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February 28, 2012

A Mature Ecosystem

New York Public Library 

The biology analogy applies to the complex interactions and niches in the American education establishment.  This is a good thing. A mature ecosystem can use inputs efficiently and accommodate many different needs.   It is robust and adaptive. 

I am impressed with the system. I find that it is much better than I understood it was before the visit. My earlier understanding was simplistic and outdated. I still thought in terms of a university or a school as the unit of analysis. I knew that schools created and maintained connections with other schools and the outside community, but what I didn’t really understand was the extent that all these entities have effectively merged.  This is why the ecosystem analogy is apt. The parts of schools are not only interacting with other parts and outside actors; they are dependent and cooperative with entities well removed from their own cooperation.   It is like the bird that eats berries on top of a tree in interacting with soil bacteria that allow the roots to take advantage of minerals many steps removed.

The liberty bell 

The coordinating mechanism is a kind of distributed decision making process. All the various actors are responding to the changing circumstances, incentives and opportunities. The mature educational ecosystem provides lots of shared services or at least opportunities that all can use. This makes the power of big institutions less overwhelming and empowers smaller institutions. It levels the playing field when everybody has access to resources that once were concentrated only in well-established institutions.

All this means that we are on the threshold of a new age of higher education. This is the same revolution experienced by big industry in the 1970s and 1980s. That was when the advantage of the big and established organizations eroded. You didn’t need to have in-house services when such things were available by outside vendors cheaper and more efficiently. The education establishment hung on a bit longer providing full services.  In fact, the positions of the majors strengthened as customers moved to prestige providers. There were few alternative products and it was hard to unbundle them. The value of the name was strong.  

I think this is changing rapidly. Educational wealth has been distributed wider. You can get a great education all over America and sometimes you don’t even have to enter a prestigious university program or a university program at all. The connections are all over the place now. 

In my old world, you went through different stages. I remember one book I read called them “boxes of life.” You didn’t skip them and you rarely went back. You graduated HS; some went to college; you got out four years later and went to work for the next thirty or forty years and then retired. You were done with formal education for the most part the day you graduated. Today things are different. You have to keep learning.  Students of various ages and occupations are mixing. Now you might go back to school or at least formal training many times during a working life. This education can be delivered in a variety of ways, at a variety of times by a variety of providers. The traditional four-year institution enjoys no advantages and the paradigm that brings people in at the bottom, processes them through a set program and graduates them at the end may in fact be a liability.  

The new paradigm is much more customized.  No two people take exactly the same coursework. Their needs are not the same. No one institution can satisfy all the needs. The expertise will not be available at any one institution.  The expertise may not be available at all. It needs to be created in the process of the interaction of learning and teaching. It is an interesting new world.

My pictures show the New York Public library up top and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia below. From the trip, but not much related to what I have written.

Shoulder-to-shoulder we make friends


We met dozens of Brazilian Science w/o Borders student during this trip. The American instructions that received them like to bring them out to talk to us and they like to talk about their experiences in America. I can say with conviction that the kids are all right. They are adapting well as enhancing the reputation of their country. 

The biggest challenge is an obvious one – the weather. There is no place in Brazil that has weather as cold as they are encountering in New York or even Virginia. Lucky for them, this has been an unusually mild winter in most of North America. Nevertheless, it takes a little while to get used to cold and to learn the art of layering.

A more pressing problem is time management. Students in Brazil spend more time in class, but have less homework.The SWB students mentioned that they have needed to manage their time and priorities more closely.Being a student in America requires more self-discipline, they said.On the other hand, if they manage their time well, they have time off on weekends or in the evenings.This is not a lesson only Brazilians need to learn, of course.I learned it the hard way in college and have to relearn it all the time even at my advanced age.

They didn’t think that it would much help to have some kind of course in time management before leaving Brazil. It is something you just have to learn by doing, they said. I suppose that is true. They also were not that enthusiastic about additional English before coming. They said that they perfect their English faster in the real world situation. The vocabulary they need is too specialized and only their fellow engineers actually can help them learn it. I have to qualify this statement a bit. The students we met are very good English speakers already. They came with TOEFL scores above 90. Many in the second and third waves of Science w/o Borders student may not have this level of proficiency. In other words, some additional training might be useful.

We don’t need to reinvent wheels that are already turning really well. Our Brazilian students praised the reception they received from the student services departments. American universities are accustomed to foreign students. They know how to help and have created structures to do it. They have already thought about, tested and implemented all of my bright ideas plus many more that I have not thought about. Sometimes you have to let people do the jobs they do so well, w/o second guessing them or substituting your own judgement for theirs. 

The students praised the hand-on project based approach in American education. I mentioned some of this cross-discipline teamwork in previous posts. Everybody seems to like this as a learning tool, a way to speak English and a way to see how and why what they learn is important. Americans working with Brazilians on common goals. This is great.

I am reminded of the old saying that you don’t make friends fact-to-face; you make friends shoulder-to-shoulder, working on common endeavors toward shared goals.

My picture is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I managed to get over there for a little while in  Sunday.

February 27, 2012

There is a Tide

Hermes at Rockefeller Center 

Our group of Brazilian education leaders has been getting a great reception everywhere we go and I understand that our partner groups on the West Coast and in the Midwest are enjoying similar results. No surprise really.  The Brazilians are spending $3 billion to send 100,000 of their best and brightest students overseas to enrich the educational environment.   


There is more, however.  This is the perfect time to be working with Brazil. The country is emerging as a cultural and economic power and is striving to have its STEM education match its new wealth and position.  American instructions, independent of the Science w/o Borders initiative, have decided that it is time to expand in Brazil. They want a bigger network of connections and alumni in the vast country that makes up half of Latin America.

New_York Rockefeller_Center_front 

There is also the matter of diversification.  Most STEM programs have lots of foreign students, but there is a great preponderance of Chinese and Indian students.  There is nothing wrong with this, but you lose the advantages of diversity if you have less of it.  

Having a larger number of students from a place like Brazil will bring in their unique experiences and talents, adding another ingredient to the powerful mix & besides those countries already sending large numbers of students (i.e. East Asia, India & some rich Arab countries), there are not as many sources as you might think.  Europeans are largely being absorbed into their own international system, i.e. a German student can very easily study in Italy or Spain, where the systems are more compatible and they have ERASMUS program that helps pay for their study and lets them work. Many other parts of the world do not have either large numbers of qualified students or cannot afford to send them. 


Brazil, in fact, was a more difficult case until the Science w/o Borders initiative and a good case study for how it can be difficult. The older generation of Brazilian scholars (i.e. people like me and older) was actually MORE likely to have international experience than those a bit younger. This was the ironic result of improvements in Brazilian universities coupled with challenging economic times. Until the 1970s, many of the best and brightest Brazilians studied overseas because there were few alternatives at home. One of Brazil’s educational successes of the last generations was to create an excellent university system.  But this kept Brazilians at home.  Of course, they were also kept at home by the hard economic times of the 1970s and 1980s, the hyperinflation and the decline of their purchasing power. This situation has completely turned around.

Brazil is a country of continental proportions. Like the U.S., it could and did absorb the energy of most of its people.  So instead of an international experience, a Brazilian who wanted to go far from home could simply go to a different state, like a New Yorker might go to Wisconsin to study. Unfortunately, the system did not develop much capacity to attract foreign students.  Even in large universities in Brazil, you can often count the number of foreign students on your hands. Only PUC in Rio has a large contingent of foreign students.  This is also something that needs to change. 

A second theme of our education mission, something that may become even more important than the actual Science w/o Borders program, is to create connections among Brazilian and American institutions, so that we get a two-way flow. Not only do Brazilians come to America, but Americans go to Brazil. We have a lot to learn from each other. 

I have been encouraged by the interest in Brazil among Americans but dismayed by the lack of practical knowledge.  Brazil seems a far off land of which we know little. Few Americans study Portuguese and an annoying number think that Brazilians speak Spanish. We should know more about the biggest country is South America. Relations between our two great democracies will continue to improve, but we need to know each other better. 

Science w/o Borders should jump-start this rediscovery. This is really something big and we are certainly not starting from scratch. Brazil is a fellow Western democracy, a partner in the Americas. We are old friends, who have just not kept up. The U.S. was the first country in the world to recognize Brazilian independence.  We have worked closely over the years. We were allies in World War II. Our scientist, leaders and people collaborate well. An American in Brazil recognizes familiar brands and American firms are present and making products in Brazil.  On the other side, Brazilian firms are present in the U.S. Budweiser beer is owned by a Brazilian multinational as are Burger King Restaurants, among others. It is just time to get to know each other better again and renew our wonderful friendship. The opportunity is now.

Maybe time for the Shakespeare quote:

"There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures." 

I cannot add anything more, except to write that my pictures are all from Rockefeller Plaza in New York. They are related to the text only in that I wrote this the same day I took the pictures. 

February 26, 2012

New York: America's Perpetual Gatway

Times Square in New York 

My impressions of New York are almost completely based on movies and television and it gets worse. The movies and television that provide my points of reference are limited & out of date. I have at least three “my” New Yorks, mostly chronological. There is the New York of Little Italy and the Jewish lower East Side. This I learned mostly from movies, often comedies or musicals. The second New York is a violent, dangerous bankrupt city of the 1970s. The one portrayed in movies like “Death Wish.” The last one is closer to modern, the one in “Friends” or “Seinfeld.” When I went to the real New York, it seemed familiar and different. Landmarks are familiar; people are different.

Jogging track in Central Park 

New York has long been the door to America and a place of immigration and immigrants, but they are different and the communities are ephemeral. The Italians and the Jews of song and story are mostly gone, assimilated into the larger Americans community. The current groups are Chinese, Russians & Chinese.  Within a generation they will also be assimilated.  

Columbus statue in New York 

Many of my attitudes are ex-post-facto. I think of the immigrant waves of the early 20th Century as ordinary Americans because I knew that they and their children became ordinary Americans. People at the time probably thought of them as foreign.

Winter garden in New York 

The violent and dangerous New York lasted a generation. The city was seriously mismanaged and for a time seemed unredeemable. Crime is a terrible form of oppression. If you cannot feel safe at home or on the streets you are not free and all the great attributes of a city mean nothing if you crime prevents crime prevents you from taking advantage of them. There are lots of explanations for the drop in crime. Any explanation must take into account better policing and an attitude change. During the1960s and 1970s, authorities tried to attack the “roots of crime”. This worked not at all. A direct approach to attacking crime did better.The direction of causality goes in this direction. Disorder is both a large contributor to both crime & poverty. Crime is also a cause of disorder, so if you attack crime directly you also attack disorder and hence poverty. The best anti-poverty program may be attacking crime, not the other way around. No matter what happened, it worked. The violent and disorderly New York disappeared in the 1990s. The picture below is related to a single act of violence, BTW. It is where John Lennon was killed in 1980.

John Lennon death spot 

The Seinfeld/Friends New York is also gone, but at least the current version is recognizable. 

One of the big successes has been the area around Central Park and the park itself. During the 1960s the place was falling into wreck and ruin. Crime was a problem, but so was simple deterioration. Central Park was designed to look natural, but it is not. It requires lots of upkeep.  In recent decades, management of Central Park has been taken over by a private organization of local people. They raise most of the money to keep the park up and they manage the process. It is a good example of getting people involved in their communities and it works. 

It is likely that today’s New York is a better place to live than in any time in its history. It is easy to be nostalgic for one or the other of the mythical cities of the past, but the modern one is cleaner, with better maintained buildings and less crime than ever before. The only problem is that it is getting harder to afford living in New York, especially Manhattan. It is becoming more a city of the rich. As we look back on the sweep of history, we understand that this too will pass. We should enjoy it while we can.

February 25, 2012

Stevens Institute of Technology

New York 

The Stevens Institute of Technology is a venerable institution founded in 1870 by a family of inventors who made their money and reputations making industrial machines, especially steam driven ones. The Institute goal is to be integrated into the community and into the needs of business.  We are hearing this all over.   Schools seem to have gotten the message. But a dean at Stevens put it nicely.  

He said that their goal is to connect innovation with business with technology as the catalyst.

Statue at Stevens Institution of Tech 

Stevens in fact partnered with Parsons on the Solar Decathlon and in many ways is the Yang to Parsons’ Yin. Stevens is an engineering school with a “design spine”.  They want to integrate design into their creations in the first year.  The students work on interdisciplinary projects from the beginning and – interesting for engineers – they must take humanities courses every semester.

The Stevens Institute has eleven Brazilians taking part in Science w/o Borders. I will write more about those impressions in a separate posting, as I have talked to Brazilian SWB kids at several places now.

The Stevens folks were talking about their illustrious alumni.  Among them was Frederick Taylor, founder of “Scientific Management”.  It is interesting. He was a true man of his times.  We can revere what he did to reform industry while understanding that it has been overtaken by events.  I wrote a post about that a couple years ago.

February 24, 2012

Capacity to Innovate

New York  

Parsons School of Design

We sometimes think of innovation as new discoveries, a new software or medicine. We still have the image of the lone genius building something new in the basement or the garage.  The basement or garage may still be part of innovation, but the genius is not alone. Innovation also and perhaps more importantly is the application of techniques and technologies in different ways that satisfy developing needs. After all, a new discovery that cannot be communicated or applied is as useful as … nothing. Innovation must always exist in a human society context.

I admit that I was a little confused when I saw that the Parsons School of Design at the New School in New York was on our list of visits. I was thinking in that narrow sense that design meant only something like making nice looking furniture, modern art or maybe high fashion. I was wrong. 

People at Parsons explained that they work on teams to embed scientific and technical innovation into systems, i.e. designs that serve human needs. Theirs is a multi-disciplinary approach of engagement with complex problems of art, design, science & technology all wrapped into something that works for people They started with the example of their work on the solar decathlon/empowerhouse, where their team designed and built a modular house that was functional, comfortable, attractive and produced its own energy using passive and active solar power. 

It was impressive as was the philosophy behind. You have to go where the problem is and help solve it for the people there with their cooperation of those affected by the problem and will be involved in implementing solutions, my kind of thing. Partnerships frame the definition of the problem and the solutions.  

Parsons already has two SWB participants who are doing well, BTW.

Mural of Lenin at New School 

The New School was founded in the 1920s, among others by people fleeing the tyranny of totalitarianism in Europe. You still get that feeling from the building, which was designed in the 1920s and by the decoration. Our room featured large murals by the Mexican artist Jose Orozco. It was a product of the times, featuring heroes like Gandhi and villains like Lenin and Stalin. I wondered why Hitler was not featured until I found out that it was pained in 1931, when Hitler was just a dark cloud on the horizon. A painting on the wall of the hall is from a bit later time, the Spanish civil war. You can see that below and it is self-explanatory. Let’s hope the world never has to go through a period that bad again.  It is useful to be reminded of such dark times; I hope the memory helps us avoid it. George Santayana famously said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. But it sometimes seems that those who remember don’t fare much better.

Spanish Civil War painting at New School 

February 23, 2012

Historically Black Colleges & Universities

Morgan State University 

We visited two historically black colleges, Howard University in Washington and Morgan State in Baltimore.  These universities at one time were designed for blacks, who were often excluded from other universities.  Today they have enrollment of all races; hence the name “historically” instead of currently, but they still enroll relatively more African-American students on average.

Morgan State library 

The Dean at Morgan State explained some of the history. The Morrill Act in 1862 funded educational institutions by giving the states federal land to establish and endow "land-grant" colleges. These universities were supposed to concentrate on practical subjects such as agriculture, science and engineering. Many of our great public state universities are land grant colleges. Wisconsin and Minnesota are among them, but some private institutions such Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also started life as land grant institutions. While these institutions were not “white” few blacks could take advantage.  A second Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1890 specified that states using federal land-grant funds must either make their schools open to both blacks and whites or allocate money for black colleges.  Sixteen exclusively black institutions received 1890 land-grant funds, among them Morgan State. Howard is different. It is funded by the Federal government, one of only three institutions that get direct funds from the Feds.

Howard University 

Today these institutions maintain their commitment to sciences and practical arts, making them potentially good partners for the Science w/o Borders program.

The top two pictures show Morgan State University. The bottom is Howard. 

February 22, 2012

Micron in Manassas

Our Brazilian friends and I went to Micron in Manassas near Washington to give them an idea about how high tech firms are integrated into a well-functioning educational community. Micron makes computer memory.  This is a very complex business with a heavy capital investment and a lot of R&D. The Micron people told us that they absolutely require three things: uninterrupted electrical power, an abundant water supply and an educated workforce.  None of these things are as easy to get as they would first appear.  

Uninterrupted power means exactly that. Even a little hiccup in power can cost thousands of dollars when the very expensive processes are interrupted. I am not exactly sure how water is used in making chips, but it evidently is a large part of the production. The educated labor force is a little surprising.  There are not many people working at Micron. It would seem to me that you could import the relatively few people needed.  The Micron folks explained that they were really talking about a kind of social ecosystem and a strong social ecosystem requires educated workforces in various businesses that support Micron in direct and indirect ways, as well as a diverse population that brings a variety of ideas.  

Somebody questioned this idea, pointing out that Micron was headquartered in Boise, Idaho, hardly a big or diverse metro area. Our hosts admitted that this seemed to be an exception to the rule. They also explained how Micron came to be located in Idaho in the first place.  It was a semi-random event. A rich guy called JR Simplot provided the start-up capital for Micron.  Simplot made a fortune pioneering the production of frozen French fries and then made his fortune bigger by becoming the supplier to McDonalds.

Naval Observatory 

Micron spends a lot of time and money trying to shrink the size of the memory it makes. This won’t be possible very much longer with the technologies and materials available.  Some of the processors are currently only twenty atoms wide. That is 20 atoms. Think how small that is. They probably cannot shrink down to the subatomic level, so researchers are looking for alternatives to the flat silicon materials.  This is the current holy grain and Micron is helping fund research at Virginia universities in search of it.

Library at Naval Observatory 

PrincipiaLater that day we went to the Naval Observatory.  This is where my pictures came from. We could not take pictures in Micron so as not to potentially compromise proprietory information. 

The main duty of the Naval Observatory use to be to keep perfect time and write almanacs for navigation. The device up top used to keep track of the changes in the earth's rotation. The earth does not rotate at exactly the same time. There are a few seconds difference. Scientist are not sure why. 

The Observatory has an interesting library. You can see it in the picture. It has some race books, including copies of Newton's "Principia" (pictured) as well as Galileo and Copernicus.  Pictures of the other books are here and here

February 20, 2012

No Bright Boundaries & Never a Finish Line

NOVA campus 

The cost of higher education is through the roof.  Well … it depends on what you mean.

Higher education is going through profound changes that are changing the shape, but we are still seeing only the old beast in a kind of persistence of vision scenario. We still see clearly the old world that we know and loved, the great universities with the names we all know. But this is always a limited resource, one that cannot be expanded. There are only so many “Top Universities”. That is why it is getting harder and harder to get into them and more expensive for the happy few who make the jump.

Computer lab at NOVA 

But maybe the big names like Harvard, Yale, Stanford and even our own beloved UVA are analogous to big names like Cadillac, Lincoln, Packard & Rolls Royce – great old luxury vehicles. The best universities had all the advantages, including things like professors with great credentials, big libraries and prestigious pedigrees.  The only advantage that really remains is the pedigree. Internet has largely equalized the advantage of the libraries and we have trained up so many great professors in the last couple of generations that there really is not a significant difference among the top hundreds of institutions. The great old universities are the bright stars, but most of the educational universe is made up of the dark matter that we sometimes don’t see. 

Lots of learning is not university-based at all. We have options. If you live in a decent sized city, you can go to free lectures at think tanks & foundations. W/o leaving your house, you can listen to a wide variety of courses on I-pad and you have an interactive experience online with programs such as the Khan Academy. 

And then there are Community Colleges. I was mightily impressed by my visit to Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). They have great facilities and faculty and they provide a quality education for only 25-33% of the cost of a public university and less than a tenth of the cost of a good private institution.   Beyond that, they have open enrollment. This I like. 

I dislike stringent entrance requirements. This wall you need to jump can determine your life chances and you have to jump this wall when you are too young to really know what is going on. Far better, IMO, is to have lots of chances, lots of options. After all, it doesn’t really matter what road you take to success if you arrive there.  All the matters is if you know the material or not. I like the idea that you get to try until you succeed or until you decide to stop.  Why be punitive?  When Edison invented the light bulb, nobody penalized him for his thousands of “failures.” 

Community colleges are flexible and responsive to the needs of customers.  In Virginia, almost nobody is more than a half hour’s drive form a community college course.  They take the courses to where the demand lies.   NOVA sometimes holds the courses on the premises of firms.

Chip maker Micron told us that they decided to stay in Manassas partly because NOVA was responsive to training needs in math, ESL, tech writing and other STEM and George Mason was there for research support. 

Our Brazilian friends seemed as impressed as I was and there are lots of places for cooperation on Science w/o Borders.  NOVA already has students from many countries. They can take some of the Brazilian students in their second year.  More importantly, NOVA has extensive experience in English teaching.  They can bring some of the Brazilian students up to speed in English. It may be the start of a beautiful friendship. 

All universities, especially public universities are supposed to contribute to the general welfare. This means educating the people, giving advice to firms and producing public intellectual goods. NOVA people told us that they have three sorts of students. Some are the traditional type who are preparing for a four year institution; other are non-traditional students and still others are in it to hone their job stills. The task is to serve the people in their various permutations. When universities become more exclusive, they cannot do this task well anymore. Open enrollment is something we used to have and now don’t in good universities.  That is why I like the idea.  We need to make it easier to go in and out of the learning environment. We cannot set up walls that hold people back or need to be jumped. 

We used to think that we graduated HS. Then we went to college. We came out four years later and we were done.  This is changed. We no longer have the easily discerned boundaries and there is never a finish line for education. If we ever think we are finished, we ARE finished in the other sense of the word.

The picture up top show part of the NOVA campus in Annandale.  Below is a computer lab where they teach development math. Students learn at their own pace. They have tutors to help, but much of this is programmed.  The people at NOVA say that it works a lot better.

February 16, 2012

Making Science w/o Borders a Reality

We are taking some of our Brazilian friends on the road, or maybe they are taking us. The bottom line is that twenty-eight leaders of Brazilian universities are going to the U.S. and I get to go with them along with the executive director of Fulbright in Brazil and one of my Brazilian Embassy colleagues. We will break into three groups going to the east, west and middle of the U.S.  The first goal is to sell leaders of American institutions on Brazil and sell Brazilians on American institutions. 

That will be the easy part. Enthusiasm for exchange is through the roof. The second goal is harder: we need to channel that enthusiasm into practical results with real-live students and scholars moving between our two countries.  

This is a Brazilian program; we are helping them and helping ourselves by making sure they get a good reception in the U.S.  Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff set in motion her plan, Ciência sem fronteiras or Science w/o Borders, to send 100,000 Brazilians to study overseas in the STEM fields (Science, technology, engineering & math).  Half should go to the United States.  President Obama’s 100,000 Strong for the Americas aspires to send students from the U.S. in the other direction.  

Currently around 9000 Brazilians are studying in the U.S.; not many considering there are more than 192 million Brazilians.  The Brazilians hope to get four or five times that number within the next few years.  We got the first couple hundred Brazilian on planes for the U.S. last month.  Now we have to do the same for a few thousand more.  Our presidents have given us the direction, but if it is really going to happen it is up to us.  Ringing in my mind is “If not us, who? If not now, when?”  Maybe I am given to a littler hyperbole, but only a little. 

We have the opportunity of a lifetime and what happens in the next couple of months will be crucial to the relations between the U.S. and Brazil for the next decades. This is not just hyperbole.  In the next couple of years, we will exchange tens of thousands some of the best and brightest of our countries.  If it works as I believe it will, this will create pathways and connections that become self-sustaining with a positive feedback loop. People and ideas will flow between the two biggest democracies in the hemisphere; friendships will flower.  

My group will be on the east coast. I chose the east coast because it is the part of the country I know best, where I can add the most value.  (I also am happy to have the opportunity to go home and will save the USG a little money on the days I can stay at my own house.) We will be in New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.  There are many more places we should go and we have not forgotten about them, but we had to go where we could in the short time we have.   Our inability to reach a wider group is one reason I will write on this blog at every stop.  

This will be a journey of discovery for me.  I want to come back knowing more about the landscape of American higher education as pertains to exchanges. I want to understand the practical details of Science w/o Borders and the role that we can play to make it a greater success.  And I want to make a record of all this so that I can share what I think will be an important learning experience.  

So I invite you all to come along.

February 15, 2012


Dock on Amazon 

It is often not the person who you touch but the person touched by that person who really makes the difference.  This I noticed when we talked to a guy at a reception at our political counselor’s house last night.  He had not been on one of our programs but had a close friend who had been.  This friend visited reconciliation meetings in Manhattan as part of a Voluntary Visitor tour. 

He told us that he did not get the idea from us - reconciliation meetings are an old idea after all - but knowing that such a model was working so well in the U.S. inspired him to go ahead with his push for an expansion of the reconciliation system in Brazil.  

As background he told us that the general idea of a meeting of reconciliation had been around during the time of the Empire in Brazil, but had largely been abandoned with the advent of the republic, when many were animated by Positivist ideas of clear regulation applied everywhere the same.  Results of a reconciliation meeting are more like common law. They are agreements among parties and specifically do not require the close exercise of specific rules. 

Brazilians like to make laws, he commented tangentially, but sometimes don’t think enough of how these laws will be implemented.  For example, he joked that he would not be surprised if there was a law against floods.  This sometimes overweening love of rules, even if they won’t be followed, impedes sometimes messy but effective institutions such as reconciliation meetings. 

These bodies are specifically NOT courts; a judge is not involved in the actual sessions.  A judge can legally sign (and enforce) an agreement that comes out of the reconciliation session, but does not intervene in the formation of the agreement itself.

He admits that the meetings are not uniform throughout Brazil and that there is significant resistance by lawyers and judges.  Some of this is principled – they don’t think justice is properly served, but some is probably just that they see the meetings as eroding their privileged position. Many people prefer the alternative to the court system, which is very slow and can be very expensive to use. 

When somebody used the term arbitration, our friend pointed out that this was specifically not what the reconciliation meetings were doing. Arbitration, he thought, would not fit in well with Brazilian cultural norms.  They either decide by themselves or go to the judge. Judges are involved in the reconciliation meetings, however. They record the agreement which becomes legally enforceable as a contract.

We have been sending IVLP and VV groups of Brazilian lawyers and jurist to the U.S. for some time and it seems to have a positive effect. Brazil’s legal system is based mostly in code law and so resembles continental Europe much more than a country like the U.S. which leans on common law. However many commercial and regulatory rules are based on similar principles in our countries. We can learn from each other.

Another guest at the party gave me the two minute version of Brazilian legal history. Brazil started off as a code law country, with Continental European style laws with roots in the Napoleonic or even the Justinian codes. But in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Brazilian elites were fascinated by the U.S. experience. They thought that they could learn from the other large republic in the Americas. So some Brazilian legal practice acquired an American accent.  He mentioned specifically Ruy Barbosa. This is a name I knew from streets named after him, but I learned that he was a great figure in Brazilian political, legal and literary circles. I was a little embarrassed not to know more. He is certainly someone I should get to know better.

My picture is unrelated to the story.  It is left over from my recent trip and shows a dock on the Amazon.  

February 11, 2012

Manaus (Again)

Manaus from Rio Negro 

This is my second visit to Manaus and the place doesn’t get any prettier.  The nice area is near the opera house, as you can see in the pictures nearby. The rest is just a fairly crowded city that could be anywhere in the world that is hot and humid.  We did save a lot of money, however, by staying in a downtown hotel called the Go-Inn rather than the more expensive Blue Tree. I like Go-Inn better anyway.  You can walk to some of the appointments.

Opera House in Manaus 

We have two overlapping streams of connection in places like Manaus or Belém.   Those are the alumni of our programs and our BNCs. I visited both during my trip.  One of the big relatively new sources of connections and friends is our Youth Ambassador Program.   We choose some of the smartest kids in Brazil, so they are already on the road to success.   The YA program helps them get even farther ahead.  We don’t have a massive number of YA, but after ten years there are hundreds and they are proving to be excellent contacts.  Even in an out-of-the way place like Macapá, we found young people eager to talk with us.

Unfortunately, we don’t have BNCs in every city.   We cannot easily found new ones because of the logistical challenges and the competition from other English teaching organizations.   We can nurture the ones we have and encourage them to establish branches in other cities. The BNC in Belém has a branch in Santarém, for example, and maybe the BNC in Manaus could sponsor something in Boa Vista in Roraima.  

The BNC in Manaus is our most remote.  It teaches about 5000 students and their building is fully booked during the peak times, i.e. Saturdays and evenings.  To get more students and to help alleviate the crowding, the BNC is working with UNINORTE, a local Laureate affiliate.  The BNC will have access to UNINORTE.  

We were able to give the BNC that good new that they could host an English immersion program for our runner up youth ambassadors this year.  BNCs really don’t make any money on these things, because they always offer scholarships to the students, but getting to host some of Brazil’s best and brightest young people is worth the effort.    

The BNC in Manaus is doing well.  There are no serious problems; in fact they have been able to expand operations.  Their only complaint was that the area around Manaus does not produce enough quality applications for programs like Science w/o Borders.  In the last group of more than 650 students, the whole of Amazonas sent only five.  By comparison the city of Londrina, which is a little smaller than Manaus, had seventy students go on the scholarships.  One problem, they told me, is the TOFEL.  Many people cannot get the scores and it is even a problem to take the tests.  Last year there were not enough slots for all the applicants.  This problem was compounded by a power failure that affected all of Manaus on the day of the test last semester.

Below is a lonely preacher. He talked about the Bible for as long as we were in the square. He was talking when we came and when we left, so I assume he was there a really long time. He got no takers that we saw.

preacher in Manaus near Opera House 


We noticed lots of Haitians around Manaus.  The BNC folks told us that there were now around 5000 in Manaus.  There were around 1000 school aged children who are in the public schools, w/o Portuguese.  The BNC is trying to help the local schools teach Portuguese, but this is not their primary area of expertise.

We also went over to Instituto Tecnologico Alternativo de Petrópolis where we met the director and his staff. He gets international volunteers. In the group were two Peruvians and a German volunteer.

/Manaus/alternative a local NGO that provides training to the poor neigbhorhood 

This organization aims to provide practical education to the people of the neighboring poor area. It is a challenge, but Jonas has managed to organize community resources enough to become a local institution for thousands of people.   They primarily learn English, computers and business related skills.  The Mission has donated books for their library.  While most people in the area appreciate the education, we were told that robberies are a problem.  Much of their computer equipment was stolen not long ago and now they have a security system.  It is too bad that an organization trying to help has to do something like that.

February 05, 2012

A Foot in Both North & South

Equator monument in Macapa 

Macapá sits on the equator and they have a modest monument marking it.They say that the sun shines right through the hole in the tower during the spring and autumn equinoxes. I don’t know what time it would be.  At high noon the sun should be directly overhead.

This monument is on my list of things that are worth seeing but not worth going to see, but since it was on the way to the boat it was worth stopping and officially putting one foot in each hemisphere.There are lots of myths about the equator. Some people think that an egg can stand up straight on the end on the equator. This is not true. 

Kids playing soccer 

A more persistent myth is that water drains in different directions in different hemispheres. This is also is not true.  The idea is based on the Coriolis force, which deflects the air to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere. This only affect phenomenon that are spread over very large areas, like hurricanes. In physics weak forces make large extensive things and strong ones make small compact ones. There is no Coriolis affect exactly at the equator, which is why hurricanes can't cross the equator, probably a good thing. Water going down the drain is too small to be affected or more correctly it is much more affected by other factors such as how the water hits the drain or the shape of the vessel holding the water.

Downtowm Macapa 

I walked down the rail marking the equator. That was my ritual to the place.

Pink flowers in Macapa 

The pictures are all from Macapá. Up top is the equator monument. Below are kids playing soccer in the Amazon. This part is tidal; the river withdraws from the dock at low tide exposing the soccer field. Next is downtown. Not very exciting. And just above shows how little red peddles fall from the trees. It is kind of like the pink snow in the "Cat in the Hat" or maybe like candy. It is pretty in any case.

February 04, 2012

When Worlds Collide

Bridge over Rio Negro from Manaus harbor 

It is as if one world lassoed another and pulled it closer. That is what this bridge across the Rio Negro did.  It is the first bridge you encounter as you come up the Amazon system. The river is just too wide everywhere else and besides there is nothing much to connect.

Bridge over Rio Negro from Iranduba side 

There is nothing much to connect here either – yet. The long high bridge now ties the unremarkable village of Iranduba with Manaus might seem like a waste of money. But it is changing things. You used to have to take a ferry for a couple hours to get to Iranduba & there were few reasons to make the trip; you can now drive in fifteen minutes.  This has the practical effect of creating new land in Manaus and you can already see what will happen in the next few years. As you cross the bridge into this formerly distant peninsula between the Solimões and Rio Negro, the first thing you notice is all the real estate signs. It reminded me of Northern Virginia in the boom times. This will soon be suburbs and exurbs, probably mostly high end from the looks of the pictures advertising the new developments.

Bridge over Rio Negro Manaus Brazil 

From my public affairs angle, I thought this would be the ideal time to connect local leaders with Americans who have experienced similar growth in the not very distant past. Development is inevitable, but it can be done well or poorly. There is a lot of wetland and nature that should be properly protected. If done well, they can avoid the damage caused by rising water and erosion.  I say avoid the damage, because they cannot avoid the water and can avoid damage by not building in some places. People like to build on low areas near water. They shouldn’t do it. Beyond that, I hope that there is better planning. Manaus is not an attractive city. Just spreading it across the river would be a bad idea. Maybe some of these guys should visit Curitiba. They plan right down there (although this week's "Veja" indicates that not all is well in Curitiba's suburbs.)

Iranduba road enterane 

The village of Iranduba evidently has only two claims to fame, or did before the recent Anschluß with Manaus. It was a place that produced bricks and natural rubber condoms. The brick making is the one that the town fathers choose to emphasize but the monument they chose to erect could be appropriate to both, as you can see from the picture above. Below is the other factory Lam-Latex.

Latex factoru 

Besides these industries, there seemed to be a lot of fishing and cattle ranching. I don’t know what will happen to the former ferry port on the Solimões. My first thought was that it would atrophy and fade away, but if the town grows I could envision it becoming a kind of tourist attraction.

Fish market in Iranduba near Manaus Brazil 

We visited a big marketplace where the locals could buy all they needed.The fish were very fresh, many were still alive. I could not identify them, but they said some were piranhas. Besides fish, there were butcher shops, produce stands, stands selling clothes etc.

Fruit and vegatable stands in Iranduba near Manaus, Brazil 

Farther down the road are more tourist attractions in transition. You can see in the pictures. It reminds me of those little resorts on small lakes in Wisconsin. Most of them have now become bigger, moved high-end or faded away. I think the days of the little lakes lodges are fleeting. 

Resort near Iranduba 

The beach you see in the picture is on the Rio Negro. The water is very warm and shallow. This is a high water time on the Rio Negro, as you can tell from the submerged trees and bushes. Our Brazilian friend told us that the beach had gone out another twenty meters a few weeks earlier.   

Beach on Rio Negro near Iranduba 

Below is the characteristic we environment near Iranduba. I joked with our Brazilian friends that I expected alligators. They pointed out that this was not true, since this was anaconda habitat. I expect people moving into new subdivisions won't be able to keep small dogs and cats ... at least not for long.  I thought my colleague Justen should wade into the water and see if he could scare up a couple of the big snakes, but he was unenthusiastic about the idea.

anaconda habitat near Manaus, Brazil 

February 03, 2012

Rolling on the River Amazon

Amazon bank 

I spent two days and two nights sailing up the Amazon with the Semester at Sea. Most of my waking time was spent talking to students. They kept me fully scheduled, which is how I like it. It was lots of fun to interact with the clever students and professors. They also have a group called “lifelong learners,” who are retired people who want to cruise in a learning environment.

My balcony 

But I did have some time to myself and I spent lots of that free time just looking at the river and thinking about how interesting it was just to be on the Amazon. You can see my balcony in the picture above. It was nice to sit out there. It is humid, but fresh on the river. The Amazon - the word conjures up all sorts of feelings and images. It was interesting and a little scary to look out over the river in the midnight darkness. It is so empty out there, as I mentioned in an earlier post. The picture up top shows a beautiful scene. Beautiful from a distance. That green in the front is not grass. It is a type of reed. You could not walk through it.

Me and the Captain  

During the day you can see that the water is the color of coffee with cream.  The silt does not sink out.  There is a lot of other stuff floating. It is mostly branches and floating weeds, but I also saw whole trees and what looked like a dead cow. The dead cow made me feel more confident about the water. I figured that if a dead cow could float unvexed down the river there could not be that many piranha.

I was told that the water was low, even though it looked like the forest came right to the shore and was only a few feet above the water. Evidently in the high water time the river goes into the forest and you can see the tops of the trees reaching out of the water. That would be interesting.  It is hard to believe that the river could be much wider, but it can.

As far as famous rivers go, however, the Amazon is a little monotonous. The land along-side is almost uniformly flat. You get a lot more variety on the Rhine. The Nile has cataracts. I don't know the Mississippi except in Minnesota & Wisconsin, but it also has more bluffs and variety. The interesting thing about the Amazon is the water itself not only the sheer amount of it but also its composition.

Manaus from the Rio Negro harbor 

The Amazon is formed when the Rio Solimões meets the Rio Negro outside Manaus. The Solimões is cloudy and coffee & creme colored, as is the Amazon downstream. The Rio Negro, as its name implies, is black. Above is Manaus from the Rio Negro. Below is a ferry stop on the Rio Solimões.You can see the difference. The waters meet but don’t immediately mix, instead running side by side for several miles. I did not see this, since the ship crossed this at night while it was still dark. I woke up to see that the color of the water was black, as we were heading up the Rio Negro toward the Port of Manaus. It was also dark when we passed Santarém the night before. This is where the Rio Tapajos meets the Amazon. The Tapajos is supposed to be turquoise colored. I will have to wait to see that some other time.

Rio Solimoes 

We did cross the new bridge in Manaus across the Rio Negro. I will write a little more about that later. Suffice to say now that on the other side we caught up with the Solimões.  The Amazon takes its look from this river. The Rio Negro & the Tapajos just give their water and soon lose themselves.

Our boat parked in Manaus

February 02, 2012

Star Forts

Star fort in Macapa 

These forts really were impregnable. If you had a fort like this, you forced your adversaries to engage in some other sort of warfare.  Of course the problem with static defense is that it makes you rely too heavily on the bricks and mortar or on the technologies that were dominate when you built the structure. You don’t adapt to changing conditions both because you trust your existing protection and because you have so much invested in it that you really cannot easily change. Most of the great infrastructure of war is never conquered, but it is often bypassed or overtaken by changes. The smart opponent doesn't attack your strength but searches for weakness.

They told me that the fort in Macapá is the largest of its kind. I don’t know if that is true; it isn't that big but I have not seen many other star forts. I am also a little leery of the that term "of its kind."  Maybe it’s the largest of its kind in Macapá.  I don’t know. Star forts have walls that point out like tips of a star. This was a response to artillery. Medieval castles have straight walls, since you could repel attackers from any point and they could attack from any point. The problem is that there are blind spots that cannot be adequately protected from any of the castles towers.  This doesn't matter if your attackers are using swords, spears or pointy stick. It matters if you enemy can bring artillery to bear on your walls and if you have artillery of your own to direct against them. What the star fort does is fill the blind spot space so that anywhere that the enemy could approach is subject to interlocking fields of fire from the various points of the fort. The walls are also sloped so that projectiles will tend to glance off instead of just slamming in as they did with a medieval wall. The walls are also lower, since you can presumably put your adversaries under fire from a long way off. 

This type of fort worked well until artillery power, range & accuracy improved. It is the characteristic colonial fort of the Spanish and Portuguese. An example of a star fort in the U.S. is Fort Ticonderoga.

The fort in Macapá controls the main mouth of the Amazon. I didn’t know this, but the river that comes out at Belém do Pará is technically not the Amazon. It has the same water, of course, but in going around an island it gets a different name. The Amazon empties into the Atlantic at Macapá.  

February 01, 2012

Instituto Geográfico e Histórico do Pará

 Instituto Geográfico e Histórico do Pará

We were nominating the Instituto Geográfico e Histórico do Pará for a grant to renew & restore their document collection, so due diligence required that we go there in person to look around. Things often look different on a paper proposal than they do when you see them in person. The need and the utility are there, as is the potential to make things better. They have a large collection of paper documents describing all sorts of transactions as well miscellaneous documents such as the sorts of notices they used to post for the general public, some centuries old. They are not in a terrible condition, but also not good and threatened. This is a very humid climate. Many of the documents look good, but it would not be good to handle them too much. The Institute will file, restore and most importantly make electronic copies of the documents. Documents that you cannot access are not more useful than documents that don’t exist.


The documents are not the only things that need restoring. The Institute is housed in a building that is still very elegant but in a "seen better days" way. The location is great as you can see from the picture above.The place used to be owned by a rich and influential local citizen and the Institute used to be the go-to place for records and research in Pará. The rich guy died; universities and other institutions took up most of the research work. But it remains one of those places that good cities revere and protect. It has a board of directors of influential local citizens and will one day – probably soon – again be a very pleasant local center. Restoration is being done on the building and the furniture inside, as you can see below.


All this made me think of how buildings and institutions work. Sometimes we would just like to preserve them and there is a school of thought that we should set these sorts of places aside, museum like, protected.  I disagree. IMO historical buildings are like Stradivarius violins. They have to be used or else they decay and lose their value. This means renewing, restoring and to some extent changing rather than preserving like a fly in amber. That fly is dead. It is important that cities be full of life. Homage to the past doesn’t mean giving up the future. Things must be constantly renewed and protected against the forces of destruction. Below you can see the evidence of one of those big agents of destruction - termites.

Termite damage in Para 

Cultural place often supplement their incomes by housing restaurants and cafes. This provides not only some needed cash, but also brings people into the venue and since people appreciate and value what they know and what is familiar, it builds a constituency for culture. The institute has plans for such a project and I encouraged them to pursue it with determination and vigor. We don’t nominate those sorts of commercial projects for grants; there is a kind of prejudice against the profitable, but in the long run a successful operation like that will be worth more than the kindness of strangers as embodied in a grant.

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