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April 30, 2011

Different Skill Sets

Nobody likes to do everything or is equally competent in all areas. I understand that and I am reminded again now that I am working in the press office.  I needed a place to stay from now until I go to Brazil and they needed someone to fill in, so that is what I am doing.  It is the kind of exciting job that they might make into a TV show.  We have urgent challenges, big personalities and short deadlines. Yesterday, for example, we worked on the press surrounding the extradition of a Mexican drug lord, statements from high level meetings and various other hot items.  It is a truly essential job but I don’t like it.

Some of my colleagues love it and I can understand why. I get to be close to important people and events and, in time, I could probably convince myself that I am an important person too. But it is a “machine bureaucracy” where you are most successful to the extent that you can maintain the integrity of the hierarchy and the procedures. 

We often speak of bureaucracies in pejorative terms, but the reason all literate human societies have developed bureaucracies is that they work wonderfully within their areas of expertise. If you need to control events there is nothing better, providing that conditions are reasonably predictable within the accountability of the bureaucracy and you have the resources to make it work. I can affirm that we have a great bureaucracy.  Nothing gets lost. Information passes efficiently through the system; decisions are made and promulgated.  The machine works. The question really is not whether or not a bureaucracy works; it does. It is rather where and when the bureaucracy is the appropriate tool for the task.*

I am able to do the work and I am willing to do it because it needs to be done. I got all that language training that I loved, so it is fair to do some of the more bureaucratic tasks.  As I said, some people love that sort of work and many think I am crazy for loving the language training. I suppose people should do the things that they do well. I will be glad when I can get back to doing the things I am better at doing, the things I like to do. It won't be long.

Give a man a hammer and every problem starts looking like a nail. That phrase comes from Abraham Maslow and a lot of my understanding of bureaucracy comes from Henry Mintzberg.  I don’t pretend to be a scholar on this, so this is my extrapolation from their ideas.   One problem for bureaucracy is that it grows and applies rules to inappropriate situations.  But the bigger problem is that most humans don’t adapt well to highly-rule based system.  It is essentially not a human system.   If you want to see an ideal bureaucratic system, look at a computer program.  A computer automates many of the machine bureaucratic functions, which is good, since it frees people for the tasks that they are better at doing.

April 24, 2011

Brazilian Public Schools

Brazilian public schools are challenged. Denise Aguiar, director of the Bradesco Foundation, said that Brazil is essentially decades behind the United States, and who is happy with American schools?  Finding qualified worker is one of the biggest challenges facing the country that has one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

The Brazilian media is full of stories about weaknesses in education and Brazilians are aware of the situation.  Brazil is a big, diverse continental sized country, like the U.S.  It cannot just copy the lessons of homogeneous boutique countries such as Finland, Singapore or South Korea.   Like the U.S., Brazil has some excellent schools and many horrible ones.  And as in the U.S., non-public schools seem to be one of the roads to improvement.

The Washington Post ran an article today about how Brazilian private firms and foundations are sponsoring schools.   The article opens with a scene like one from the documentary "Waiting for Superman" with the parents of poor kids waiting in line to get into one of the private-charter style schools in an attempt to escape the ruined public system and get a better chance in life.

Education is important to a modern economy. Most people recognize this, but making it happen is a bigger problem.  It clearly is not something government can handle alone.  A response by the nation is required.

April 19, 2011

Finishing Portuguese

I finished my Portuguese today.   

I have no feelings of accomplishment. I just feel uneasy. This always happens when I finish a big long-term task. For the last six months, I thought of little else but Portuguese. I never had to wonder what I should do. There was always something in Portuguese to read, watch or memorize. I carried my little book of Portugese phrases to review whenever there was an extra minute. My thoughts were organized around Portuguese. People thought I was nuts, walking around & talking to myself, repeating phrases and strange words. I even did it while riding my bike. I  dreamed about Portuguese. Now the voices have all gone silent. It is lonely. The same thing happened when I finished Polish or Norwegian. This too will pass, after a period of withdrawal.  

Now I have to think of my own projects. Maybe I can finally read that biography of Hadrian that I bought a few months ago.

April 15, 2011

Challenge of Biofuels

Brazil is the world leader in biofuels. The country started switching its cars from gasoline to ethanol nearly forty years ago. Most of the cars sold in Brazil today are “flex fuel” and when they say flex, they mean it, none of this E-85 stuff. Many Brazilian cars can run ENTIRELY on ethanol. Beyond that, Brazilian ethanol production is the most efficient in the world. They use sugar cane as a feedstock, with is several times more efficient than corn. Brazil has been hailed as the first large country with a sustainable biofuel system more or less in place. So what’s the problem?

Cheap oil, or shall we say more expensive sugar, is the challenge. A gallon of ethanol is only worth about 80% of a gallon of gas in terms of energy delivered. Put another way, you will only go about 80% as far on a tank of ethanol as you would on a tank of gasoline, so if/when the price of ethanol creeps up beyond 80% that of gasoline, a person with a flex-fuel car flex fuels over to gasoline, providing he/she can do simple math. This is happening in Brazil now.

In most Brazilian cities, a liter of ethanol currently costs around 85% as much as a liter of gasoline. People can do the math, and the consumption of gasoline has risen by 23% since February. link.

Brazil has everything it needs for a successful biofuel program. Most of its electricity comes from renewable hydro-power. It has the ideal biofuel crop in its sugar cane. The government favored and subsidized the biofuels industry. Brazil has a complete network of stations equipped to sell ethanol, along with a fleet of cars that run on ethanol and consumers with the habit of using it. It even has a uniformly warm climate, which makes a difference, since ethanol can gum up an engine when temperatures go down near freezing. But price still matters.

Analysts worry that it will get worse for the biofuel industry. The price of sugar is high on world markets and so it makes a lot more sense for Brazilian farmers to sell sugar for Frosted Flakes, Hershey bars or sweet tea than it does to turn it into fuel for cars. Beyond that, with the price of other agricultural products rising, maybe it makes more sense to plant soy or corn instead of cane. And if that was not enough, Brazil has recently discovered vast new oil reserves. Experts predict that there could be 80-110 billion barrels of oil in the so-called “pre-sal” deposits. This would give Brazil oil reserves about the size of Kuwait’s or Iraq’s. That’s a lot of oil. The Brazilians initially developed the ethanol program because they didn’t have enough oil of their own. How does this bonanza of the bubbling crude (black gold, Texas tea) affect the equation?

This demonstrates the fundamental weakness of all alternative fuels. Just when we think we reached "peak oil" we find we were just going up one of the foothills. We keep on finding new sources of oil and gas and fossil fuels stay cheap. I know it doesn’t seem like it just now, with gasoline prices hitting record levels (at least in nominal dollars) but the world is awash with fossil fuels. In the medium run (10-20 years), prices for gas and oil fuels will be relatively low (i.e. lower than alternatives) and alternative fuels will have a tough time competing.

The world should watch what happens in Brazil and take notes. For the past thirty years, we have had a laboratory for biofuels. The Brazilians have done everything advocates say should be done to encourage biofuels, as I mentioned above. And when the price of oil was high & the country did not have access to domestic oil supplies, we can called the program a success. What do we say if those conditions change?

April 12, 2011

Springtime Continued

tulips & daffodils in front of the house 

We had an interesting day today. It rained; it was sunny; it rained again. The air was very fresh and it was windy. The pear tree next door was losing its pedals and they fell like snow onto the tulips and daffodils Chrissy planted. It is an ephemeral pleasure. By tomorrow, or the next day at most, it will all be done.

Tulips and daffodils in front of the house 

Below are newly planted monkey puzzle trees at FSI. They are native to Chile and Argentina and are related to the araucaria or Parana pine that grows in Brazil and more distantly to the Norfolk Island pine so common as an indoor tree in malls. Monkey puzzle trees can tolerate a fair amount of cold. Although Virginia is about as far north as they can go in eastern North America, they live on the west coast as far north as British Columbia. In Europe, they can grow in UK and I even saw one thriving in Bergen in Norway. Warm ocean currents make a big difference. The story is that it is called monkey puzzle, since the curly branches would puzzle any monkey trying to climb it. The little branches on these are not yet curly enough to puzzle any but the stupidest monkey. They are pretty prickly, however. It may take twenty years, but this will be a really cool glade in time.

monkey puzzle trees at FSI 


April 05, 2011

Habits of Self-Control and Self-Determination

The most successful 20% of the population behave differently from those at the bottom. They are more likely to be married, less likely to have children out of wedlock, more likely to work long hours, more likely to attend church regularly and less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol.  In 1960, there was little difference between the top and the bottom on the indicators measuring those things above. Today the differences are stark. 

Pantheon 

There is a kind of reverse hypocrisy at work today. In the past, hypocrisy meant pretending to be virtuous while doing less virtuous in your actual behavior. Today, the most successful Americans, as a statistical group, tend to act virtuously (again by the measures above) but hesitate to be identified as doing so. I am sure that they would consider that the virtue of being non-judgmental, but it could also be seen as a failure to lead.

I heard about this and other things at a very interesting lecture at AEI by Charles Murray.  He is writing a book that tracks the relative decline of American habits. He looked at American indicators from 1960-2008. He stopping in 2008 so as to avoid data that would include the current recession and also studied only the white population to avoid making the discussion about race and also study a population that has remained more stable, i.e. fewer new immigrants. According to his data, the population of 1960 was much more alike in its habits than ours is today. For example, the rate of marriage at the top was 86% while at the bottom it was 83% - hardly a difference. Today the rate of marriage at the top has dropped little to around 83%, but at the bottom it has gone below 50%. Out-of-wedlock births are still rare at the top, but approaching 50% at the bottom.  The hours worked at the top have remained stable, actually increased a little, at the top but dropped at the bottom. Church attendance has dropped in all groups, but still remains high at the top and has dropped like a stone at the bottom.  Murray explains that church attendance correlates with other forms of “social capital” such as volunteering for PTAs, giving blood etc. 

The inflection point was 1964.  Until that time, social indicators were actually improving for all groups, but they have declined since them for people at the bottom. Murray didn’t propose any solutions. Maybe he will in his upcoming book. He pointed out a couple of obvious things that could be overlooked, however. The first is that many problems affect mostly people at the bottom. People at the top live in parts of the city or suburbs that used to be relatively crime free and still are.

Their kids go to schools that used to be good and still are. Most of the people they knew were married and still are. Most of the kids grew up in stable households and still do.The changes since the 1960s really didn’t hurt them.

There is a kind of reverse hypocrisy at work today. In the past, hypocrisy meant pretending to be virtuous while doing less virtuous in your actual behavior. Today, the most successful Americans, as a statistical group, tend to act virtuously (again by the measures above) but hesitate to be identified as doing so. I am sure that they would consider that the virtue of being non-judgmental, but it could also be seen as a failure to lead. I heard about this and other things at a very interesting lecture at AEI by Charles Murray. He is writing a book that tracks the relative decline of American habits. He looked at American indicators from 1960-2008. He stopping in 2008 so as to avoid data that would include the current recession and also studied only the white population to avoid making the discussion about race and also study a population that has remained more stable, i.e. fewer new immigrants.

According to his data, the population of 1960 was much more alike in its habits than ours is today. For example, the rate of marriage at the top was 86% while at the bottom it was 83% - hardly a difference. Today the rate of marriage at the top has dropped little to around 83%, but at the bottom it has gone below 50%. Out-of-wedlock births are still rare at the top, but approaching 50% at the bottom. The hours worked at the top have remained stable, actually increased a little, at the top but dropped at the bottom. Church attendance has dropped in all groups, but still remains high at the top and has dropped like a stone at the bottom.  Murray explains that church attendance correlates with other forms of “social capital” such as volunteering for PTAs, giving blood etc. The inflection point was 1964. Until that time, social indicators were actually improving for all groups, but they have declined since them for people at the bottom.  

Murray didn’t propose any solutions. Maybe he will in his upcoming book. He pointed out a couple of things that could be easily overlooked, however. The first is that much of problems of society affect mostly people at the bottom. People at the top live in parts of the city or suburbs that used to be relatively crime free and still are.  Their kids go to schools that used to be good and still are. Most of the people they knew were married and still are. Most of the kids grew up in stable households and still do. The changes since the 1960s really didn’t hurt them.

Another thing he pointed out was the increasing sorting. People increasingly have choices. Colleges have gotten good at choosing smart people. They meet each other and marry each other, producing families with advantages of good habits, sound incomes and whatever advantages of talent nature has provided. The opposite applies to people on the other end.

Murray illustrated the changes with the people in the room. Older people – like me – are much more likely to have grown up in “non-elite” households. We still remember living in working class or farm communities. Many of us were among the first in our families to graduate from college. The young people in the room – our kids - grew up in families with college educated parents. They have no personal memories of anything but the educated, well-off lives. Our sorting methods work too well today. Ironically, relying on merit and making opportunity widely available will end up sorting people by talent and habits, locking in advantages.

Finally, Murray made the comparison to the Roman Empire, but not the usual one of decline. He pointed out that the Roman Empire continued to grow in power and glory after it lost the old republican virtues. He is right.

The apogee of Roman power came during the time of Trajan and Hadrian, more than 150 years after the fall of the Republic and even longer since the decline of traditional Roman “virtues” or what we might call Roman “exceptionalism.” America may well remain a powerful country w/o our traditional virtues. But we may well lose our exceptional abilities for self-government and self-determination, things Murray calls the American project, which has been with us since the founding of our Republic. Murray thinks this is worth saving, but he admits that Imperial Rome in the Second Century was a more orderly, prosperous and peaceful place than it had been under the Republic. Empires can be good at running things, but they do this by dispensing with freedom.   

April 02, 2011

Four-Wheel-Drive

New car on Freeman tract 

I went down to the farm to plant my American chestnut seeds. The American Chestnut Foundation sent me two of them for contributing to the Foundation.They are supposed to be from trees resistant to the blight that since it was discovered in 1904 has nearly wiped out what had been one of the most important forest trees in Eastern North America. The Foundation wants to have them planted in as many different places as possible in hopes of developing a really blight resistant tree. Of course, we may not know for decades or maybe never. My land is a little outside the native range of the American chestnut, so my two isolated trees could well survive even if they were not resistant, since the blight just might not get at them. I probably should not have taken them anyway; I will not be around enough to take care of them. I put them in good places on a north facing slope, cleared the nearby brush and put rocks & mulch around the places to mark and protect them, so I they have a better than average forest seedling chance. But I can check on them only until I go to Brazil; after that they are on their own.

Forest road on steep hill 

I took down the new car. I bought a Toyota RAV4 to take to Brazil. It has 4-wheel-drive, which I expect will be useful in Brazil, and is a model that is sold in Brazil. There is a dealer in Brasilia, so I can get service and parts. I was going to get a Ford Escape. They have Fords in Brazil, but not have the Escape, so I figured it would be better to go with the RAV4. The RAV4 is a little more expensive than the Ford Escape, but not much & the additional cost and trouble of getting parts would end up costing more than the price difference. I also thought about buying the car in Brazil, but the Brazilian currency appreciated so much against the dollar in the last year that it just doesn’t make sense. That, plus the generally higher prices there means that it would cost nearly twice as much to get one locally. When you live overseas, you become a currency trader whether or not you want and currency fluctuations make really big differences for big purchases.

Plowed field ready for wildlife plot 

Anyway, I plan to get lots of use out of the car in Brazil. I can drive to a large part of the country from Brasilia, but some of the roads can be challenging. I tried out the new car’s 4-wheel-drive on my forest road. It rained yesterday, so there was some of that southern red mud that is both slippery and clingy. I took the car up my steepest and messiest road. The RAV4 easily made the hill. I could feel the wheels engaging differentially. I would never have tried it with the two-wheel-drive truck and I generally don’t like to use the steep road because it tears up the dirt. But I made an exception. I needed to test the car and if I am going to get stuck, I prefer to do it in Virginia, where I can call helpful neighbors, rather than someplace in the Amazon jungle. Besides, the tree harvest a couple of months ago paid for the car, so it seemed sort of appropriate.

The picture up top shows our new car in front of the trees which made it possible. Actually, not those trees, since the ones that we sold are gone, but the same sort formerly in the same general location. The next picture shows my forest hill road. I did clear off that tree that fell across the road. An ice storm back in January hit this particular part of the woods harder than average. The bottom picture is one of the food plots. The hunt club prepared it for replanting.

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