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November 30, 2011

Not Just a Road; an Adventure

I don’t regret our adventure but I will avoid repeating it.  You really cannot say it is hard to find Brumodinho but it is really hard to get there from almost anyplace else.  It looks just off the highway on the maps and it is close for birds or somebody with a helicopter, but not so much for those stuck to the ground.

Good road in Minas 

Getting there took us down a crappy road. We didn’t know how bad it was because it was after dark.  We gave ourselves time to get there while it was still light, but we got lost.   Once we got to Brumodinho, we had to find the posada, also a challenge in a place that doesn’t seem to believe in marking most streets.  We finally found the place with the directions of a gas station attendant and the grace of God.  The posada was very nice, BTW, and I recommend it, if you can find it and if you are visiting Inhotim which I also recommend.  But don’t expect it to be easy to get to.

Cows of Minas 

Anyway, the posada owner told us that there was a short cut that would take us to Ouro Preto w/o having to go all the way back to Belo Horizonte.  He was right and he explained it well but facts on the ground were harder than the theory.

Over the mountain in Minas 

For one thing, there were lots of trucks and lots of hills.  This means that you get in back of trucks moving slower than you could walk.  Beyond that, the roads are not well marked. We took a wrong turn and ended up on a dirt road which ended in a construction project.  Our going down this dirt road is not as dumb as it sounds. Some dirt roads are pretty busy and this one was too.  It probably could have taken us to the main highway, BR 040, as some people told us, but rain and construction made in impossible. Anyway, we backtracked and took a narrow, winding, but asphalt surfaced road to BR 040. But this in Minas and there are mountains. At times it seemed like we were going straight up. The pictures do not accurately convey the climb.  The road was good at times, at least as good as a country road in Western Virginia, i.e. not the best road but okay. But at other times it was narrower than some of my bike trails in Virginia and not as well maintained.  Not just a road, an adventure.  

In the U.S. we don’t appreciate the infrastructure that helps make us prosperous.  It is in the secondary roads you really see it. Brazil has some first-class primary roads. What it lacks are the County Truck and country roads.  These were often build way back in the 1930s. They still serve us well.  They get our stuff to market and bring our markets to the countryside.  We take them for granted, but they are not granted to all places.

The country road you see in my pictures are the best stretches on offer. We hit dirt roads and sometimes dirt we couldn't even identify as roads.  

We were very happy to finally get to the main highway and on the road to Ouro Preto, but that is another story. 


Ouro Preto City of the Baroque

Ouro Preto church 

Ouro Preto means black gold in Portuguese. The black gold is an ore of gold mixed with iron ore.  It looks like dirt and I don’t believe I would pay attention to it if I stepping in a pile. But this black gold financed the prosperity of the city of Ouro Preto and of the whole region around it. The people of Ouro Preto, at least the ones running the show, poured their wealth into ornate baroque churches that dot the city. These and the general rich architectural tradition made Ouro Preto a UNESCO World Heritage place.

Sao Francisco Church in Ouro PretoI have included pictures of the outsides of churches. The Church of Saõ Francisco de Assis is considered to be a masterpiece of Brazilian architecture, but they are all interesting Cameras are not allowed inside, so I don’t have pictures. Take a look at my posting from the São Francisco church in Salvador to get an idea, although the Ouro Preto churches are less well maintained/restored. There are very ornate carvings and sculptures.  In fact, Baroque when used as an adjective means describes something that is ornate, maybe too ornate.  

Baroque was on the way out as a style by the time the people in Ouro Preto got the word.  The most famous Brazilian artist of this period was Aleijadinho, the little cripple. Although he suffered serious physical problems, he still produced a prodigious amount of work, which you can see all around central Minas Gerais. You can see the decline of Baroque in the works in the churches, both because the style was waning but also because the gold deposits were being used up, so there was less cash to support the projects.

I am not a big fan of the baroque. They dazzle the eye with detail. There are many of those round faced angels and elaborate filigrees.  But there is a darker side. As you look closely, you see a significant cult of death, lots of skulls and suffering.  The Church promulgated the Baroque style, among other things, as a way to attract believers back to the Church and away from the Protestants.  In the baroque churches, you see both the carrots and the sticks. The art is elaborate, sensual, and even voluptuous.  But then included are the very graphic depictions of suffering, deprivation and death.  So the baroque appeals to both desire and fear.  Yes, there is the feast for the senses, but we all are alive for a short time and dead forever after, so better prepare for that.  According to the Church, there is but one way to do that and they control the tollgate.


You have to understand the art and practices of the past in human terms, as you would something today.  Human nature doesn’t change and the people of the past reacted in ways that we would recognize.  If we put these great works of art in modern context, we are not talking the New York Museum of Fine Arts.  The better analogy is Disneyland.  After things have been around a long time, they acquire the patina of respectably.  On the other hand, we tend to disrespect the work of our contemporaries, especially if they are popular.  But recall the context the niche each is filling.  I have always been impressed by the innovations in arts, entertainment, crowd control and transport employed at places like Disneyland. 

I have visited “classy places” like the Vatican or Venice.  The same processes and purposes are present.  This is not to denigrate or trivialize the great accomplishments of artists past, but it is to recognize the human spirit in each generations.   The true heirs of Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael (besides mutant turtles) are the engineers at amusement parks, or maybe video game designers. It is not those self-important guys who posture as professional artists, producing work that few people want and even fewer really understand.  

Ouro Preto panorama 

The churches are very pretty, but there was more pressing business in a frontier region like Minas. Things like roads, canals & universities should come first.  But I realize that mine is a very secular point of view and and not very artistic. I suppose that a thing of beauty is a joy forever and forever makes the difference.

November 29, 2011

Torrential Rains

Fog in Ouro Preto 

We had a good and sunny day in Inhotim and in Ouro Preto, but then is started to rain – hard. Ouro Preto is very steep.  It is exhausting to walk around the city, much more like a mountain hike. It poured rain for about a half hour making the cobble-stone streets into fast flowing rivers.

Heavy rain in Ouro Preto 

These cobble-stone streets have been here for centuries and they are evidently resistant to the water flow.  I think it might be hard to drive up a smoother road, especially when the water flows.  Chrissy and I agreed that a city like this would be impossible in Wisconsin. Not only do we not have hills as long and steep as these, but we have snow.  Even a dusting of snow or a little ice would make streets with this pitch impassible.

BTW - it started to rain on Friday PM in Ouro Preto. It kept raining until we left AM on Sunday. Since we left in the rain, we don't know for sure if it ever stopped. The rain and fog seemed very un-Brazil and almost Central European.  As we drove up the foggy roads, it reminded me of the old days in Silesia.

November 28, 2011

On The Road Again

Cerrado landscape 

You get a better idea of a place when your drive. I have flown across Mina Gerais many times, but driving gives you a better feel for the place and for its size. Western Minas is not very different from neighboring areas of Goiás. There is a lot of space w/o very many people. We drove through the cerrado biome most of the way.  As you get near Belo, it becomes lusher and hillier. This is mountain vegetation, with overtones of the Mata Atlântica

Minas landscape 

BR 040 is easy to find out of Brasilia and is basically a good road, although it is only two lane most of the way and it encumbered with slow-moving trucks; the only thing worse than a slow moving truck is a fast-moving truck, BTW, especially when they are coming around a bend going barreling on in the opposite direction.  BR 040 does not have shoulders and/or not ones that are that you could rely on. They tend to be a half a foot lower than the adjacent road, not good when you are nervous about the oncoming truck and squeezing as far away as you can. On two occasions, on coming trucks in our lane just flashed their lights on us and we chose to move onto the low shoulder as the better part of valour.

Trucks on BR 040 in Goias 

The cerrado landscape is fairly uniform most of the way. Everything is bright green during the rainy season.  But it is a long drive. It is worth doing, but maybe not more than once until they get a divided highway.

Gas station in Ouro Preto 

November 27, 2011

Speed Traps

Trucks & speed bumps on BR 040 

The Brazilian authorities love electronic speed traps and speed bumps, often deployed together.  IMO, both of them produce results at odds with the ostensible purpose of making the roads safer.  What drivers do is speed between the speed cameras or bumps and then slam on their breaks as they pass the controls. 

Speed can be dangerous on the road, but more dangerous are changes in speed and that is what these things provoke. Beyond that, the speed limits in the speed traps are often significantly slower than the ordinary posted speeds.  So you are cruising along at 110 kilometers per hour (about 65 MPH) and then suddenly it goes down to 80 or even 60.  Brazilians I have asked about this think the real reason for the speed traps is to raise revenue.  It seems that way to me too.  If driver who tried hard to follow all the applicable laws could easily still fall afoul of these things just for trying to slow to the abnormally slow speed in a safe way.

Speed Bumps on BR 040 

Nobody can claim that the speed bumps are revenue generators, except maybe for manufacturers of breaks or shocks, but they are literally a pain in the ass … and the teeth and certainly the psyche. You cannot cross most of them going any faster than 10 MPH without suffering physical discomfort and perhaps damaging your care.  And they put them in highways – yes highways. You usually get a warning sign, but it is rarely possible to slow in a reasonable way before bouncing into them. So you are rolling down the highway at the legal speed of 90 KMH, when suddenly you have to slow to 15.  Officially, it is usually 40, but you really cannot do that.  They fail in their ostensible purpose to calm traffic. Most drivers speed between the bumps and then break violently just as they get to them.  It creates more hazard than doing nothing, IMO.  The cure is worse than the illness.

November 15, 2011


I am home today for a Brazilian holiday. If it stops raining, I will go run.  In the meantime I am thinking about how ideas get developed.

Simply having good ideas is easy.  Developing them into integrating them into meaningful systems is hard and making them operationally useful is even harder than that.  And then there is the problem of communicating to others.  Idea creators are rarely the ones who can make them work.  Of course, everything takes time and there are lots of distractions along the way.  

We have a marketplace of ideas.  I understand that term is a little cliché, but I think it fits.  But I think we need to think of the marketplace is broader terms and include the element of time.  In the short term, both products and ideas compete in something almost like a zero sum game.  I buy more Coke and less Pepsi. But the longer term is much more dynamic.  New products are introduced; old ones change. Some products disappear, but something very much like them fills their market niche and you could see how the new one is related to the old one.  In the long run, it is very much NOT a zero sum game.  It is a vast interaction with everything and everyone reacting and changing to the others.  Products in markets tend to improve over time, or at least they better serve current needs and the best markets have lots of diverse participants.   

Like products in a dynamic market, ideas do not merely compete. Instead they develop and change in response to conditions and each other. Unlike physical products, ideas can merge in create whole new combinations. Historians of ideas like to trace the ancestry.  They make categories to differentiate the “species”. Sometimes trace the way back to ancient Greece or Ancient China; the more PC include supposed contributions by pre-literate cultures.  The lineages make sense and they are compelling, but they are wrong if taken too literally.  The historian not only tells the story, but also creates it.  In fact, the lives of ideas are much more chaotic than any story can capture, since everybody has a different hybrid of even the simplest concept.  

I understand that there is no such thing as linear causality in any even reasonably complex in system.  Everything is subject to complex feedback loops with the cause affected by the effect.  It rarely makes any practical sense to trace an idea to its origin.  At best it is like tracing a river to its source.  They say, for example, that Lake Itasca in Minnesota is the source of the Mississippi, but only a few drops of water that reach the Gulf of Mexico actually came from Lake Itasca and w/o water from additional sources, the river would never make it even as far as Bemidji.  Ideas are like that.  Even the best idea cannot get past Bemidji unless they are carried along by others.

So John Maynard Keynes was correct in principle when he wrote that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist,”   but he was exhibiting more than a bit of intellectual arrogance when he assumed that the “practical men” are simply vessels for the ideas or that the ideas came down to them in a clear line; he also overestimated the role of individual ideas and thinkers.  

We are used to thinking of ideas as coming from one wise person (or maybe a wise guy). Whole branches of ideology traced back to a single individual sometimes even named after them. We have Platonism, Marxism or Confucianism.  But how much are they really the product of their eponymous creator?   Not really very much.  How can we know? Think about how many varieties there are of any long-established “ism” and how they change over time.  Plato has been dead for more than two millennia. Presumably he is no longer editing his work, so they changes in interpretation cannot be his.  

Good philosophies are group projects, produced by interactions among individuals often over time, sometimes generations.  This allows the accumulated wisdom of people from different places and times to be put into the balance.   They evolve.  And the best do it while accomplishing the ostensibly contradictory task of maintaining and changing traditions.

Nothing new here, I guess. Just some thoughts on a rainy morning.

November 13, 2011

The Joy of Setting Fires (and the Joy of life in General)

Prescribed burning in Virginai 

If you want to grow longleaf pine, you need fire. Longleaf is a fire-dependent species. And we want to grow longleaf pine.  That is why we clear cut five acres when we did the thinning last winter.  A few weeks ago we sprayed to get at the poplars, which had grown from roots and now we are burning.  This procedure is called "brown and burn" BTW. My friend Eric Goodman got some longleaf seedlings free. which will go in next spring.  Our friends at the Department of Forestry made fire lanes with their tractor. My friends Larry Walker and Frank Meyer did the burning. I am the luckiest man in the world. People always help.  Together we are creating a demonstration forest in Brunswick County. It will showcase the best forestry practices for our part of Virginia.   It includes already a wonderful stand of loblolly.  We will apply different silvicultural practices (various thinning densities, fire, herbicide treatments etc) to show the different results. 

More about the forest plan is here & here.  Pictures of the thinning are here .

Setting forestry fires 

The longleaf are near the edge of their range in southern Virginia, so it is less certain. If the climate changes, however, the range may move north. Longleaf once grew all around the South. Today they are less common because they are harder to grow than loblolly. That is why the State of Virginia is helping us grow them.  Longleaf require fire to grow well and are hard to establish. Once established they are a great tree. The only caveat is the long needles (hence long leaf).  Ice storms can weigh down the branches and cause damage.  Individual longleaf are beautiful trees and a vigorous stand of longleaf is even more beautiful.  I won’t live long enough to see my trees mature, but I hope to enjoy their vigorous adolescence.

At this link is a short video of the fire

My experience in forestry has greatly exceeded my expectations.  My land has attracted help like a magnet. All I have to do is let people share my dreams and they contribute time and more importantly local knowledge and forestry expertise.  Sophisticated people say that people like me are naïve, maybe so.  I believe in win-win outcomes and I don’t care if it sounds cliché. The secret of joy is finding ways to give people what they want in the framework of what you want. I don’t know if I get as much as I could, but I am morally certain that I get more than I would in other ways. I find that in my forestry, I find it in my work and I find it generally in life.

Burned over area for longleaf pine 

I just could not do forestry the way I want to do it w/o all the help I get.  It would be simply impossible.  They get to use my land, but they use it in ways that I want it to be used. What is important to me is that my trees are growing robustly; the water that runs off the land is crystal clear; the soil is getting better; wildlife abounds. I get to watch the trees grow as long as I live and leave it to the kids after I die.  Is there anything else anybody could reasonably want? Maybe a horse when I get to old to walk around comfortably.  Mariza can teach me to ride it.

The Nature Conservancy uses fire well in its ecosystem management.  Here is a link to a good article.

A good article about fire in southern forests is here.

Also check out the Southern Fire Exchange.

I took the Virginia fire course a couple years ago, so I am officially "qualified" to set fire to the woods. Of course, I wouldn't dare do it w/o somebody with boots on the ground experience. Information about using fire in forestry is below. 





November 12, 2011

Odds & Ends for November 12

Youth Ambassadors in Recife

Youth Ambassador in Recife 

Recife had two kids chosen as youth ambassadors from the same school, ABA – the BNC there. We invited them to breakfast, along with their teachers, who after all helped create success. We are making it policy to meet with current and former YA in the towns we visit. Make new friends & keep the old. 

Planting Trees

Planting CAPES trees at EMBRAPA 

CAPES celebrated 60 years of existence by planting some Ipê trees at the headquarters of ENBRAPA. Ipê is a very pretty tree with yellow flowers that thrives in Brasilia.  I attended the ceremony, so I had dinner with Jorge Guimarães, the head of CAPES and then just a few hours later met him again at the tree planting. Tree planting is a good way to mark transitions. The tree will usually still be alive long after the people at the ceremonies are compost, me included. A tree is a living thing that links the past with the future. BTW, They gave me a blue shirt like that too.

EMBRAPA in Brasilia 

EMBRAPA, BTW, is a great organization.  Someday EMBRAPA will help feed the world. Already is. 

Strange Fruit

Jabuticaba tree with fruit in Brasilia 

I have a little tree in my yard called a Jabuticaba. I thought it was just the usual round topped tree, but it bears fruit in the strangest way. The fruit grows right on the branches, instead of in bunches hanging down.  It tastes like a grape and supposedly has anti-oxidant properties. IMO, the berries look a little better than they taste. The tree is above. Below is my watermelon plant. I had a very good watermelon a few weeks ago, so I planted some seeds. They came up. I have no idea how to grow watermelons.  I figure they need lots of water, which they will surely get around here. The plants have flowers. Maybe I will get melons.

Watermelon plant 

Getting to Work

It is only around four miles from home to work, but there are a few choke points along the way that make it less pleasant to ride my bike. I have to cross a narrow bridge, for example, climb a grassy bank and ride across a field at different points.  It takes about 25 minutes to ride to work.  The choke points and the necessity to walk just about double the time needed.  I have my car here, finally, and the drive is very easy.  It takes less than ten minutes to drive. My system is that if I don’t have something especially heavy to carry and if it is not raining when I leave, I take the bike.  Since it can rain after work too, my system is not perfect. If I take the bike in the morning, I have to take it back in the evening, rain or shine.

November 11, 2011

Things We Should Not Forget

I go to Arlington on Veterans’ Day when I am in Washington, but in Brazil I have no place like that. I don’t go for the ceremonies anyway, but rather to remind myself of the debt of gratitude we owe to those who defended our freedom, some at the cost of their own lives.  That I can do anywhere.

My father and most of the men of his generation were veterans. My generation contains many fewer.  The all-volunteer military means that service is concentrated, often among families or places with tradition of military service.  Our military resembles U.S. society in general. The poorest groups in society are significantly under-represented in the military, probably because they more often lack the basic qualifications, such as HS diplomas and clean criminal records. The very rich don’t seem to enlist in great numbers, but contrary to popular conceptions, the wealthier 40% of the population is overrepresented.  So the military tends to be middle-America. It is also a little more rural and more southern (the South accounts for 40% of new recruits) than the general population.  Both blacks and non-Hispanic whites are slightly overrepresented; Asians and Hispanics are not represented as many as their numbers would imply.  Some people speculate that it is because these communities contain many immigrants who have not yet fully integrated into U.S. society. Native-Americans (i.e. Indians), although they make up a small percentage of the American population, are well-represented in the U.S. military.  

I didn’t know very much first-hand about military in combat situations until I spend my year with the Marines in Iraq. (I tried to enlist after college, but I was kept out by a diagnosis of an ulcer when I was sixteen. I don’t think it was correct, but it kept me out.)  I spent much of my time talking to senior officers (majors, colonels and generals) and I know that skewed my perceptions. These guys were very intelligent and disciplined. I was proud to be among in their company and to be more or less accepted.  I say “more or less” because Marines have a very strong circle that I don’t believe any non-Marine can enter.    

I also spent a lot of time with ordinary Marines. The thing that was most admirable about them was how they took responsibility. The twenty-year-old in charge of the vehicle commanded it. I put my life in their hands and had confidence in them. When I was their age, I had responsibility for the French fries at McDonald’s and didn’t do such a good job even at that. Young Marines are amazing.   

I heard on the radio that veterans were having trouble finding jobs back home and I have talked to Chrissy about this. The problem evidently is that military job classifications don’t translate well with civilians ones. The guy that saved lives in Iraq lacks the formal certifications to do the same thing in the back home.   

There is a general problem of translating experience. Life was intense in Iraq. We worked as a team and had a feeling of community against shared risk. When you come home, nobody understands what you did and you really cannot explain it to those who have not been there. When I look back, I think it took me a few months, maybe longer, to readjust and I was lucky to have a stable family life and a good job. The scary thing is that at the time I didn’t perceive the problem. When you are in the desert, you idealize coming home. Nothing can live up to that ideal.  Ordinary life is sometimes harder than extraordinary challenges and hardships. 

I was lucky in Iraq. I got there in September 2007, just as the war was winding down. I remember rolling into Haditha soon after I arrived. It was still smoking from the fighting. Within a few months, we could walk in the market-place among friendly people, grateful for the order we had helped establish. It was an unbelievable change. It also meant that fewer people were getting hurt and killed. But still it happened.

When we lost somebody, they would declare “river city Charlie”. Routine communications were cut until the next of kin were contacted. Just writing that phrase chokes me up. I think of the promising young men killed.  I truly dislike the feeling, but I want never to forget.  There was one young man, called Aaron, who I particularly remember. I didn’t know him personally and I didn’t see him killed, but listening to his service and talking to his friends made a deep impression. He was a military policeman working with Iraqi security forces in the town of Hit, about Alex’s age at the time. He liked to lift weights, like Alex too. I think his similarity to Alex is what made it touch me so much. He joined the Army in a time of war, knowing he might be sent in harm’s way, wanting to serve his country and hoping to acquire some skills that would be useful later in life.   

Colonel Malay and I went to Hit to talk with Aaron's his colleagues. I remember the day, the setting sun, the concrete barriers, the smell of burning garbage, and of course the ubiquitous dust. They were young and upset about what had happened.  They said that Aaron had gotten out of his vehicle and bent down to stretch.  Everybody does that when they get out of the confined space in a HUMVEE or MRAP. Somebody shot him from a down an alley and ran off. The guy got away and we never found out who it was. It was the "odd angry shot," a surprise. Hit was relatively safe.  It was a war zone, but there was not much war left in it. I felt safe when I walked around on the streets and I am sure Aaron did too.  

I am conflicted about this memory. In some ways, I have no right to it; I have intruded in the grief of others and the one loss has come to symbolize many things to me over a year of my life. Years later I am working to remember a person I never knew. I wrote a note to his mother, sharing my condolences explaining the situation. She told me that it was important not to forget her son and said she appreciated my remembrance. I appreciate her “permission" and I am happy if my very small contribution eases her grief. I am getting a lot more.  It helps me remember things I should not forget. 

November 08, 2011

Principals Come Home More Experienced

Principals with Brazilian flag 

The principals from each of the Brazilian states returning from their three-week programs in the U.S. come to one city on their ways home. They meet to share and report on their experiences and elect the Brazilian principal of the year. This year they went to Recife, so that is where I went too.

The principal of the year program is unbelievably good from my public diplomacy point of view. It is a Brazilian program that originated in part from a voluntary visitor tour in 1997. The principal of the year award for each Brazilian state and for Brazil as a whole was initiated in 1999. The Embassy sponsored exchanges with the U.S. in 2000 and the first group traveled in that year. It became a two-way exchange in 2004, when top American principals made return visits to Brazilian states. It is really a nation-to-nation (the American nation is greater than the American government) exchange. Principals from both sides see places that few ever visit.

The truly great PD aspect is that I – the PAO at the U.S. Embassy – get to moderate the debriefing and speak prominently at the award ceremony.  It is a big Brazilian program. CONSED, the national Association of Secretaries of Education, owns it. Yet we are a big part of it. Also present at the events are state secretaries of education from around Brazil. So we are talking to the best principals plus the leaders who make educational policy around the country. 

It doesn’t get any better than this in the Public Diplomacy world. And it has been going on for more than ten years.

Pictures taking at Principals ceremony 

The Brazilian principals divided into nine groups, clustered by where they went in the U.S. Each group reported on what they saw and their impressions. They went all over the place, from rural South Carolina or Virginia to urban Chicago and Brooklyn. American is a very diverse place and the challenges in Anoka, Minnesota or Poulsbo, Washington are not the same as in Chicago or Cleveland. But America, despite its size and diversity, shares many similarities, at least as seen by our Brazilian friends.

Award ceremony at Principal conference in Recife 

One of the things that impressed the Brazilians was the same thing Tocqueville saw. Americans are involved in ways beyond their government. Our Brazilian friends were impressed by the amount of parental involvement as well as how much community organizations contributed to schools. 

Long skinny building in RecifeThere are other differences. The Brazilians commented that American school days are “integral.”  This could be a confusing concept unless you knew that Brazilian schools tend to run in shifts, with different grades rotating in and out from early morning to evening.  Brazilian educators tend to believe that a whole day school is better.  It makes sense to me too. The Brazilian school shifts seem a bit rushed. Nobody really has a home. The same goes for teachers. Our Brazilian principals expressed surprise that most American teachers have their own classrooms and the kids move.  In Brazil the teachers are the ones who move. This leads to a kind of transience that hurts discipline. 

There are lots of criticisms of American public schools, but to hear the Brazilian principals’ report, we are doing just fine.  The schools the Brazilians visited are not chosen because they are “the best” and we do not try to sanitize their experience. But the schools are self-selecting – they have to apply - and have to possess conditions to host guests.  I think this de-facto selects the best, or at least eliminates the worst. It is also likely that the better parts of the schools are those that interact the most with foreign guests.

Some American public schools are excellent; others are very good.  Of course, some are bad and others are horrid.  Often these diverse & contradictory conditions exist in the same district or even in the same school.  Perhaps it is like the old story about the blind men and the elephant.  Reality will vary. 

I got to moderate the discussion by the principals, as I mentioned. I tried to say as little as possible, so as not to overtax my Portuguese but also to hear more of what they had to say. I was proud to hear report after report praising our American public schools, but a little conflicted, as mentioned above. Were the Brazilians just being nice or did they see something in American public schools that we missed? 

Let’s think about it from the point of view of someone trying to improve. You certainly should try to avoid mistakes, but you can probably improve faster if you concentrate on the positives. So if I was a Brazilian principal, I would be looking for the good things that I could copy or adapt to my own conditions.  The same goes for the American principals who will be paying a visit to Brazil in a couple of months. You don’t need to concentrate too much on the negatives, except to avoid them. And if you don’t have them in your own country anyway, what does it matter?  

We had an evening program where the principals got their award certificates and recognize the Brazil-wide principal of the year. Principal Adriana Aguiar from Gurupi in Tocantins won. It was a real show of solidarity, with the Secretaries of Education giving the award  (certificates of excellence in leadership and management) to those from their states. Some states had big cheering sections. I noticed particularly Amazonas, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul brought big teams. I got to give out the plaque that will go on the school. It was great seeing the excitement and enthusiasm and getting to be a big part of it.

Of course, I understand that I am just a symbol of the United States, but I can accept that.  The real rock star is our Brazilian colleague Marcia, who is known and loved by the principals and the people at CONSED.  She was doing this before I arrived and will (Ihope) continue after. Our local colleagues are the real source of public diplomacy success. They are a resource we often take for granted and sometimes fail to sufficiently appreciate. All public diplomacy, like all politics, is local and they are our local connection.

The pictures show the ceremonies and awards. The building is one of many tall skinny buildings I have seen around Recife. I guess the land is expensive. The area near the ocean is narrow. Sorry re the quality. I took them with my cellphone.

You can read more about this program at the Consulate's webpage here.

November 06, 2011

Gas: the Simple Answer to Energy & Economy

The simple answer to our energy challenges & our lackluster economic performance are the vast energy reserves in gas and oil that new technologies have recently made available to us right here in America. This will even help keep us safer, since bad guys control much of the exportable oil and gas outside North America; the less we give them the better.

First let's talk about our biggest challenge. Overcoming the old-fashioned ideas we learned in the 1970s. These were pessimistic times of shortages. Experts used pseudo-science terms like "peak oil" that frightened and impressed the credulous. Many thought up plans to "manage our decline." We have less, they told us. President Jimmy Carter put on his sweater and told us to get used to it. 

The pessimists were right in the short term given their unimaginative straight line projections of resources used, obtained & projected. But they lacked the capacity to understand innovation or when they did they thought only in terms of big government investments and a managed energy economy. 

So let's dispense with that. All those energy challenges that defeated Jimmy Carter and perplexed the pessimists have been overcome by human ingenuity. We have access to more oil and natural gas than we did in 1980 and it seems like we will have even more in the future. In the 1970s, government regulators controlled the price of natural gas and then outlawed the building of new power plants that used that clean fuel. This was logical based on their flawed information. As far as they thought, we ran out of natural gas about ten years ago and we would have, had we listened to those experts.

Supposed shortages of gas and oil playing into the world-view of some folks and they will scream when I assert they were way wrong, but they were/are. What we have today is far beyond any best-case energy scenario envisioned by the luddites of the 1970s.

Business Week has a cover story about natural gas and how it could bring the economy out of the doldrums. Cheap AMERICAN energy supplies would provide a real stimulus to the economy, one that will produce tax revenue rather than add to our debts. There are some environmental challenges, but fewer than with any of the other forms of energy we currently use on a large scale. They can be managed. 

The creation of a whole new world of energy using gas is a heroic story of individuals and small firms fighting against the experts, Federal regulators and powerful interests in places like the coal industry. They also had to fight the ridicule of experts who said that it could never be done. It is a story that shows exactly why big government programs in energy fail and often cause harm. They were going to do what they said couldn't be done. And they did. Maybe that is why so many people STILL don't get it. 

So let's sum up. Technological advances have "created" vast new supplies of American natural gas that can stimulate millions of American jobs. The extraction and consumption of this fuel is more ecologically benign than any of the forms of energy it is likely to replace.  Similar technological advances have made available vast amounts of oil in Canada, but also in places like North Dakota, whose economy is booming with full employment. This will give us a North American alternative to oil from unstable places in the Middle East or Africa. So what do we do? We dither and oppose the infrastructure that will bring it to us. 

There may be no easy answers, but there are simple answers. The simple answer is to just say yes to inexpensive, available American energy, which will create American jobs, improve the quality of our air and help us pull free of the doldrums in our economy. What are we waiting for?

I have been noticing this for years. It just keeps getting better.  

November 05, 2011

The Beauty of Audio Books & the Timelessness of Great Ones

I downloaded a couple more of the “Great Courses” series today.  I am very fond of them because they are relatively short, very well done and available whenever I want them on an I-Pod that can contain a library.  I listen to them while driving, walking to the store or on an airplane, times when I otherwise would not only waste time, but also be stressed and anxious.  It is better than music, which is mindless.  I have music too, BTW, for the mindless times but generally it is better to be engaged.

Audio books and courses have been part of my life since 1984. I remember this date so precisely because that is when we bought our first car. (Yes, I was 29 before I owned a car. That is maybe why I still bike, metro or walk so much). The audio books came soon after. I don’t recall the name of the first series, but it was a series of lectures. They really were not produced originally for audio books, rather they were clearly just lectures recorded in a lecture hall.  The audio quality and the presentations were of uneven quality.

Few real books were available and in those days I was more into the motivational stuff anyway, so for a few years I was into programs that told me how to be a winner.  It is easy to laugh at myself when I think about it or the type of person that wants such things, but I think it was a stage I had to pass through.  I learned a lot of skills that I still find useful.  Many of the motivational programs are just stupid, but the better ones take actual wisdom and put it into bite sized chunks, sweetened with the promise of quick success. One of my favorite was “the Secret of Power Negotiations.” A lot of the techniques were/are simple, but they were new to me or at least it was useful to have them crystalized.  There was another one about techniques for getting ahead in business that I recognized as “the Prince” updated with modern examples. My time with these types of programs lasted until the late 1980s.

My next dominant genre was business books.  I signed up for some monthly cassette clubs that sent me abridged books by guys like Tom Peters, Peter Drucker & Peter Senge. Of course I choose these example because they were peters, but jokes aside I got a pretty good business education and learned lots of things about marketing, finance & management that I either didn’t learn of forgot when I was doing my MBA.  I think there were at least two reasons why this was true. The first is that I believe I spent more total hours listening to the books than I had spent in class but more importantly I think I was more able to absorb the information. I had real world experience and need for the information that I didn’t have as a callow youth.  I have generally passed through this stage too. There tends to be a lot of repetition.   

The business related books that I still use today are those related to new media or prospect theory, which are still developing fields that apply to my current work.  Although I am going to give up the new media stuff soon.  The breathless “new” quality is starting to annoy me too much. A new, “must jump on,” bandwagon rumbles past every few months.  Not having jumped on several hasn’t hurt me.   

In Krakow we had a big district with lots of places who welcomed visits by American diplomats, so I drove around a lot. I think it was a lot like being an old country doctor. Usually I drove myself or went with our drive, Bogdan. I learned a lot of Polish from Bogdan, often things that my more educated staff would castigate as low class, but eventually we exhausted our stories. The audio books were great. I discovered Blackstone Audio Books, where I could rent unabridged books about history, politics and literature.  It is funny how memory mixes. I presented a series of lectures in a little city called Bielsko-Biala, about an hour and a half from Krakow. I drove there every week for six weeks to give the lectures, doing business along the way in Silesia, so I was in the car alone a lot, I think every Wednesday.

I listened to a couple of Audio books during these trips. The one I remember best was called “Novo ordo Seclorum” about the Constitutional Convention in 1787. I tended to let the tape play and sometimes repeat, so I got it good.  The funny thing is that my memories of the information are mixed with the memories of the sights, sounds and smells of Silesia in the fall, so when I think of Alexander Hamilton at the Constitutional convention, I usually recall the smell of burning leaves or the coal smoke from the chimneys and I can still picture the foggy skies and the rainy forests of Southern Poland in October.

I stuck with the cassette technology for a long time. There was a kind of golden age for cassettes after 2000. As others moved to DVD, I could get the cassette cheaply. I didn’t really matter to me if they were a little old.  If you are listening to a biography of Julius Caesar it really doesn’t matter if it was published in 1985 or 1995.  But I did have to change technologies to take advantage of more contemporary topics.  I liked the Bob Woodward books about the presidents and the Robert Reich comments on the economy.   

But my favorite topics were biographies.  Four stand out in my memory from my DVD days.  There was “His Excellency” about George Washington, a biography of Franklin, the exact title escape me and two really good books by Ron Chernow, a biography of Alexander Hamilton and an even more interesting one called Titan about John D. Rockefeller.  I liked that one so much I bought and read the paper version.  Suffice to say that Rockefeller was a complex man, generally mistreated by popular history. He certainly was ruthless, but his reorganization of the oil industry was a necessary step in the development of our country.  He was also admirable in his work ethic and personal habits.  He made the money with his own intelligence (cunning?) and hard work (i.e. didn’t come from a rich family) and always gave away at least 10% of his income, even when he was poor. As he got richer, he couldn’t do it well, so he created a business-like way of philanthropy – the philanthropic foundation.  

I was also a late convert to I-pod, but I have enjoyed it a lot. I used to get my audio books from I-Tunes, but after I noticed that most of them came from Audible.com, I went directly.  When I checked today, I was surprised that I had download sixty three audio books from Audible since the middle of 2009.  Mostly I listened to them on the Metro of walking around. I never listen to I–pod while I run, since I like the total running experience, but I do listen on the walk back. In Virginia, I run out for around a half an hour.  The walk back takes three times that long, so I get in a lot of listening. The problem is the competition.  Now that NPR programs are on I-Tunes, I sometimes do them. There has also been significant competition from Portuguese. I have been trying to get the same audio books in Portuguese, kill two birds with one stone, but the selection is not as complete.

Usually, I listen to a couple of books during the same period.  I am listening now to “the Big Thirst” about water policy and “the Drunkard’s Walk” about randomness.  Sometimes I like the “theme” my books. When I drove through Texas, I listened to “Empire of the Summer Moon” about the Comanche. It is a great book that I recommend. I also listened to “the Forgotten Man” about the Great Depression during my last cross country trip. I recommend that one too.  

As I wrote at the top, I am still enamored with the Great Courses. They have lots of things I should have learned in college but forgot. I also think that the Great Courses are sometimes better than average college courses.  There is some competition, of course.  There are some very good courses available on I-Tunes U.  For example, the “don’t miss” course is a history of Greece given at Yale by Donald Kegan.  

In history & literature, for example, the Great Courses still talk about great things. It seems that in modern colleges they often concentrate details that make little difference and/or on life’s losers and all the troubles of the world related to contemporary problems. We are not the end of history. The thing that makes literature or history great is timelessness. The fact that it is NOT lashed to an ephemeral “relevance.” I hate it when they think I want to learn about “people like me.” I want to learn about those who are different, maybe greater than I am. I prefer to concentrate on the great achievements that can inspire me to better things and consider the timeless lessons.  Human nature doesn’t change.  I also believe in the importance of great decisions.  The behavior of Agamemnon still has a lot to teach, for example.  I understand it is literature, not fact, but the fact that hundreds of generations were influenced by that narrative makes a difference.  There is no such thing as a modern classic or one that is newly discovered.  A classic is like wine or cheese. A classic has to be aged and have a chance to influence more than one generation in more than one place. 

Speaking of timeless value, I mentioned that book “Novo Ordo Seclorum.” The author talked about the personalities of the founding fathers, but also about the books and ideas that influenced them.  Madison, Hamilton & Washington read and were influenced by many of the same classics that influenced me.  I can put myself in their august presence to say the “we” learned the dangers of republics from Thucydides.  We accompanied the abuse of power with Tacitus & Suetonius.  Understood the nature of balances of power with Aristotle and accompanied various human interactions with Shakespeare.  Practical people also need to be grounded in the wisdom of the ages.

Below is the list of the Great Courses I have down loaded in the last two years.  I actually thought I had a few more.  I suppose I am conflating them with the audio books and I-tunes and I used to get them on DVC, which I have lost or damaged. The Great thing about the Great Courses is that they remain on the website and you can download them again if you change computer or your I-pod dies.  And you cannot lose or ruin the disk by spilling Coca-Cola on it (happens to me more than you might think.)

America and the World: A Diplomatic History

American Mind

Art of Critical Decision Making

Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft

Conservative Tradition

Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor

Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitut...

History of the United States

Late Middle Ages

Making History: How Great Historians Interpret th...

Odyssey of Homer

Peoples and Cultures of the World

The Skeptic’s Guide to the Great Books

Understanding Complexity

Western Literary Canon in Context

Wisdom of History

World War I: The "Great War"

November 03, 2011

More on Youth Ambassadors

We got more good coverage from our Youth Ambassador program at this link.  My colleagues in Sao Paulo did a really good job.

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