those things plus some Polish sausage and almost ripe tomatoes. Making them is easy and cheap. The biggest challenge is remembering to soak the beans/peas overnight. You can use leftover ham as a base, or the parts of the ham that you didn’t want to eat because they were too fat or too hard to pick off the bone. You can see why this is such a wonderful peasant food.  It stays good for a long time. In fact, it improves with age.  Nothing is wasted.  You can also toss in whatever vegetables were laying around.  It all turns into a kind of thick gruel that tastes pretty good if you put in a little pepper and salt.

I don’t make these soups as much as I did when I was in college. Back in college pea soup and bean soup were among the foods that had the three attributes I craved: they were cheap, reasonably nutritious and I could make them. That is probably why my father ate them all the time too.  But my kids don’t like either, so they cannot form the basis of a family meal.  As I recall, I didn’t like them either when I was a kid. I learned to like them when I was in college. No doubt under my father’s influence, I made it from scratch, the less expensive and better way, rather than buying the pre-made stuff in cans.

You can get pea soup at some nice restaurants, but it is kind of a specialty not common most places.

We had ham for supper and we have ham bone left over, so today I made bean soup.  In a couple of days, I will make some pea soup with what still will be left of the ham.  This week, we will dine like the old man taught me.

Oh yeah, he used to make cabbage soup too. I haven't made that for a long time. No matter how much of this kind of food you try to eat, you really cannot get fat on it.  These kinds of food fill you up before they can fill you out - the original diet food.


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