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May 30, 2011

May 2011 Forest Visit

Boys walking in the woods.  

The boys and I went down to the farms to talk to the hunt clubs and take a look at the forest. There has been a lot of rain recently, so everything was growing well. The McAden Hunt club replanted one of the food plots.  Corn and sunflowers are coming up. The sunflowers will be very pretty in a couple of months. I asked Alex to go down and take a picture for me. 

The deer plots are becoming more important to maintain a healthy herd. The deer population had burgeoned and there were too many, but the resurgence of local bear populations & the arrival of coyotes have checked the growth. The coyotes, especially, are hard on the fawns. These things are very dynamic and you never get a permanent solution.

Clear cut and no cut 

I agreed to sell six acres of land to the Reedy Creek Hunt Club. They want to build a clubhouse, skinning shed & dog training places. I am never enthusiastic about giving up land for any reason, but I think the relationship with the club trumps six acres out of 300. RCHC seems like they want to keep the rural character of the place and I want to encourage the local hunting culture, so it is a good thing.

clover field 

There was no particularly urgent work to be done. We need to plant our longleaf pines this fall or next spring and I want to do an understory burn followed by biosolids applications in 2012 or 2013. I cut down a couple of box-elders that were infringing on my cypress, but that is only a kind of a hobby action.

Corn and sunflower 

Of course, I will not be able to get to my woods very often with my Brazil assignment over the next three years. That is why I took the boys down. I want them to do the routine consultations.

Genito Creek at our tree farm

It was a kind of hazy-humid day, so my pictures seem a little washed out. The top photo shows the boys walking up the road in our recently thinned pines. Espen was trying to skip stones. I told him that it worked better on water. The second picture shows our clearcut that will be planted with longleaf next to the completely uncut pines that are providing the control plot. Below that is our clover field, now getting overgrown. Next is the new field planted with a variety of plant for wildlife, including soy, corn and sunflowers. Just above this paragraph is Genito Creek that runs through our land. It looks like chocolate milk because of recent heavy rains.  It will clear out in a couple days. The silt forms natural levies along the banks. The trees arching over it are river birch, the southern member of the birch family. Below is the bend in my road. There is something attractive about a road bending into a forest. I liked it when I first saw this place, when the trees were knee high and each year it gets better.

Bend in the road in the JohnsonMatel loblolly pine forest in Brunswick Co VA

May 29, 2011

Life was Less Tasty

This is another late posting. 

Eagle Tavern at Greenfield Village 

Life in the past was simpler and they depended much more on local produce.Everybody was a locavore. You ate local products in season or you didn’t eat much at all. Americans in the 19th Century tended to eat a lot of animal protein and drink prodigious amounts of alcohol. It wasn't really a good diet by our standards, but it was hardy, which you needed because life was hard. We literally got a taste of that when we had lunch at the Eagle Tavern in Greenfield Village. They try to supply the table with local produce and they stick to whatever is in season, which means that the menu is a little different if you come in a different season.

Building at Greenfield Village 

When I started writing this post, I will still cold from the rain we had all day on our Village visit and I was thinking of the hardships of the past. This is not inaccurate, but it is incomplete. People in the past definitely had fewer choices. But the first fruits of summer must have seemed more tasty after a long winter without. We can buy produce from all over the world, but most of us do not take full advantage of the variety and we never get to feel that joy of true seasonality. You can look at it in both ways. You can emphasize the joy of finally getting the fresh fruit, or you can look at it like the guy who hits himself in the head with a hammer because it feels so good when he stops.

Old car on rainy road at Greenfield Village 

It is nice to visit the past as a tourist, but you really would not want to live there. The Eagle Tavern recreates many aspects of the past, but not all.  If it did, nobody would come. It has modern bathrooms, for example. This was a big improvement. They also do not feature all the smells of smoke, horse manure and human body odor. If you rented a room at the Tavern, you probably had to share a bed with strangers and there was a good chance you would be sharing lice and bed bugs, not to mention various diseases we hardly remember. Things are better now.

Greenfield Village 

Things started to get charming for many people around 1910. I still wouldn't want to return to those times, but it was only then that average people started to live lives we would consider acceptable. It must have been exciting with innovations such as Ford, Edison etc. Innovation comes faster now than it did then, but it SEEMED faster then. The practical difference between no light bulb, no automobile or no refrigerator and the basic models of these things is enormous. The perceived difference between the new improved model and the older one is not so much. I just bought an LED light bulb. It will supposedly last longer and use less energy, but it does pretty much the same thing as the older one.


I am getting old. Life seems to be familiar starting in the 1930s. It well before I was born, but a lot of the old stuff was still around when I was a kid.  For example, I think I fit in well in that living room below. They were playing a recording of the Orson Wells radio drama, "War of the Worlds". Chrissy and I in the old roadster above is a little too much before my time.

John Listening to War of the Worlds 

Left Over Pictures & Stray Thoughts

Below is the tree version of the sword of Damocles. I suppose it will fall in the first strong wind and it is not over a walking trail, so it probably is not a real danger to anybody. Natural places need not be made antiseptically safe.

Sword of Damocles 

Below shows why forests in foggy places are different than those w/o so much fog. The tree leaves sort of comb out the moisture and it drops to the ground, as you can see in the picture with the water under the silver maple in Warinmont Park. 

Drip line 

Below is the fog bank hanging out over Lake Michigan on the other side of the Milwaukee breakwater. I thought it looked like a distant mountain that could move. 

Fog bank at breakwater 

Below are lichens on a white birch tree. This is a European white birch planted by the park authorities, not the native paper birch. Of course, neither is native to Milwaukee, but the paper birch range is much closer. 

White birch

Below are gargoyles on my old Bay View HS. The building was constructed around 1920. I heard it was designed to look like a castle in Germany, but I don't know for sure. My mother went to Bay View and it used to have strong local support and traditions. This was mostly lost in the 1980s, when the city did busing to achieve integration. The goal was good, but the method was bad.  IMO, it was an experiment that failed. It didn't quicken integration; it cost a lot of money; it delivered kids more tired to school; it contributed to the ruin of a once decent school system and it wrecked the idea of neighborhood schools. A quarter of a century later, we have nothing good to show for the suffering.

Bay View HS 

I used to go in the door below the gargoyles at Bay View. From that spot, my home, grade school and junior HS were all within a ten minute walk. It was a better time to be a student in Milwaukee than it is today. We didn't need to be bussed. We didn't spend a lot of time commuting. We got some exercise and we got to know the neighbors. It was something that should not have been thrown away.

May 28, 2011

Age of Discovery

Nina & Pinta at Potomac branch 

Replicas of Columbus’ ships the Niña and the Pinta were anchored in the Potomac branch in DC. I didn’t go aboard, since I didn’t have much time and it cost $8. I could see everything I wanted to see anyway. The ships were built in Salvador in Brazil. They sail around for exhibitions and, according to the notes, they were featured in the movie “1492”.

Nina and Pinta on Potomac 

These boats are small. I would not want to cross a big lake in one of these things. You can see some modern boats nearby for size comparison.


A statue of Columbus stands in front of Union Station and Washington is in the District of Columbia.  Columbus used to be a hero. We sang songs about him in grade school. Lately, however, he is reviled by some and considered un-PC, since his voyages led to the “conquest” of the Americas. I think it was probably a good thing overall.  I don’t buy into that Rousseau noble savage stuff. Life was nasty, brutish and short in those days for just about everybody. 

Linden blooms 

This area of town is changing. They just rebuilt the area around Waterfront Metro stop and it has gone from being seedy and dangerous to being nice and pleasant. Above and below are linden trees in bloom. I really love the scent.  It reminds me of Germany and Poland. I comment on them every year because every year it is nice. The linden is the European relative of the American basswood, sometimes even called American linden. The Euro variety is smaller, but has showier and more fragrant flowers. Bees are fond of the flowers and there is even a variety of honey called basswood honey. They only flower for about ten days. The lindens flower in Europe in late June and July, about the same time as they do in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Here we are a month ahead.

Linden trees at Potomac branch

Notice the flag. There was a very strong south wind that brought in rain (see the last picture below)

Potomac flooding 

The Potomac is fresh water, but it is affected by tides in the Chesapeake Bay. The tidal basin at the Jefferson Monument is meant to control for some of that. You can see the water flooding over the banks in the pictures above and below. It reaches about five yards farther in at times. At low tide, the place where you see the fence is 3-4 feet above the water surface. 

Potomac flooding 

Below are storm clouds racing in at Dunn Loring. I snapped the picture and rode for home. I arrived just as the rain was starting. Literally seconds after I got in the safety of the garage, we had a cloudburst. A couple hours later, it knocked out the power for a while all over. Urban dwellers like us are unaccustomed to the sold wall of darkness. 

Storm clouds at Dunn Loring, Merrifield VA 

May 25, 2011

American Chestnut

I found one hidden in plain sight - maybe. I was wrong when I said that I would never seen a big American Chestnut.  In fact, I had seen it, many times, but didn't look close enough. I actually had noticed the big tree before, but I rode past it on my bike or ran past it w/o stopping or looking closely.  I just assumed it was a big oak tree, maybe a chestnut oak, which has similar leaves.

American Chestnut 

Back in October I was walking (instead of running or biking) near the Washington Monument and walked under the tree. The bark wasn't right for an oak tree, I thought. The leaves looked like the pictures of chestnut leaves I has seen, although I never had seen a live one. I almost just forgot about it, as I probably has a few times before, but I noticed that the Park Rangers were nearby, so I asked them about the tree. They didn't know, but promised to consult the guy who knew all the trees. I left my email address, not really expecting a reply. I got a reply telling me that it was an American chestnut.

I don't know for sure if that is true and I have trouble believing it. I waited until it leafed out again this spring. I won't be here in fall to check for chestnuts. It looks like the pictures I have seen. Of course, it could be some kind of European hybrid.  It is a nice big tree, in any case.



Bioenergy is part of any energy solution, but it is not THE solution and the idea that bioenergy will soon make a large part of the American fuel mix probably violates the laws of physics and certainly is not justified by our levels of technology or economics. 

Petrobras_ Station Brasilia_Lago_Sul.jpg 

Oil and gas are forms of bioenergy; they are just the fossil forms. Although when we say bioenergy, we almost never mean oil, gas or coal, remembering their ultimate origin helps understand the challenge of bioenergy today.  Coal, gas & oil were once living organisms. For millions of growing seasons, ancient forests laid down these carbon-based energy riches. There is a geological period in deep time called the Carboniferous, because so many of our coal resources were laid down during it roughly sixty million. During this period, vast tropical rain forests expanded and then collapsed due to rapid climate change.  This one period and there are many more millions of years.   

When we are producing bioenergy today, we are using the product of one growing season, or at most that of dozens in the case of wood. You can see how our ephemeral efforts seem feeble in comparison to the millions of years and many trillions of life forms that produced the fossil fuels. Gasoline from fossil fuels is a superb liquid energy source that gives us more energy per gallon than almost anything else.  A gallon of ethanol yields only around 80% of the energy of a gallon of gasoline. A pound of hydrogen contains much more energy than a pound of gasoline, but hydrogen weighs less than air and a pound of hydrogen takes up more than ten times as much space as a pound of gasoline. Even with its greater energy output, a gallon of hydrogen produces only a little more than 25% as much as a gallon of gasoline.

I digress into the geological and physical facts because I enjoy such things and also to explain the origins and weaknesses of biofuels that are often overlooked. To continue with the mainstream article … 

There are many varieties of bioenergies. GMOs promise to deliver biodiesel & other forms of energy from many varieties of plants. We can already produce fuels from things like oil seeds and palm oil. Some of these things have significant ecological costs. For example, rain forests are sometimes removed to plant oil palm. These things can add more greenhouse gases than they remove.   

In the profound understanding that yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems, we should be careful, understanding that some of today’s solutions will be tomorrow’s problems.   

The most promising bioenergy that might replace petroleum is not really bioenergy at all, but rather is a byproduct. Much of our modern industrial society is petroleum based and much of that is not the stuff we burn.  Plastics, drugs, fertilizers and many composites even the paving on our streets is petroleum based.  We could replace liquid petroleum fuel a lot easier than we could do without many of these petroleum based products.  But when we recall that petroleum is a biofuel, we can see that we could use bioenergy production to replace petroleum in many of these uses. In fact, Middle Eastern potentates feel more acutely threatened by developments in alternative materials than they do the development of alternative fuels. As long as we need the “byproducts” production of oil etc is assured.  

The most famous liquid bioenergy is ethanol. Ethanol is criticized because its production can be inefficient (i.e. consume as fossil fuel as it replaces) and the feedstock is usually some form of food and/or the production of the crop for ethanol displaces a food crop.  

The first criticism can be valid. You can make ethanol from almost anything that grows in the earth, but some are less efficient than others. You have to look at the precise circumstances. The idea that it displaces food production is one of those things that make intuitive sense, but it not true.  

The displacement argument is based on a zero sum thinking that is rarely valid. A modern diversified agriculture produces a variety of crops in a variety of ways. These crops can complement each other and allow greater productivity. For example, some farmers plant sugarcane (a multiyear crop) followed by corn and then by soybeans.  One crop enriches the soil for the others.  It also can make sense to intersperse crops.  In any case, the U.S. has produced more food and feed in the last five years than in the previous twenty while simultaneously producing a bumper crops for biofuels. It works on the small scale as well. Poor farmers in Tanzania, for example, have had success in producing cassava and sunflowers, used in bioenergy along with the crops they eat. Production in general has increased, while addressing the problem of persistent energy poverty.  

Biofuel is not the same as bioenergy, which is a broader term. This is clear in the production of ethanol.  Ethanol production from sugar cane is very efficient because of the energy potential of the feedstock itself, but also because of the usefulness of the “waste” i.e. the stalks called bagasse. Burning these residues produces enough energy to completely fuel the ethanol production plus surplus energy that can be fed into the national grids. (In 2010, the EPA designated Brazilian sugarcane ethanol as an advanced biofuel due to its 61% reduction of total life cycle greenhouse gas emissions, including direct indirect land use change emissions.) 

All new Brazilian vehicles are flex fuel and Brazilians consumers have the choice of ethanol or gasoline at the pump. They make choices based on the relative prices. When the price of ethanol moves above 80% that of gas, they buy gas. Ethanol prices have been high in recent months and so Brazilian drivers have been opting more and more for gasoline, while Brazil, somewhat ironically, has been importing ethanol from the United States. The United States is both the world’s biggest consumer and producer of ethanol. Brazil is second; between our two countries we account for 87.8% of total world production. Brazil and the United States partnered to share techniques and technologies among themselves and with developing countries in the Caribbean and Africa.  

The Holy Grail of ethanol production is ethanol from cellulose, i.e. wood chips, corn husks, switchgrass etc.  President Bush mentioned this as a goal in his State of the Union speech in 2006. President Obama has reiterated this pledge. Presidents, BTW, have been making similar pledges on various technologies since Richard Nixon. Anyway, they always say the technology will be available about 5-10 years from the time of the speech. It is a good round number that allows them to take credit but largely be out of the way when it doesn’t happen.  

IMO, biofuels will never come close to replacing petroleum as a liquid fuel source. The science is still not available, but as importantly it lacks practical or economic sense. Cellulose is common in farm and forestry wastes and is “available” as a feed stock, but it also has other characteristics. Most notably, cellulose waste is bulking, heavy and it tends to burn well. It will never make practical sense to move all this stuff to factories to be turned into ethanol, a process which will produce relatively little energy in return for the massive input. The most useful alternative is what the Brazilians already do with bagasse and what many pulp, paper and wood mills do with their sawdust and scraps: burn them on site to produce electricity. This is a good use if we remember the more inclusive word bioenergy instead of the narrower biofuel.

This woody biomass is a vastly underutilized bioenergy source. If we use electric cars, it would be good if the electricity is produced from a carbon neutral source such as woody biomass. Why take the expensive and less effective extra step of turning it into ethanol?

Anyway, I see bioenergy as an important part of future energy portfolios, but never anything close to a really major solution. We just do not have enough land to produce enough biofuel for even a small percentage of our vehicles.  On the other hand, bioenergy and byproducts can form an important part of materials we use and additives in other products. For example, using ethanol as an oxygenator in gasoline makes a lot of sense - burning the stuff in pure form, not so much.

In an uncertain world, you have to try all of the above with a wide portfolio of solutions … and be ready to be flexible when some of your favorites don’t work.  

May 23, 2011

Burning it Away

heavy rain on I65 

I bragged a few days ago about getting 52 miles to the gallon when driving on a smooth, flat and almost traffic free stretch of road on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Yesterday I had to waste ¾ a tank of gas.

We are shipping our RAV 4 to Brazil. It cannot be shipped with more than ¼ tank of gas, so I used up most of the gas and planned to send it along. Unfortunately, Espen forgot my admonition NOT to fill the tank when we were gone. He so rarely fills the tanks with gas, that I was surprised when we got home about 6pm yesterday to find the RAV 4 full of gas. I quickly learned that you really cannot siphon gas out of a new car, so Alex and I drove all over Northern Virginia and Maryland to get the gas down to the expected level.

On the plus side, a RAV 4 gets decent mileage for a SUV. It was doing about 27 miles per gallon, which meant we had to drive for hours. We drove down I66 to Winchester, almost in West Virginia. Going there and back took us down only to a half tank, so we drove completely around the beltway, through Maryland and back to Virginia on the other side until we just touched the quarter tank. 

If I would have had another day, it would have been good to go somewhere using that fairly expensive gas.  It is ironic, since I usually try so hard to save fuel, driving the kids nuts by gliding to stops and never accelerating too fast. It was not a complete loss. I had a good talk with Alex in the hours we spent driving with the only object of burning fuel quick as possible.

The picture up top is left from our trip. It is the heavy rain through Indiana on I65.

May 22, 2011

Nanotech will be Big

A nanometer is a one billionth of a meter. How small is that?  It is so small that a human hair is 100,000 nanometers thick, an average man is 1.7 billion nanometers tall, a strand of DNA is 2-3 nanometers & an atom is 1/10 of a nanometer. You can’t see a nanometer with your naked eye or even with the most powerful optical microscopes.  But we can see them with our electronic microscopes and we can now manipulate matter at the atomic level. This is nanotechnology, one of the most exciting industries of the future.  

I don’t understand the physics, but I am excited by the possibilities. What our expert told me today was that for most of our daily lives, the things we can see with our eyes, Newtonian physics works just fine.  But when things get very small, on the nano level, elements behave in different ways. A nano-particle is not the same as a molecule.  Molecules are stable. Nano-particles are not because they behave according to the rules of quantum physics.

It's like alchemy. Our experts explained that nanotech cannot turn lead into gold, but it can make an element like lead behave like gold in certain circumstance. For example, gold can be used as a catalyst in some situations. At the nano level, a cheaper material such as copper can be made to perform like gold. This is way beyond my level of understanding, but it has to do with surface areas. The surface areas is the only part that really interacts. This is as far as my science goes. 

One of the interesting uses mentioned was to use nanotechnology to minimize the need for or even replace so-called rare-earth elements.  In recent years, the Chinese have cornered the market on many of these.  We don’t require vast quantities of materials, but they are crucial to the production of many high-tech products.  Nanotech will allow us, once again, to do an end run around a would-be monopolist.  

Nanotech is an enabling technology. For example, nanotechnology is already being used in medicine. A nano-particle can deliver medicine directly to cancer cells and kill them w/o affecting neighboring cells. Some nano-particles can be activated by infrared or magnetism. In that case, a nano-particle could be directed to a cancer cell and then activated to get hot and kill the cancers. These advances have developed only in the last five years.  

We are now familiar with the stain repelling, wrinkle free fabrics, even sox that won't stink. These were developed using nanotechnology. We also have self-healing paints. For example, a car paint can cover its own scratches. The closest thing to a mass produced commodity product today are carbon nano tubes. They can be stronger than steel but at almost no weight.  

Nanotech can help with the environment, for example, turning seawater into drinking water with reverse osmosis or using nanotechnology in agriculture and food

Of course, nothing is free and with any advance comes risk. Nano-particles are so small that they can penetrate deep into your body.  They can breach the blood brain barrier, for example. This is great for delivery of medicines but not so good for potentially harmful substances.

R = E * H – i.e. risk equals exposure times hazard. This is how we need to assess risk.  A shark is very hazardous, but if you are not in the ocean and not exposed to it, there is no risk. On the other hand, constant exposure to a low level hazard can be much more dangerous. To most people, bees are a much bigger threat than sharks. Of course, exposure to some things is not hazardous at all.  

In traditional risk management, dosage or amount makes a big difference. In these cases, the difference between a deadly poison and a harmless substance or even a beneficial medicine is often the dosage, even something as deadly as arsenic in small enough quantities is harmless. With nanotech, we are just not sure if that useful rule applies. Researchers disagree. Another uncertainty is just in the production of nano-materials.  We still don’t understand all the processes so there is great variation from batch to batch, even when made by the same people ostensibly the same way. This is why regulating nanotech is a challenge.  

Nanotechnology has the potential to be a revolutionary process. It changes the very nature of matter that we work with. But we do have to evaluate risks versus benefits on individual basis and do so across the whole product lifecycle, i.e. from material to manufacturing to consumer use to final disposal.  

More information from CRS:

Nanotechnology and Environmental, Health, and Safety: Issues for Consideration

Nanotechnology: A Policy Primer

New/Old Milwaukee

Pedal Tavern riding past Maders in Milwaukee 

Some things, place & people become trendy about the time they stop being used by ordinary people.  This is what has happened in some parts of Milwaukee and some old habits. I mentioned the decline or disappearance of Milwaukee industry. The old industrial park is now becoming trendy. All those old industrial buildings make wonderful, sun-filled loft condos. Old bars that used to serve beer and whiskey, now serve drinks with cute names along with an impressive array of beers … with cute names.  I thought the "pedal tavern" above was cool. The drinkers have to propel themselves. Everybody seems to be having a good time.

Three Brothers Restaurant 

Milwaukee was livelier than it used to be, even if it is more of an afterglow than the commerce we used to have. People with money actually live near and in the downtown, in all those condos. We didn’t see what downtown looks like in the evening, but I understand that nightlife is improved. A lot of these places used to be scary during the day and no-go zones at night.

Wisconsin Cheese  

So I am not sure how I should react. As I wrote in my previous post, the old Milwaukee had jobs and texture that the new one does not. On the other hand, the new Milwaukee is cleaner and more pleasant.  

"downtown" Bay View 

The industry will never return. Industry in general has changed. It takes a lot fewer workers to produce industrial products, so even if industry returned, jobs would not.  Beyond that, no intelligent large manufacturer will ever locate in a old city when they can more easily build a new operation in a new place. An old industrial center like Milwaukee has too much baggage.  Think about a place like the old Grede foundry site. You can see from the picture I took yesterday, that there is now an eight acre site all flattened out and ready to go. But what about the roads? There are narrow, urban streets. A truck would waste hours navigating those streets. And what is below that ground? Industrial processes used to be dirtier than they are today. Many old industrial sites have toxic waste issues. 

Usinger gnomes 

Milwaukee is a pleasant place with a beautiful lakefront and one of the best system of county parks in the world.  But it is not a crossroads place.  It is not a prime industrial location.  I grew up during Milwaukee’s industrial heyday and thought it was natural, as did many others. But it was really the end of an era, the last flash, the last hurrah, glorious but ephemeral. Those trendy places represent the future. People will live in the buildings where our fathers and grandfathers worked. Milwaukee can be a great, medium-sized city. But it never again be the industrial city it was. Those times are gone and will never return.


The new people will like the cleaner, more trendy city better and the old people are mostly gone.  Below is our old house. They are putting on a new roof. My father had the roof put on in the late 1970s. The trees are interesting. The crimson Norway maple was planted in 1972. The silver maple was planted in 1967. The horse chestnut in the front I grew from a chestnut in 1966.

New roof on the old house 


May 21, 2011

Disrespecting the Wishes of the Artist

Milwaukee Art Center 

The Milwaukee Art Museum building is itself a work of art, perched on a wonderful location up against Lake Michigan.  Chrissy & I saw it shrouded in the lake mists.   I am sure that the designers anticipated such meteorological events as part of the presentation.

Fountain at Art Museum 

How much does art belong to the artist?  This is a difficult question.  IMO, we revere artists too much.  Artists express themselves through their art.  But it only becomes meaningful when interpreted by other people.   I don’t really think very much of individual expression. Art is a social activity.  Below is a good example. It is the infinity room. The artist evidently thought it represented outer space. Do you think it does? And I think that Chrissy standing there greatly improves the artist's vision. It is a human showing wonder at the otherwise soul-less light show. So the art was not complete until we stepped into it. And it will not be complete until others do too.

CJ in infinity room 

I wrote a couple of posts on this general subject here & here and won’t repeat it here.  I guess the general idea is that art is like a general idea.  You put it out there and other people add to it, change it and maybe perfect it. Below is the infinity room again with my feet improving the art.

Art center feet 

I think it was a good thing when artists had patron who could help call the shots. A lot of great art resulted from the tensions between the creator and his patron.  When artists are left to their own, they too often drift into a kind of self-indulgence.  Art usually improves when it ages because it gets modified or reinterpreted.   Most art is incomplete when the artist gets done with his part.  Below is a "sunburst" sculpture.  It is made our of girders. It is interesting, but the city paid too much for it, since any competent steelworkers could make the same thing. In fact, when the city bought the thing, I recall that some old guy on the South Side made his own smaller version out of scrap steel.  Some art is like the "Emperor's New Clothes".


May 20, 2011

Milwauke De-Industrialization

Former Medusa Cement co Milwaukee 

My father's (and my erstwhile) employer at Medusa Cement seems to have left Milwaukee. There is a company still using the facilities called St. Mary’s. It looks almost the same, which is not surprising since there is not much you can change. The view that you see in the picture above could have been taken when I was worked there more than thirty years ago, except back then there was a big sign saying “Medusa Cement”. They evidently no longer get any cement via rail. I used to work on the hopper cars next to the river. Today the tracks are gone or at least overgrown with grass, as you can see below. The grass is very nice. They must have done something. Strange that you would cultivate such a nice lawn next to a parking lots in back of a rusty chain link fence where nobody goes.

former hopper car tracks on KK river near former Medusa Cement 

Milwaukee is a very different from the place where I grew up. Milwaukee was an industrial city, characterized by its job-shops & quality tool and die makers. There were also a great variety industries. Many were not particularly clean, but they did provide lots of jobs and good middle class lives.

Former location of Grede Foundry 

Milwaukee’s industry was written on the wind. I used to ride my bike from my house on the South Side all the way up to Mellows lock-washer Company on Keefe Street on the North Side, where I had my first job.  This gave me a tour of industrial stinks. I started off with the steel-coal smell from Pelton and Nordburg if the wind was out of the west. East wind would bring the smell of the sewage plant, where they processed our flushes into Milorganite. Up the street on First Street, you came into the coke-coal plant.  It had an eternal flame, where it flared off gas. Then you hit the metal smell from Grede Foundry (the location of the foundry is above.) A short distance farther was some kind of tannery. It was the worst stink. Crossing the river, you got a sweet smell from the Ambrosia Chocolate Factory, but this was quickly replaced by the yeasty smell of the breweries.

Milwaukee skyline 

I didn’t really know that these smells were strange until I went away to college in Stephens Point. When I came back for a visit, I was surprised as the stink.

Water Street Brewery 

All the smells are gone now. Some is attributable to better pollution control, but more of it has to do with the industries just going away. The sewage plant doesn’t really smell at all anymore. I didn't detect any smell from the tannery. I don’t know if it is gone or not. The Foundry is now just eight acres of flattened rubble for sale. Pabst, Schlitz and the other Brewers except Miller are gone. Their former buildings are now high priced condos. You can still buy Schlitz & Pabst. I don’t know where they make it but the smell is gone. Milwaukee now has a few craft brewers (you can see a picture of one above) but the baseball team name – the Brewers – is the only tangible remnant of what was once America’s greatest beer city. The coke-coal plant closed down years ago. It couldn’t meet pollution rules and the inefficient plant couldn’t compete economically. I don’t know what happened to Ambrosia Chocolate, but there is no sign of it.

Upstate condos at Milwaukee River 

The rivers are also cleaner. The Kinnickinnic River used to come in a variety of colors, since there was some kind of paint factory up stream. The Milwaukee River just stunk. It picked up all the industrial waste of the Menominee River than lots of its own. I didn't believe my aunt Florence, who told me that she learned to swim in the Milwaukee River. I didn't want to even get splashed by that water. Today there are upscale condos along the river and a river walk that attracts people. The condos come with their own yacht slips. I suppose you could swim if you wanted to. I still wouldn't, unless somebody pushed me in.

Everything is cleaner now and more pleasant. I even read that Milwaukee is "cool" and the our old blue collar Pabst Blue Ribbon has become kind of a trendy drink, but I still sometimes miss old Milwaukee. 

May 19, 2011

Fog Season & the Woods of Home

Lake Michigan shore line

For two days, the fog & the sun fought over a half mile of shoreline w/o conclusion. It never pushed more than a quarter mile inland and didn’t hang more than a quarter mile out in the lake.   It was a funny kind of fog, very bright. It could make you squint.

Runner at Lake Michigan 

I was down at the Lake four separate times, so I saw the variety.  Chrissy (sister) and I got down to South Shore under sun and blue sky. By the time we walked to Bay View beech, it was so foggy that you couldn’t see clearly even ten meters ahead, as you can see in the picture above, with the runner coming toward us out of the fog.  It was just a little like a soft focus picture by time we got back along Superior Street, where we saw the deer wandering the roads, as you see below.

Deer crossing Superior Ave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin 

Chrissy J and I went down to Grant Park.  Actually, I ran from Warnimont to Grant ravines and met Chrissy there.  We walked done the Seven Bridges trail, built by the CCC many years ago.  Unfortunately, one of the bridges has collapsed.  I don’t think they are going to fix it, since they just removed the debris w/o doing much of anything else.  I have a theory.  I think they cannot repair the bridge because if they did they would have to upgrade it and the whole trail to make it ADA compatible, which would cost big bucks and ruin the ravine by putting up a wide, sloping paved path.  Nothing can be done inexpensively anymore.

Wildflowers on the forest floor at Grant Park 


Grant Park is a unique part of southern Wisconsin in that it is covered in beech-maple-basswood forests.  You don’t find beech trees growing naturally even a few miles inland.   The Lakeside in Milwaukee County is the eastern edge of the natural range.  It is evidently the result of a subtle difference in climate and humidity.   We have beech trees in Virginia. They tend to grow on north facing slopes or in ravines, places with more moisture laden air.  Virginia is hotter than Wisconsin, but also more humid.  Near Lake Michigan, there is lots of fog.  As I wrote above, the fog pushes in and lingers only about a half mile inland.  In Grant Park area, it is about up to Lake Drive, more or less where the beech trees leave off.

Jack in the pulpit at Grant Park 


I grew up with the eastern forests, so they are what I think of as home and I have seen the seasons of its changing face.  In spring-time, just before the leaves come out, the wildflowers on the ground have their chance. They have to finish their generation before the canopy closes and the leaves put deep shadows on the ground. The flowers you see above are Jack-in-the-pulpit. If you look at the flower, you can see the pulpit and Jack is in it.  Below are trilliums. Their seeds are spread by ants.  The northern broadleaf deciduous beech-maple-basswood forest is too shady in summer to support much understory vegetation. In Virginia on our tree farms, the basswoods are replaced by tulip poplars and there are red maples instead of sugar maples.  The understory vegetation is also much thicker.  It took me a while to get used to Virginia.  Now it seems strange to see the more open woods of Wisconsin. There is also a big difference in color schemes. Virginia forest soils are reddish-orange. Wisconsin soils are brown or black.

Trilliums in mixed forest in Grant Park, South Milwaukee

May 18, 2011

Stephens Point & Madison

Deer at Schmeekle Reserve at UWSP 

The Schmeeckle Reserve was not here when I went to school at UWSP, but I used to spend a lot of time up here. My friends and I would camp out in this wet woods north of campus. Of course, camp out usually just meant drink beer and sleep outside. Back in those days, the trails were not very good. We had to trudge in through the water and muck. Today there are nice trails and boardwalks over the bogs and marshes.  They also made a nice lake and restored the prairies and wetlands.


I don’t remember very much about the events leading up to the establishment of the reserve, but I recall that we (my friends and I) were against it.  We thought it was some kind of corporate land grab, since Sentry Insurance was getting a road through the woods to their headquarters.  We were stupid kids and we understood pretty much nothing.   I actually understood less than nothing, since I was working on wrong understanding.  Student leaders told me it was a corporate greed and I believed them w/o knowing what it meant.   


What the university officials and corporate sponsors did was to take 280 acres of failed and abandoned farm fields and made it into a restored wildlife area, a place that can sustainably regulate water flow and provide beauty and recreation for students and visitors alike.  In addition, they improved the road, which was really dangerous for students walking or on bikes. It was a win for all around.


We drove from Stephens Point to Madison along US 51.  It is a lot easier drive now than it used to be.  I enjoyed going to school in both Madison and UWSP.  Madison has a very beautiful campus and there was a lot to do, academically and socially.   I get mixed up now. When I think of coming to Madison for graduate school in Madison, I don’t think of myself; I think of Alex, who is now studying history as I was. It was a magical time for me and I hope he is enjoying the same thrill from finding things out.


The pictures:  I have a bunch below that I will comment on separately. As you can see in the photos, spring comes more slowly to Central Wisconsin. In Virginia, it is already summer. The pictures show the Schmeeckle Reserve.  There are lots of deer and other wildlife and lots of wetland. The bigger trees are oaks in the middle picture. The lower picture is mostly aspen.


Above is a geographic anomaly. Look closely.  The top arrow purports to point west and the bottom one east. I always thought that east and west were opposites, but maybe not in the reserve. In fairness, there used to be some kind of sign next to the arrows. Maybe that explained. Below is the Wisconsin State Capitol from Bascom Hill at UW.


Below show the lake shore in back of the UW student union. In the middle distance is the Red Gym. It used to be the armory.  When I went to UW, there was a small pool and a kind of dumpy gym. I used to go there in between studying. The library was across the street.  The workouts woke me up.

Below show the lake shore in back of the UW student union. In the middle distance is the Red Gym. It used to be the armory.  When I went to UW, there was a small pool and a kind of dumpy gym. I used to go there in between studying. The library was across the street.  The workouts woke me up.  

Below is the new business school at UW

New business school at U of Wisconsin 

Below is my old running trail. It goes out to the point of a peninsula in Lake Mendota. I used to be able to run out there and back in less than 40 minutes. I cannot do that now.  It is a wonderful running trail. It goes through a variety of landscapes; lots of students use it, but not too many; and the surface is good for running.

Below is my old running trail. It goes out to the point of a peninsula in Lake Mendota. I used to be able to run out there and back in less than 40 minutes. I cannot do that now.  It is a wonderful running trail. It goes through a variety of landscapes; lots of students use it, but not too many; and the surface is good for running.  

Below are UW dorms along the running trail mentioned above. 


Below is a plaque - you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. Sometimes people downplay such things and call them corny.  But I passed this thing most days and it make an impression on me.

Below is a plaque - you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. Sometimes people downplay such things and call them corny.  But I passed this thing most days and it make an impression on me.

Below used to be a McDonald's where I worked during my first year a Madison. Now it is a post office. At McDonald's, I mostly did the counter staff. We used to have to remember the orders and do the math in our heads.  Now machines do the counting and the remembering. One of the techniques was to start the shake machine, grab the fries and then pick up the shake on the way back. I was quick. But I quit after 9 months because they refused to give me a 5 cent raise. The manager said that he didn't like my carefree attitude toward the products.  When I complained that I was a fast and good worker, he told me that if I didn't like it, I could quit. So I did. He was surprised and - incongruously - accused me of leaving him  w/o warning. I actually had another job, delivering mail at the history department. Working two jobs that added up to around 40 hours and doing full time grad work was killing me, so I was happy to have a reason to get rid of one of them. I missed the free lunch I used to get and I did not get that much more effective. When I had an extra 20 hours a week, I found that I often just wasted more time.

Below used to be a McDonald's where I worked during my first year a Madison. Now it is a post office. At McDonald's, I mostly did the counter staff. We used to have to remember the orders and do the math in our heads.  Now machines do the counting and the remembering. One of the techniques was to start the shake machine, grab the fries and then pick up the shake on the way back. I was quick. But I quit after 9 months because they refused to give me a 5 cent raise. The manager said that he didn't like my carefree attitude toward the products.  When I complained that I was a fast and good worker, he told me that if I didn't like it, I could quit. So I did. He was surprised and - incongruously - accused me of leaving him  w/o warning. I actually had another job, delivering mail at the history department. Working two jobs that added up to around 40 hours and doing full time grad work was killing me, so I was happy to have a reason to get rid of one of them.   

May 17, 2011

Pasties & Packers

This part of the Great Lakes has some distinct traits. Some of it is based on the shared challenges of the harsh climate.  The soil is not rich, but there have been booms. The UP once supplied much of the country’s copper & lots of iron. You can still see it in the place names. There is Iron Mountain, Iron River etc.  But most of this was mined out. And the timber was also extracted in what was a lot like a mining operation. After the timber boom, the cut over land was sold to immigrant farmers. But the soil could not support farming in most places, so they left it.  Much of it reverted to state ownership for none payment of taxes and then it reverted to forest. Today large swath of the UP’s territory is National Forest.Tourists and summer residents love the place.Not so many people stay year round.  


We had a little bit of the local flavor for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast included whitefish. It comes from the Great Lakes.  It has a mild flavor, so it makes a good breakfast addition. I had eggs, hash browns and whitefish for breakfast. For lunch we had pasties. Pasties, according to the guy selling them, were brought to the UP by Cornish miners. They are a pastry filled with meat, potatoes and rutabagas, among other things.  They are very filling and convenient. You can see why they were popular among workers. Above is where we ate pasties.
We got into Wisconsin on U.S. 41.   U.S. 41 was second only to U.S. Route 66 as a famous American highway.   It used to go from Canada to Key West.  I suppose it still does, but now it is overtaken by Interstates in most places.  Anyway, we took U.S. 41 down to Green Bay with a stop in Peshtigo.  


Peshtigo was the site the biggest forest fire in the 19th Century. Unfortunately, the “Fire Museum” was not open.  We could see the fire cemetery nearby. There is not much there either, except for a marker.  More than 300 people were buried in a mass grave after the fire destroyed most of the city. The Peshtigo fire was disastrous, but because it happened at the same time as the Great Chicago fire, which got all media attention, it was largely ignored at the time and forgotten after.   


Our next stop was Green Bay. Green Bay would be an unremarkable city except that it is the home of the Green Bay Packers.  I wrote a post about this before and won’t repeat it here. We went to Lambeau Field, so now I have pictures. Above is Vince Lombardy. Below is the team's founder Curly Lambeau.


By the Shining Big-Sea-Water

Mackinac Bridge linking the two Michigans 

The Mackinac Bridge was the world’s longest suspension bridge until a couple of years ago. Now it is #3, behind one in Sweden and one in Japan. But Mackinac hung onto the title for almost fifty years, which is a good run.  The bridge connects the lower and the upper peninsulas of Michigan and spans the straights where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron. The picture above shows the bridge; below is the lighthouse that used to protect shipping. It looks like my camera lens is dirty, but that is not where those spots come from. There were millions of little bugs all over the place.  A woman at a local restaurant assured me that they are only a problem for a little while during spring. But they made life very uncomfortable.

Lighthouse at Mackinac 

You can tell how cold it gets around here by the vegetation. First of all, you find natural spruces. This means it gets cold. But the other tip-off is the lateness of the season. As you see in the pictures, most of the deciduous trees have not yet fully leafed out by the middle of May. Wet forests, with tamaracks, white spruce & white cedar, occupy on the lower places; hardwoods and white pine grow where it is a bit higher.  


We got phenomenal mileage – a little more than 52 miles per gallon for more than 150 miles. Never before have I got such good mileage over any significant distance. Conditions were perfect. We could drive comfortably w/o air conditioning as we followed U.S. Highway 2 along the north shore of Lake Michigan. The road was smooth and flat with almost no traffic, so I kept it at 56 MPH, which I think is optimal from the Civic Hybrid. It was a pleasure to drive, which is not something you get to experience every day.

Lake Michigan 

The UP is very beautiful and it seems familiar. When I was in college, I had lots of friends from the Michigan-Wisconsin border and I spent a fair amount of time in these mixed forests. I was also primed for it by my mother reading me the “Song of Hiawatha” when I was a little boy. It was set in forests like this.

“By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis. Dark behind it rose the forest, Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees, Rose the firs with cones upon them; Bright before it beat the water, Beat the clear and sunny water, Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.”

Gitche Gumee is actually Lake Superior, not Michigan, but Longfellow could have been talking about the north shore of Lake Michigan. And the Big-Sea-Water was shining today. 

Going onto the Mackinac Bridge

May 16, 2011

Other Side of the Lake

Sunset on Lake Michigan 

I looked east over Lake Michigan for more than fifty years before I got to look the other way when  I took the car ferry to Muskegon, Michigan in 2008.  Today I get to do it again, this time from Bay Harbor near Charlevoix, Michigan.  It gets more interesting.

Window of Inn at Bay Harbor looking out at Lake Michigan 

We are staying at the Marriott at Bay Harbor, which is built on an old limestone quarry and Portland cement plant.  This has special meaning to me, since my father worked for 36 years at Medusa Cement & I loaded the stuff during four summers 1973-77.  Our cement didn’t usually come from this quarry, which was owned by a competing firm, Penn Dixie. But Medusa used a nearby quarry in Charlevoix.  The rock is pretty much the same. My father got lots of overtime when the ship came in from Michigan.  The rock from Michigan built the freeways in Wisconsin.

Lake Michigan water 

You wouldn’t know this was an old industrial site if nobody told you.  The old dock is now just a little concrete jetty.  The deepest part of the quarry is now “Bay Harbor.” They removed the rock separating the quarry from Lake Michigan.  It looks good.  The old walls of the operation look like bluffs.  If you look close, they do not seem perfectly natural, but I suppose a few more years of weathering will take care of it.

Boat at sunset on Lake Michigan 

The top picture is sunset from our porch at the hotel. Next is the porch from the window.Third is a boat on the lake at a minute after the sun has dropped below the horizon. And below us is the hotel.

Inn at Bay Harbor   

Civilian Conservation Corps

Statue of CCC worker at Higgins Lake, Michigan 

We saw a sign for a CCC memorial just off I-75, so we stopped to see. As an out-of-state car, it cost us $8 for the short visit, but it was worth going to see. My father was in the CCC and they planted trees so I feel a special connection in two ways. The monument is in a quiet place with lots of trees. The day was beautiful, cool and sunny. I feel comfortable but a little sad in such places. Bittersweet is the word. They remind me of good things past and gone.

Fire tower 

The CCC boys, my father among them, planted trees and did other conservation chores. It was important work for them and for the country. The early part of the 20th Century was the time when our American forests were in their worst shape ever. Lots of people feared we would run out of wood and that our soils and water would be forever lost.  The CCC was not the only reason we have had such great success in turning the situation around, but it was important. 

My father used to tell me about the CCC. When I think back on it, it was remarkable for him. He told me little in general about his life as a young man. I don't know much about his years in the Army Air Corps & I don't know anything for sure about his childhood, but I know a lot about the CCC from him. He enjoyed being in the woods and was proud of the work he had done. Whenever I saw a row of trees that I thought was planted by the CCC, I thought of him. It was one of the things we shared over the years.

When my father first told me about these things, it had less than thirty years since they did their work. Now it is more almost seventy. The trees they planted are fully mature and in some places they are in the second generation. They accomplished their mission, but youth has matured to age. I still think of the old man when i think of the CCC; I still feel proud of what he did and I still miss him. As I said, it is bittersweet.

CCC memorial to CCC

Generations pass quickly and memory passes with them. I suppose that most young people know little and care even less about the CCC. I don’t suppose many people come to places like this, at least not voluntarily.

The CCC took young men like my father and gave them some productive work to do. It kept lots of unemployed kids out of trouble and helped prepare our country for the challenge it would soon face in WWII.  My father told me that it was very much like a military operation, including revelry and assembly. He said that when he went into the army in 1942, the instructors favored the men with CCC experience.

CCC baracks 

We have some similar unemployment problems today, but this solution wouldn’t work. I fear we have become too wimpified as a nation. The CCC boys built the barracks you see in the picture above. Forty of them lived in it in Spartan conditions. It was hot in summer, cold in winter and probably leaky when it rained. Before they built the barracks, they lived in tents. Imagine “subjecting” poor kids to that sort of thing today. Of course, I am sure there would be accusations of “bullying”, not to mention myriad violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And how would public employee unions react to thousands of kids making low wages taking jobs in public parks?  Finally, the CCC boys (I think they were all boys) had to send much of their money home to their mothers. How would today's kids feel about that?

The Pictures:

On top is a statue of a CCC boy.  Next is a mini fire tower, followed by a plaque talking about the CCC. The last picture is the CCC barracks. 

No Viable Future w/o Biotechnology

We should base our regulations and plans on actual risks, not the perceptions of risk. Biotechnology is a lot less radical and a lot less risky in than it is perceived to be. Let’s start with some things that are not problems. You can avoid biotech product if you eat nothing but organic food, but all the rest of us have eaten biotech food, since most of our American corn and soybeans, among other things, are genetically modified. There has never been a case of a documented health problem attributed to biotech food. This is a surprising outcome, given the extreme amount of scrutiny biotech gets. It is likely that biotech is actually SAFER than ordinary products because of all the scrutiny.   

Of course, organic food has recently killed at least 30 people and made another 3000 sick, as we saw with the recent e-coli outbreak in Germany attributed to organically grown bean sprouts. The fact is that no food is perfectly safe all the time. You can be sure that if a biotech product had somehow been in contact with this organic product and got infected by it, the biotech would get the blame. We should not “blame” organic food, but recognize that humanity ate organic food for most of our history and our ancestors were not more robustly healthy than we are.

There have been complaints that biotech firms lock farmers into seeds, since they are not allowed to save seeds for next year. This is a meaningless complaint, since it is nothing new in the seed world. Productivity in American corn fields grew fantastically after the introduction of hybrid seeds in the 1930s. Farmers could save seed, but it wouldn’t work. Hybrid seeds are so productive because they have the hybrid vigor. The hybrids are developed to exhibit the best traits from the parent stock. The next generations lose this and may be even poorer performers than the original stock. They may, in fact, exhibit the worst traits of the parents. It is indeed true that farmers using biotech seeds generally agree not to use the seeds again. But if they want to be most productive, they probably would not want to do it. Like those who use hybrid seeds, they can always choose not to use the biotech seeds. They choose to use the better quality seeds because they believe the harvest will improve enough to justify the costs.

Biotech agriculture is becoming more widespread everywhere except Europe. European firms are active in biotechnology, but activists in the Europe resist wider introduction, which is one reason Europeans pay more for their food. Alternative “natural” food is something that only the rich can afford to choose, since it means lower productivity. This might seem like a bold statement, but it approaches a tautology. If the “alternative” is more productive, it becomes the usual method. The poor have often been forced to be organic, since they couldn’t afford other options, but they make the logical choice when they have a choice.

Biotechnology also increases diversity. With traditional agriculture, farmers have to plant one variety, in order to make harvests practical. Biotechnology creates new varieties. You can still keep the old ones if you want, but you have doubled your choices.

Biotechnology is good for the environment, but creating and using plants and animals suited to their environments. They require fewer chemical treatments and less cultivation. This is one reason it increases farm productivity. They farmer needs to spend much less time in the fields spraying or cultivating.

31% of the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases come from agriculture. Biotechnology can reduce that by requiring fewer inputs, everything from herbicides, to fertilizers to the fuel for tractors to deliver these things to the field. No till agriculture, which protects soils, conserves moisture and makes it possible for farmers to cultivate much less often, is very much facilitated by biotechnologies. Overall, the introduction of BT Roundup ready crops is estimated to have been the equivalent of taking 6-8 million cars off the road.

Biotechnology is developed by big firms. This is because only well-financed firms can afford the equipment and trained scientists. But an even bigger consideration is the regulatory environment. Governments require extensive testing and field trials. Only a well-financed firm can afford to comply. However, the biotechnology itself benefits small and big farmers. Biotechnology is scale neutral. The small farmer can get as much benefit as the large one and the relative benefit to small holders is often greater, since they often lack the equipment and expertise to take full advantage of traditional farming technologies.

I personally believe that biotechnology is a necessary tool to protect the environment and keep our world reasonably pleasant. We live in a global world. Even people not very knowledgeable about the environment understand that we face the challenges of climate change. Fewer people are aware of the bigger threat of invasive species or the development of native menaces in the face of changing environments. Everything can catch rides on our modern mobility. This includes plants and animals, but also diseases and bugs. Many of our most treasured plants and trees are threatened, including our oaks, maples, beeches … pretty much everything. Natural systems cannot adapt at the pace of change we humans have created. Biotechnology is the best hope we have to save the ecosystems we love and on which we depend. I am unwilling to accept that my oaks will wilt, my maples will be killed by Chinese beetles; my ashes will all succumb to the emerald borer or my hemlocks will be turned into ghosts by woolly adelgids. We can fight back with chemicals and cultivation, but one of the most potent and ecologically benign tools will be biotechnology

I understand the risks of change. But looking around at what we get w/o biotechnology – the food shortages in developing countries, the widespread death of forest species etc, I don’t think we have a good alternative.

There is no alternative w/o risk. We need to be cautious about what we do, but we also need to adapt to rapidly changing realities. World population growth means we need to increase food production. Climate change will make that productivity growth harder. We need to use all the tools we possess and certainly should not refrain from employing the most exciting innovations recently created by human imaginations. We need to deploy biotechnology. We should be circumspect by not timid. The future belongs to the innovative.

Thomas Edison


Thomas Edison invented lots of things, but his most important invention was the invention of invention.  He originated the concept of the research lab, where lots of experts came up with ideas and then made ideas into reality for the purpose of making an end product.


Before that time, people who came up with ideas just tried to make them or maybe get somebody else to do it.  Inventors might try to peddle an idea.  But never before did idea generation and implementation have this kind of scientific aspect.


The light bulb was Edison’s most famous invention.  He did not originate the idea or most of the concepts that went into it.  What he and his team did was to make a light bulb that worked.  The two important parts of the last statement are “and his team” and “that worked”. 


Ideas are easy; making them work is hard.  We often underestimate accomplishments of others because it is an idea that we think we had a long time ago.  Anybody could have done that, we think.  But it is not true.  Working through the idea is the hard part.  The other part is that great things are usually accomplished by more than one person.  Single individuals almost never have the complete competence to get things done.  On the other hand, leadership is important.  Edison was obviously a genius, who made others productive and contributed greatly himself.

So we have another paradox.  We should honor the accomplishments of great individuals.  There ARE indispensable people.  On the other hand, nobody can do it alone.  Many things are just “ready to happen” and the person doing it is just the natural following.


It is EER season and so many people are thinking of promotions and accomplishments.  I think the thing that helps explain the paradox is that there are many more people who COULD do great things than there are those who actually accomplish great things.  And all accomplishments are done in some sort of social context, even if they are influenced by people who they have never met.  The genius who cannot work with others is usually just nuts.   They also need to come at the right time and place.  If recent geniuses like Mark Zukerburg or Bill Gates had shown up on the scene a few years earlier or later, they would just be run of the mill nerds.   Who knows if Edison, with his mechanical skills, would have done well in the electronic age?


http://johnsonmatel.com/2011/May/Greenfield_Village/light_bulb_at_Edison_lab_at_Greenfield_Village.Edison had all the attributes of the person who accomplishes great things and he came at the right time and place to do it.

The pictures show the Edison part of Greenfield Village.  Henry Ford brought the whole complex from Menlo Park, NJ.

The top picture shows Edison himself as a young man.  The chair in the next picture is Edison's thinking chair. He sat in the middle of his lab and spewed ideas. Ford brought it to Greenfield Village and restored the lab around it.  He invited Edison, then an old man in 1929 to visit. Edison sat in it one last time. Ford ordered the chair nailed to the floor and, according to the staff, nobody has even sat in it since.  Notice the floor is different under the chair. They had to change the floor, but they kept the original under the chair. 

The next picture is Edison's foreman's office. This is the guy who managed the production of ideas. 

The old guy is yelling into the phonograph Edison created.  It is an original and still works. The sound is graphed on tin foil. It is not great sound quality, but it is sound.

the bottom is a replica of the light bulb. It doesn't throw much light. You notice from the other pictures that they still need a lot of natural light.             

May 15, 2011

Henry Ford

Henry Ford statue at Ford Museum 

Henry Ford has a mixed legacy. He was a great innovator and philanthropist. He perfected the assembly line which created the productivity that allowed him to pay his workers enough that they could have good lives and actually buy the products they made. In this way, he contributed mightily to creating the American middle class. 

Fords go by 

On the other hand, his paternalism annoyed some of his workers. He did what he thought was best for them; not all them agreed. Henry Ford believed in the old virtues of the America he imagined existed in his youth. This didn't include lots of the aspects of modern society, especially things like labor unions. But his innovations, both mechanical and sociological, were instrumental in making that America obsolete. He provided for his workers, but set up puritanical rules to keep them in line, including differential salaries. All greatness is based on paradox.


He was both ahead of his times and behind them. Ford had a vision of a countryside integrated with the industries usually associated with urban areas. It was reflected in quarters he built for his workers in places are distant as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Fordlandia in Brazil. They were designed to get products from the local countryside and the workers houses often included gardens, where they were encouraged to grow their own vegetables. This kind of distributed production was impractical in the old industrial model, but may become possible with the dispersed integration allowed by Internet.


In his later life, Ford tried to preserve some of the old America in an open-air museum. In Greenfield Village, he brought  artifacts and whole houses together. You can find Noah Webster’s house next door to Robert Frost’s.  He also brought Thomas Edison’s complex all the way from Menlo Park, NJ (more on that in the next post.)
It is a pleasant place. It would be nice to live in place like this.


The Pictures: Up top is Henry Ford himself. The others are street scenes at Greenfield village. I would call your attention to the middle picture with the houses and the lilacs. The far house belonged to Noah Webster. Robert Frost lived in the nearer one. Of course, the individuals did not live next to each other and the houses were not next to each other under Henry Ford moved them to Greenfield Village.


BTW - you notice the wet. We had that same cold drizzle I described in the earlier post. 

BTW2 - The most interesting book to read about the auto industry, Ford included, is "The Reckoning" by David Halberstam.  I recently read another book called "Fordlandia", ostensibly about Ford's investment in Brazil, but lots about Ford in general.


Cold Rain on Lake Erie

Lake Erie from Monroe, Michigan

The drive from Virginia to Michigan took us back to early April in terms of weather & leafing out of the trees. I wonder how different my impressions would be if the weather was warmer. Highway 75 goes near Lake Erie, but never in sight. So we went down to get a fast look at the lake, which I don’t ever recall actually seeing.  We came to the water near a place called Monroe, Michigan. There was not much to see. I suppose there are lots of prettier places and I understand that my view could be pretty much any lakeside, but I walked through a half foot of water & drizzly rain to get to the pier to see the lake, so I am sharing it with you.

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes. Some scientists said that it was dead back in the 1960s, but the reports of its death were exaggerated.  Because it was shallow, it got polluted faster than the other Great Lakes, but it also could flush out and clean up faster. It is now an ongoing environmental management challenge, but not dead. Many of the sources of pollution have been addressed, but not all. And the problem of species composition and invasives remains.

May 14, 2011

The Road to Ohio

Cypress swamp at Dawes Arboretum.  

I have been on that road many times before, but I have never seen so many dead deer. We saw twelve dead deer by the roadsides. The population is really high. Besides that, even with that, the drive from Virginia to Columbus, Ohio was uneventful.

Roy Rogers 

We made only a few stops.  We stopped at a Roy Rogers for lunch. We don’t have them anymore in Virginia, so we wanted to go in for old times’ sake. We stopped for gas at Pilot and at a Pennsylvania rest stop that featured a miner memorial.  The only long stop we made was at the Dawes Arboretum. That was a chance encounter. We saw a sign and stopped in. I took some pictures that are included. I will explain them at the bottom.

Miners' memorial  

We have been to Columbus many times before because it is about a day’s relatively easy drive from Washington.  But Columbus was always just an overnight stop. We got here a little earlier this time, so we stopped at Columbus’ “German village.”   As the name implies, this is the part of town built by German immigrants. According to the brochures, the place thrived from around 1840 to the end of World War I. It seemed very familiar. It has some characteristics of Milwaukee, not surprisingly. There were more brick buildings and the neighborhood is more intact than comparable ones in Milwaukee.

Beech tree at Dawes Arborteum  

We ate supper at the Schmidt Haus. They had German sausage & potato salad, very good. The restaurant also featured a duo (an accordion player and a tuba player).  I had a good time. Chrissy liked it too, but maybe less.


The picture up top is the cypress swamp at Dawes Arboretum. Of course, it is not natural. Bald cypress will grow as far north as Minnesota, but they do not naturally reproduce outside the south. The northern boundary of their natural range is just about the southern line of Virginia. Next picture is Roy Rogers.  The one below that is the Miners' Memorial. It commemorates a mining accident that took place under the rest stop and killed 37 workers. The man portrayed is John L Lewis, the famous leader of the Mine Workers. Next is a big beech tree at the Dawes Arboretum, one of the biggest I have seen.

The pictures below are from the German Village.  The first is a couple of houses on the same lot. The German village is pleasant and upscale, judging by the cars parked outside the houses. I suppose that the people who lived here originally were not so rich.

German village

Below is the Schmidt Haus restaurant.  It used to be a livery stable.

Above shows the amusing use of mixed languages.  They use the German "haus" plus English fudge and gift.  Fudge doesn't mean much but "gift" in German means poison.


May 10, 2011

Early & Late in Washington

Sunrise at Ft Meyer 

I don't like to get up on my bike before dawn, but I am embracing it, since I have no choice. I have to be at work before 7, which means I have to leave the house at around 5:45, which is just almost sun-up this time of year. It is relaxing to ride through that twilight, knowing that it will soon be lighter.  There is also a lot less traffic on the roads, although - ironically - a few more bikes and runners on the trail.

Flag raising at Ft Meyer 

Although I get to work early, I still stay until I can take the subway home. But I go down near the Potomac to enjoy the evening twilight.  So I get the early twilight and the late twilight. Sweet.  

Drained reflecting pool at Washington Monument 

The pictures - Up top is the sun rise over Washington from Ft Myer. The sun is blinding at this angle, so I ride right in that shadow of the tree.  Next is flag raising at Ft Meyer. Below that is the reflecting pool with no water. Everything needs maintenance. Below here are people fishing in the Potomac at the end of the day. And under that are buses parked in the Potomac Park. Evidently this is now the new tour bus parking place. I don't like it.

Fishing in Potomac 


May 07, 2011

High-Tech Countryside

Global Rural picture of harvesting 

Brazil is becoming is an agricultural superpower and it is growing bigger all the time. I look forward to seeing the changes but until I get there I studying through the Brazilian media. I have been reading a lot about mechanization of Brazilian agriculture and the expansion of the agricultural frontier.

Some crops still need to be picked by hand and there is plenty of nasty, dirty work in the fields, but a lot less.   For example, sugar cultivation & harvesting used to be one of the most difficult and sometime brutal parts of agriculture. The cane has sharp leaves that need to be burned off. There are snakes and lots of chances to get hurt or killed. (I read that plantation owners in the old South used to sometimes hire “free” labor, especially Irish immigrants, to do the dangerous work rather than risk slaves.) Those days are gone. Today most of cane is harvested mechanically. I saw the machines at work. They are like those big corn harvesters. The machines harvest and process the product, virtually eliminating the need for unskilled labor. On the other hand, it creates places for skilled labor and Brazil doesn’t have enough of it, according to press reports.

Brazilian government training programs, in cooperation with firms that make the new machines and chemicals such as Syngenta, John Deere e Case IH. The chemicals and seeds are complicated. The machines run with GPS and other electronics. The new techniques require more than just the ability to read and write.  

An article read today about technologies in the farm field talked about all these things and pointed out the machines are getting bigger and bigger as farms in places like Mato Grosso are getting bigger and bigger. The new machines require much more sophisticated operators. Some even drive themselves using GPS. What the modern farm needs are workers who can plant the plantings & harvests and keep the machines running. These guys are a lot more likely to be or resemble technicians & scientists than they are like peasants of field workers of old.

Brazilian media reflects the ambiguous relationship that much of the world feels with China. China is now Brazil’s biggest trading partner. This has made a many Brazilians rich and the country as a whole richer. But China is after Brazil’s raw materials. The products it exports to Brazil are finished products, making the relationship look neocolonial.  Chinese products are displacing Brazilian industrial products both at home and abroad.  I wrote about the situation with shoes. Of course, agricultural products are raw material, but has that changed in the modern age?

An industrial product is intrinsically no better than primary product. The difference between industrial and primary production was really about value added and productivity. Countries wanted to move up value add & the productivity food chain to improve the quality of jobs. Farm labor was on the bottom in terms of skills and value.  It was hard and dirty but easily learned, easily replaced and low paid. This was also the case with early industrial jobs. What changed was the introduction of technology, knowledge and capital, exactly what is now happening down on the farms.  Modern farming is moving in that direction. Furthermore, it is riding on the MOST advanced technologies, including biotechnology and nanotechnologies.

There is an excellent chance that agriculture will be the high-tech industry of the next decades. The soybeans, other grain and fruit may be raw products, but the technologies that allow them to be produced in such quantities are hardly simple. Beyond that, the biotechnology aspects may soon mean the manufacture of chemicals, fuels and medicines by biological/agricultural ways. Now that is value added. Maybe the Chinese emphasize on essentially 19th Century machine manufacturing is the less intelligent bet.

May 03, 2011

Leafing Out & Buckeyes

Buckeye trees 

I am down at the Main State again, very long days. I have to get on my bike before 6 am and I am not done until 6 pm.  I am doing the nuts & bolts press work, clearances etc. I don’t like it very much, but I don’t have to do it very long. I am being useful. Usually, I like my job more, so a little payback is fair.


I do enjoy riding my bike in the pre-dawn semi-light. I love that time of day, but I am too lazy to get up unless there is something coercing me.  I also get to enjoy the twilight at the end of the day.  The trees are almost fully leafed out now.  I took some pictures.

The pictures show buckeye trees along (fittingly) Buckeye Street in Potomac Park. The buckeye is the state tree of Ohio.  It is a relative of the horse chestnut and, as you can see, looks a lot like it. I think the flowers are the result of selective breeding.  The natural trees I have seen are not as colorful.

Buckeye flowers

May 01, 2011

Scary Myths Laid to Rest (Again)

We have had several deadly tornadoes recently, so the short memory set is talking again about killer weather. The fact is that weather related deaths have been dropping for a generation. But it is like other news of improvements, such as the drop in crime, drop in traffic fatalities or the drop in cancer deaths . It goes unnoticed and reports of the facts are greeted with disbelief or even hostility. For the 30-year span of 1980-2009, the average annual number of Americans killed by tornadoes, floods and hurricanes was 194—fully one-third fewer deaths each year than during the 1940-1979 periods, as outlined in this article. This is even more remarkable, since the American population in 2009 is more than double what is was in 1940, so your individual chances of dying in a weather related event is even lower. The weather has not become more benign since 1940. The weather is … the weather. It varies a lot. It gets very cold sometimes and hot other times. Sometimes it rains a lot; other times it rains hardly at all. The difference is human adaption. We are better at predicting weather and better at saving lives. People are adaptive.

My posting is based on an article by Professor Donald Boudreaux of George Mason University. He believes that the number of weather related deaths will continue to decline and has offered to bet $10,000.


the dooms sayers always underestimate is human ability to adapt and triumph. They see what is today and cannot conceive of anything that doesn’t follow in direct projection. They assume that in the face of a rising tide, human beings will sit like King Canute instead of moving.

The bottom line is that my life is significantly better than my father’s. My sons and daughter will live better than I do. When I was 18 I didn’t believe this. We were told that the American dream was over and that we would face bleak futures. I think they tell us that every year, but people seem to forget the earlier predictions. It is like that clown that predicted the rapture ... and then it didn't happen. We have secular versions of that too.

It seems we all like to think our times are uniquely difficult. It provides an excuse for our personal failures.

Progress will end. Everything ends, but probably not today, not tomorrow and not soon. The new hi-tech, such as biotech and nanotech, will revolutionize the way we live, creating greater wealth and engendering new anxiety among the weak minded and the credulous. Twenty years from today, people will look back on our times and claim that our challenges were nothing compared to theirs, just as we do with earlier times. They too will be wrong.

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