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March 31, 2012

An Environmental Reformation

The story is big the news, the retraction, not so much. Consider this news story - “The Environmental Protection Agency has dropped its claim that an energy company contaminated drinking water in Texas, the third time in recent months that the agency has backtracked on high-profile local allegations linking natural-gas drilling and water pollution.” reference  

I think that the unlocking of our vast natural gas reserves is the best ecological & environmental story in years. Yet it has drawn heavy criticism, sometimes justified, often ignorant, mostly based on outdated narratives. Consider the wildly inaccurate documentary "Gasland". It won all kinds of awards and is very compelling. Scientists think it is bunk and research has disproved most of the claims, but - hey - it makes a better drama when you can light water on fire.

It seems to me that very much of the mythology centered on environmental extremism is based around the keystone myth that nature w/o humans is somehow clean, benign and perfect. It is not. Many toxins appear in the natural world. Arsenic is present in natural water in many areas. Gas and oil have seeped out of the ground since before the ancestors of men (although Chrissy informs me perhaps not women - no logic there) descended from trees.

The idea of perfect nature apart from man is not merely wrong; it is pernicious because it impedes decision making based on sound & practical ecological principles. The attack on gas is a good example. Natural gas extraction and use is more ecologically benign than any of the alternatives currently available at the scale that it could currently replace. Yet purists reject it because it is not perfect. They make the perfect the enemy of the good. Purists are pains in the ass.

This is not a new problem. A century ago, various revolutionaries argued the efficacy of reforming capitalism. Some radicals fought against measures that would improve life for ordinary people on the theory that conditions had to become so bad that they would provoke the world revolutions predicted in Marxist theology. When the Marxist nightmare ran out of steam, people with a puritan/revolutionary bent had to look for other causes. The environment was a perfect home for them.

One of the big weaknesses of Marxism was that they claimed to speak for the workers, but the workers could speak for themselves. What they said, usually contradicted Marxist mythology. The advantage of "speaking for nature" is that nobody can really ask trees, rocks or animals what they really think. Unlike Marxists, environmental revolutionaries have no ostensible constituency that can contradict them.

We don't need an environmental revolution, but we could use a reformation. As with most things, real progress is achieved in the middle ground, where we can be pragmatic enough to make compromises. A sound environmental policy requires - not allows requires - that we sometimes kill animals, cut trees and even pave land. If done correctly, it can create benefits all around. And if we don't make it possible for honest people to make a profit doing these things, the field will be left to dishonest operators acting outside the law.

There are a few things we need to understand in our reformed environmentalism.
- Sustainable does NOT mean preserved unchanged. It means reasonably predictable and beneficial change.
    o Sustainable is better than natural and many natural systems are not sustainable.
- Renewable is better than recyclable, although both have their place.
    o The cost for most things in environmental terms is usually mostly concentrated in the energy it takes to move it. If you use less paper, it doesn't really "save trees" but it may save energy.
    o It may require more energy to recycle than to throw out and renew.
- Nothing lasts forever. Sometimes we just need to let go. Panda bears, for example, are doomed. They may survive in zoos, due to the kindness of humans, but they are not fit (in the Darwinian sense) to survive in the wild.
- There is no environment in the world that is not influenced by humans. If we think we can "return to nature" we are abdicating our responsibility to be good stewards.

One more thing - natural gas is as good as it currently gets as a fuel we need at the scale we need to use it. It is not THE answer, since there is never a final answer, but it is the one we should be using for the next decade at least. That would be good environmental policy and good economic policy too.

March 27, 2012

Stuck in São Paulo … And Enjoying it

Ibis Hotel from Congonas Airport parking in Sao Paulo 

It is not so bad to be stuck with little to do. I find it is among the best times to think. I planned a longer day in São Paulo than I had, i.e. I didn’t leave until 8pm, but my program for the day ended at 4:30. My last appointment of the day was at a meeting at the Coligação of binational centers, where we formally launched English3. It was at the Ibis hotel, right across from the Congonhas airport. My picture up top is taken from the roof of the parking garage at the airport, where I enjoyed the cool shades of evening spreading across the plaza. There is a foot bridge connecting the Ibis neighborhood to the airport, which is otherwise separated by a busy highway, below. I didn’t know it was so close and was going to take a taxi, until the guy at the hotel said it would take more time to ride than it would to walk; it was only a five minute walk. A taxi would have to have driven a mile out in a big circle to get across the road.

Road in Sao Paulo near Congonhas Airport 

There was no line at check in, so time I had and I saw a few things I never would have. For example, there is a good churrascaria just across the street. I got a good meal there for $R12, which is less than 1/3 of what I would pay in near my house in Brasília. I also noticed the heroes of Brazilian aviation, pictured below.

Pilot memorials at Congonhas Airport, Sao Paulo 

Generally, however, it was just nice to have a couple hours of enforced lethargy. IMO, lack of such moments is harmful to people. We are always connected and so rarely reflect. Not that I came up with any great thoughts in the past couple of hours, but I did get that peaceful, easy feeling that comes from being well balanced. This is a feeling I get too infrequently in our connections rich environment. Much of my best work and almost all my best ideas come after some time like this, although usually not immediately. There is a lag time, maybe a gestation period.

Sao Paulo scene 

Coincidentally, I was listening to an interview with an author of a book on how creative ideas are made.  He talked about research that indicated what most of us know intuitively but often do not act on. Many good ideas come from the relaxed spirit. Running too fast and too long can result in you getting nowhere. Glad I got “stuck” and glad I didn’t bother to turn on the Blackberry.

Savana Churascaria in Sao Paulo near Congonhas Airport 

Much of São Paulo is unattractive, but I like “my” parts. And I like to walk around town. Now I have a new restaurant (pictured above. I recommend it) to visit at the airport on the way home.

March 17, 2012

A Brave Man Murdered in Iraq

I heard this morning that one of our friends and allies in Iraq was murdered execution style by Al-Qaeda gunmen in Haditha. I recall visiting his home, watching his little kids play in the garden. I also remember that the people of Haditha could live and work in relative safety because of him.  

Muhammed Hussein Shafir was a tough man and a warrior. His attackers knew that so they rolled in on him at his home with overwhelming force. Everybody knew who he was and everybody where he lived. There could be no isolation in a town the size of Haditha. This was the first violence in about a year in Haditha, but it was big. Twenty-seven police officers were killed in coordinated attacks around town. I am sure that I met some of them, but I don’t have details.

I did not suffer in Iraq. You get used to the dust and heat and there is beauty in Anbar. I especially like the turquoise colored Euphrates. Most important, Anbar province became relatively peaceful soon after I got there. I was lucky. But I knew people who were killed and more importantly I knew the danger threatening, not so much me - I had absolute confidence in the Marines - but our Iraqi allies. Something else I knew was that I was involved but our Iraqi friends were committed. My family was not at risk. Theirs were. After my year in Iraq, I knew I would go back to my country. They would stay in theirs. Twinges of fear and uncertainty that I felt sometimes wondering what was around a corner or hidden in a pile of trash up ahead, they felt always and everywhere. It would never be over for them.   

Their courage was fantastic, sometimes the courage just to open a shop or carry on ordinary activities. Al Qaeda could be unbelievably cruel and their violence could be up close and personal. I recall an incident when Al-Qaeda beheaded a man and his eleven-year-old son for the “crime” of selling rice. With his courage in standing up to Al-Qaeda, Muhammed Hussein Shafir helped make ordinary acts by ordinary people require less courage. He knew he was making himself a target for their hatred and vengeance and accepted the burden.

I was glad to get out of Iraq. I told myself that my job was done and I had nothing more to contribute. Others could carry on. I think I was correct in this, but I still felt guilty. Was I leaving too soon? Before the job was done? Anbar was becoming peaceful and prosperous in 2008 thanks to Coalition forces. The Marines had done good work. Of course, this kind of work is never done.

I no longer have ties with Iraq. It was one year of my life, an anomaly in my career, which otherwise concentrated on Europe and the Americas, places where I knew the languages and understood more of the culture and history. I didn’t want to continue in the Middle East & didn’t want to be involved very much in any sorts of security activities, in general. I still don’t. I am unsuited to them. You should do things you do well and security operations is not my strength. It was important work; I worried that the job I did in Iraq was inadequate but it was the best I could do. I don't think I could have done better. Maybe others could.

I knew two Hadithas. The first is the one I saw the day I arrived in Anbar. It was dirty and dangerous, still burning from the recent war. Then there was the one I saw in my last visit, full of life, activity and color. I told myself and I believed that this was “true” Haditha. I hoped that I had helped bring that about at least in a small way. What now?

I didn't know Muhammed well, but I knew him well enough and I knew Iraq well enough to mourn the passing of a courageous man and fear for the passing of a fragile peace for people I learned to respect. I really don't know what more to write.

March 13, 2012

My Food Crops

Tomatoes 

I don’t put enough time into gardening to be really good at it and my harvests result more from luck and the inherent characteristics of the plants themselves. I would starve if I had to depend on the produce from my soil. But I will be better next time. This year was a learning time. There are seasons in Brasília, even if it is a place of eternal springtime. After spending a year here, I hope I will have a better understanding of the subtlety of my garden. The obvious seasonal difference is the rainy versus the dry season.

Watermelon

As I explained in earlier posts, Brasília is a very strange place with regards to water. It is like a desert during the dry season, but unlike a place like Arizona there is no shortage of water on the Brazilian high plains. More rain falls in a couple days during the rainy season here than falls in Phoenix all year long. You could water your gardens and lawns every day w/o running afoul of water restrictions or even feeling bad about wasting a scarce resource. 

Most of my neighbors are profligate water users and they can be because of the unique nature of the water cycles here. I did not and do not plan to soak my grass during the dry season. It is less because I want to conserve water, which around here really doesn’t make a difference, and more because I prefer not to have to mow the lawn so often. I did and will water my flower and vegetable garden, but it is not as easy as that.

It doesn’t seem like you can dump enough water on the garden during the dry season, at least I didn’t. I planted tomatoes, watermelons and lots of flowers.  They grew fitfully until the rainy season, when they went through a phase change. I suppose it is a matter of how much irrigation you use. Brazilians successfully grow all sorts of fruit and vegetable around here, so it must be possible

Wax beans

I also need to analyze my soil. The gardener told me that the local soil is poor and sour/acid. I have been adding organic material, i.e. grass clippings, peels etc. but that doesn’t much change the Ph. I hope that Espen will be here during this U.S. Summer. I will have to feed him a higher quality diet than I eat, which means I will be grilling more and producing wood/charcoal ash that I can use as potash to sweeten the soil.  I will get my soil in shape just about the time I leave. The Embassy will probably plant grass on my erstwhile garden and future tenants in my house will notice that the grass grows faster on that spot, but they won’t know why.

Lettuce 

You can see in my pictures that my crops are almost ready to eat. I didn’t have much luck with lettuce.  It is just starting to come up now.  I think that birds ate the seeds.  Well … I did a poor job of planting. Lettuce seeds are very small.  I had trouble with them as they stuck to my fingers and got lost in the dirt.  I should have started them in pots and then moved them. Instead I put them directly into the Brazilian clay with poor results. I planted the tomatoes seeds directly into the soil and it worked out okay. Tomatoes are forgiving, however. I only need to get one or two plants to work in order to produce more tomatoes than I could eat.  The big surprise is the watermelons. I grew them from seeds of a particularly good watermelon.  The vines grew slowly, with lots of flowers but only one fruit, which was damaged by some animal and rotted inside.  I gave up, but didn’t bother to pull out the vines.  I was surprised how they grew and then only a couple weeks ago I got a profusion of melons. I counted eleven, a few of which are getting pretty big. I read that you pick them when the stem entering the melon turns yellow. I consume one watermelon every two weeks, so if even a few of these come to sweet maturity I will be set for months.

Banana Plant 

I didn’t include a picture of my sweet corn because it is depressing. It just has not grown up to its promising start. I will leave it alone, however. Maybe it will work out as the watermelon did. My banana tree is growing robustly, but I am told that it will not produce bananas for about a year and half.

It is a lot of work to dig up all plants and create a garden and I don't always have time to do it. I will work on this a little at time, incorporate my compost etc. and have it ready for the next rainy season. Next year will be better, with my improved soil and enhanced experience. The wonderful thing about gardening is that you get many chances for iterative learning and improvement.

March 12, 2012

Evaluating Our SwB Expedition

Group photo Science w/o Borders Eastern  

We invested a lot of time and money in this recent trip by Brazilian leaders of higher education and I think it was well worth it. An early indication of this was the Brazilian willingness to be partners. It is always better if both sides have some skin in the game. The Brazilians paid for all air travel and per diem for their participants, a big investment. Beyond the cash outlay is the commitment demonstrated by the willingness of so many busy leaders to take three weeks out of their life – sacrificing their Carnival holidays, BTW, to take part. This not only indicates that they value the enterprise up front but also that they will be more committed to worthwhile results to make sure they justify the investment. 

It was clear to me that the Brazilian side took this very seriously. Our own commitment of money and attention of our own high-ranking personnel made it clear to them that we were fully onboard. The visit would have been  a success if all we accomplished was confidence building, but there was much more.

All three of our groups received warm welcomes everywhere they went, which with few exceptions ranged from enthusiastic to very enthusiastic. American institutions clearly think it is time to get involved in Brazil and this program is a fantastic opportunity for them.  Our groups got enough firm commitments from American institutions to absorb all the students that Brazil could reasonably send their way.

On the Brazilian side, this visit and deepened their growing understanding that Brazilian students should be spread across in many institutions and that excellence exists in all fifty states. The original formulation was to send students only to the so-called top-ranked institutions. Meetings during this visit confirmed that depending on the subject a University of Nebraska can be better than a Harvard. I believe that most of the Science w/o Borders students will end up going to large public research universities, like the land-grant institutions, mostly because they demonstrated the capacity and interest to accept relatively large numbers integrate them into their academic communities and help them get practical expertise thorough existing intern or co-operative arrangements that they have with local firms.   

Our Brazilian partners also came to a better understanding of the role that community colleges play in developing and maintaining a 21st Century workforce. Because of this visit, at least some Science w/o Borders will spend time at community colleges, principally to give them intensive instruction in English and acclimatization to the American system. Community colleges already play a role very similar to what the Brazilians need, bringing immigrants and first-time college students up to speed to benefit fully from the educational system. A potent collateral benefit was to convince there influential Brazilian education leaders of the usefulness of extending their nascent network of community college equivalents. I am certain that this will encourage links between community colleges in the U.S. with Brazilian partners in a ground floor opportunity that will enrich both sides.

We cannot overestimate the importance of the contacts made and the excitement generated. The program touched key decision makers. The Brazilians who participated are in strategic positions to make changes in Brazilian higher education. The Americans they met are in similar positions in the United States. Their collaboration will bear fruit in ways we can only imagine. I believe that scores or even hundreds of future linkages among Brazilian and American institutions of higher educations will trace their provenance to this two-week crucible.

The Brazilians are making a big investment in their future and tangentially in ours. We are lucky to be present at the creation of this wonderful program, which means that we have been able to help our friends shape the program’s initial form, which in turn will have follow-on effects for many years. This visit is helping us all benefit of this opportunity of a generation.   

Follow this link to the PowerPoint presentation on Science w/o Borders

March 11, 2012

Belly Dancing, Changing Baltimore & Unchanging Maryland

Mariza Dancing at Baltimore Aquarium 

Mariza’s uncommon hobby is belly dancing. Actually it isn’t so uncommon. Belly dancing has become fairly popular among women as a fun form of exercise. Mariza hopes to take advantage of that trend to build a successful fitness business around the exercise associated with belly dancing. For now, however, she mostly just gets to dance herself and just about breaks even. Chrissy and I went to see her do it at the Baltimore Aquarium.

Mariza, Chrissy and me 

Belly dancing really is good for fitness, BTW, and it also does wonders for posture.  Mariza actually measures and inch taller because of it. I am reasonably certain that it is the cause, since she grew this inch when she was already twenty-four. The extra inch is not much advantage in Mariza’s case, since she is already six-feet tall.  But I think that the posture and height improvement could be an important consideration for many.  There is a mismatch. Men generally would be more interested in height enhancement, while women are more interested in belly dancing (at least as participants).  

Little Italy in Baltimore 

Baltimore is much improved, at least in many neighborhoods. I still remember when you had to fear crime if you walked even a few blocks away from places like the Inner Harbor, but the area of security has widened. We walked to “Little Italy,” which has become (or become again) a thriving restaurant district. It has a sad side, however. Many of the restaurants and loft apartments are located in old warehouses and factories. These used to be places where working men made the things that made America great. It was a grittier and less pleasant world than that of restaurants and luxury apartments, but its loss is regrettable.

Our old house in Forest Glen in Maryland 

I had to work on Friday, so in order to get to Baltimore in time to see Mariza’s performance; I caught the Metro up to Forest Glen, which is near the Beltway in Maryland. Chrissy picked me up there. I got there a little early and had a chance to see the neighborhood where we lived when I was studying Polish back in 1992. I was surprised how little the area had changed. Given the proximity to the Metro (it takes less than five minutes to walk), I thought for sure that it was a neighborhood in transition. 

Road near Forest Glen Metro in Maryland 

I thought that the low density and comfortably shabby settlement patterns would soon be replaced by higher-rises.  But twenty years later I had no trouble recognizing the place. It seems that little has changed.  The old house we lived in was still there, w/o obvious changes. 

Our Lady Queen of Poland church in Forest Glen Maryland 

One of the interesting things about the neighborhood when I was studying Polish was the presence of the Our Lady Queen of Poland church. We did not choose to live there because of the church, but it was interesting to have it close by. They did mass in Polish and had Polish day care classes, fortuitous for a Polish student.

March 10, 2012

ACCESS to a Better Life in Taguatinga

English Access students in Taguatinga Brazil 

It is always an honor to meet kids that are so hard-working and a pleasure to share in their aspirations.  This is what I got to do yesterday at the Casa Thomas Jefferson branch in Taguatinga, a satellite city near Brasília, when I met this year’s English ACCESS students and presented them with their scholarship certificates. 

Fifty-four new students got ACCESS scholarships, which gives them two years of English study at our BNC (We cover the cost of fifty; CTJ adds in four more.) The kids are all low income and from disadvantaged backgrounds. English will give them a big boost and will help boost their communities.  Being involved is also good public diplomacy for us.  It helps build and maintain the web of relationships on which our good relations ultimately depend.

English student and me  

Relationships are why I think it is so important for us – for me – to be part of these things.  I was talking to my colleague Marcia about that on the way to Taguatinga. Since I just got back to Brazil the morning before, I had a lot of work to catch up, lots of paper to push.  I was really “too busy” to take the time out for this ceremony. But we work through Brazilian people. My job is relationships. Paper pushing is only a means to that goal. Our program CAN go by itself.  We can pay the money and forget about it. But that is like planting a garden and not taking advantage of the fruits and flowers.

Taguatinga Brazil street 

An American diplomat is sufficiently rare in the lives of these students that I believe that they will long remember that I shook their hands, called them by their names and gave them their certificates.  It gives their program an American face – literally.  Of course, I also had the chance to renew my acquaintance with school leaders from Brasília and our friend at the BNC. This is what public diplomacy is about.

Marcia wrote my comments, which I have included below for reference. I still don’t trust my Portuguese to completely.  Besides, at official events it is important to hit the main points but not to talk too long. W/o prepared remarks, I tend to ramble on too long.  I ad-libbed a few comments at the end. I thought it was important to tell them a little about their own importance for the future of their country. Talented people have the privilege and a duty to develop their skills for the good of their country and the world in general.  We need to remind ourselves and others of that. I find that most young people are receptive to that message.  They want to be part of something bigger than their daily lives. I also wanted to remind everybody about the Science w/o Borders initiative and the opportunities and responsibilities that it brings.

The CTJ in branch in Taguatinga teaches around 1,250 students. Among them are 250 who get their instruction at a local High School – Leonardo Da Vinci – after school. CTJ pays the school 10% of what they get in tuition. It is easier for students just to stay a little longer at school than it is to fight traffic to get to the CTJ facilities. This is a good partnership that benefits all around.

CTJ people tell me that there can be significant differences among the students they attract in different locations.  The Lago Sul campus gets mostly upper and middle class students.  They often spend a long time at CTJ and learn to speak English almost flawlessly. Taguatinga is not much like Lago Sul. Most of the students there are poor and many come from single parent households. It is harder for them to continue their English educations, but it is a tribute to them and their parents that they continue to show up. 

The ACCESS program in Taguatinga has an excellent retention record, despite the challenges of its students.  Of the 54 students who entered the two-year program in March of last year, 52 have returned for the second. CTJ staff is active in creating this happy result. The CTJ teachers and administrators take it personally. I heard one story about a young woman from last year’s class who was going to drop out. She was getting married and her prospective husband thought that she had better uses for her time than to study English. The CTJ director called the future husband and explained what a rare opportunity this was and that he should not take it away from her.  The young man relented and the young woman returned to class to finish what she had begun.   I wonder what changes this intervention will make in her life and the life of her community.

In all there are 1,147 students in the ACCESS program in Brazil, in Recife, Sao Paulo, Salvador, Porto Alegre, Manaus, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte and here in Brasilia.

My picture up top is the class picture. You may notice that most people seem not to be looking at the camera.  This is because there were multiple cameras. The picture taking can take a long time; everybody wants a photo.  The middle picture is a student from last year's class and me. She had the scary task of giving a speech in English to the new students. She did very well. The bottom picture is the street outside the BNC.

Remarks below, FYI:

- Muito obrigado, Ana Maria!  

-  Muito obrigado à Casa Thomas Jefferson, à Secretaria de Educação do Distrito Federal e à Diretoria Regional de Ensino do Recanto das Emas pela importante parceria na implementação do Programa ACCESS.

- Bom dia, alunos do programa ACCESS e PARABÉNS pela bolsa de estudos!  

- Vocês agora são alunos ACCESS da Casa Thomas Jefferson e participantes nesse importante programa de ensino de inglês, cultura americana e responsabilidade social.

- Sintam-se orgulhosos!  Vocês fazem parte de um grupo de aproximadamente 1,150 (mil, cento e cinquenta) bolsistas Access espalhados pelo Brasil em cidades como Brasília, Manaus, Recife, Salvador, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro e Porto Alegre. 

-  À medida em que o Brasil cresce no cenário internacional, surgem muitas oportunidades e é muito bom ver que vocês já estão começando a se preparar aprendendo inglês.

- Além de abrir portas no mundo profissional, o inglês também permitirá que vocês busquem interessantes oportunidades de estudo no exterior, com programas como o Jovens Embaixadores, o Ciência sem Fronteiras e muitos outros que existem.

- Sejam curiosos, perguntem, participem e aprendam bastante.  Da próxima vez que eu me encontrar com vocês, conversaremos em inglês,

- Novamente, parabéns e muito sucesso para vocês!

-  Muito obrigado!

March 09, 2012

Better to Light Many Candles

Constitution Hall in Philadelphia I was impressed generally with the American system of higher education. This really was a journey of discovery for me. I have more information than I can currently digest and will have to spend a lot of time just thinking about everything I learned and how to use it.  

I know we like to wring our hands and talk about how we are falling behind. From what I have seen and recently learned about our colleges and universities, I can say with conviction that this is not true. What is true is that others are catching up and we are actually helping. That is a good thing for us. For too long a time the task of creating knowledge and innovation has been over-concentrated in our country.  

We can use the help of others and all will benefit if we work in partnership. Science is a social process. It builds on the work of others and thrives best when the best minds are linked with others. Science w/o Borders will help Brazil forge links with the world of innovation and Brazil will benefit. I have grown to love and respect my Brazilian friends and I certainly wish them well, but I am American. I have to ask what is in it for America. I think there is a clear benefit for America when we have the opportunity to work with more minds and take advantage of more innovative imaginations.  These connections are two-way – multiple-way – exchanges. Helping innovators in Brazil will help innovators in America and innovation is what secures our hopes in the future.

What our great thinker-scientist-president Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1813, nearly 200 years ago remains true. In the 200 years since then it has been proven again and again. Jefferson wrote, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” It gets better. In the world of ideas, when you share your light, your own gets brighter, better and longer lasting. To extend the fire-light analogy, when you are building a campfire, the flames that are separated die out, but those that are able to feed each other grow warmer and stronger. This exchange is a marvelous idea.

My picture shows Constitution Hall in Philadelphia. Our Constitution was the first to address science. "Congress shall have the Power to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." The system gave inventors the right to benefit from their discoveries for a limited time on condition that they share the knowledge that went into it.  This kind of idea is one of the reasons why we went progressed so fast since. Our political heritage is also a scientific one.

March 08, 2012

Best Prospects

North Carolina State University 

We had excellent meetings at several universities. A few stand out. One of the last we visited and a good example is North Carolina State University.  I can be a case study of what we want.    If you want to find out more about Science w/o Borders in English, the NC State webpage is a good place to start.

Whenever you find something working really well, you should look for a champion, somebody just pushing the program, fixing the problems and making all the good luck just seem natural. At NC State that person is Michael Bustle.  Having a practical champion is rarely sufficient to make a successful program but it almost always necessary.  It is an interesting leadership question. Organizations need champions but you cannot really designate one and it is sometimes difficult to recognize the person involved, but you recognize the energy in the operation. It is usually the presence of one or more of these champions that makes an operation “lucky”.

Fermentation Lab at NCSU 

There is more. NC State is a land grant institution.  Land grant institutions and their like have traditions and advantages to draw on.  Schools like NC State have experience with bringing in non-traditional students, educating them and adding value to citizens and society, as well as the mandate to work on practical sciences.  They are, IMO, the places that will take most of the America-bound Brazilians.

Another advantage is the integration with local firms and government.I wrote about this in an earlier post.  One of the biggest plus in American education today is its flexibility and connections.  NC State is closer than some others. Some private firms are actually located on campus, actually a new one called Centennial Campus.

Gold Leaf firms at NCSU 

Centennial Campus sits on 1300 acres about a half-hour drive from the main campus. Private firms pay $35/square foot for places on campus, significantly higher than they could get farther away. They come for the proximity to students, researchers and professor. Many of the buildings were constructed by private firms for their own use.  After 30 years, they will become the property of the university.  I won’t try to describe all the specifics. You can read more details about Centennial Campus at this link. You will be impressed.

My top picture is the North Carolina State University main campus. Below that is a fermentation lab on the Centennial Campus, where students can work in real-world facilities. Bio-manufacturing is a technology which will grow in the future, but initial investments are high and risky. A competitive advantage in the future will be the capacity to transfer innovations from university environments to real-world applications. The bottom picture shows some of the firms that are participating on the Centennial Campus.

March 05, 2012

DIfferent Times

Winston_Churchhill at British Embassy 

Monuments from earlier ages often contain symbolism that makes less sense in latter day times. This I noticed with a couple of statues: one a person famous worldwide, the other a local celebrity.

Up top is Winston Churchill, known to all. There are a few little known things about the man and the statue.  Churchill’s mother was American, something Winston himself liked to bring it up with American friends and allies. Most of the statue stands on the grounds of the British Embassy, which according to international law & custom means he has his feet planted on British territory. Well, not both feet. He has one foot thrust forward. This foot is on American soil, symbolizing the unity of our two peoples both in the person of Churchill himself and the broad sense.

You also may notice that Churchill is flashing the V for victory sign. Some people who came of age in the 1960s might think of that as the peace sign. That would not have been in Churchill's nature.

Jame Buchanan Duke at Duke University in Durham, NC

The statue along side is James Buchanan Duke, who endowed Trinity College, later named Duke University where the statue now stands. The basis of Duke’s wealth and the basis of much of the local wealth was tobacco, now a noxious weed despised in polite company.  

If you look at the statue closely, you notice that Mr. Duke is smoking a cigar. I suspect that was his characteristic pose. In the past even cartoon characters were shown smoking. It was ubiquitous.  

My father smoked two packs a day, Pall Mall unfiltered. It was a nasty habit and I am glad that is has so generally disappeared, but it is a mistake to project our current values onto people of the past. A postage stamp depicting the artist Jackson Pollock airbrushed out his cigarette, even though it was clearly present in the photograph on which the stamp was based. Trying to understand the past doesn’t mean imposing today’s morality ex-post-facto.

March 04, 2012

The Internationalization of Brazilian Education

Science w/o Borders delegation Brazilian Embassy in Washington 

My perception of Science w/o Borders evolved during this visit. At first I saw the simple practical task of moving thousands of Brazilian kids to American universities in order to improve their educational opportunities. Of course, this is still the key task along the critical path, but it is not the big picture or the ultimate destination. The final destination is the internationalization or the re-internationalization (as I wrote in an earlier post) of Brazilian higher education. 

Meridian House in Washington 

Their American experience will indeed change and enrich the lives of the individual students.  But the experience such a large cohort brings back to Brazil will also change Brazilian education. In addition to its size, this is a well-targeted program. The Brazilian students will be chosen from all over the country. They are already in place to become future leaders of the country. Their already sunny prospects will be further brightened by their international experience, the things they learn and the connections they make, not least of which the connections they make among each other, the Pygmalion effect at work. 

They will bring greater internationalization to Brazilian education. For each one that travels in the first waves, dozens will follow along the paths created and widened.  Beyond that, they will come back with new habits and different expectations.

Our Brazilian friends liked the flexibility of the American system. Brazil still uses something much more like the old inherited European system. There is not a lot of flexibility and tends to be less cooperation among departments than there is today in the U.S. This is true even within universities, not to mention among institutions or with outside private firms. American universities were like this but they had to change to adapt to the new realities, as I wrote in an earlier post.

We couldn’t keep the doughboys in their old habits when they came home after seeing Europe. The popular song “How ya gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree” reflected this.  Science w/o Borders affects nowhere near as many people and is nothing like the intensity, but it does have the advantage of concentration.  Smaller numbers will have high leverage in the relatively rarefied, if rapidly growing, Brazilian higher-education environment. This is also a time of maximum leverage. Brazilian higher-education is in a transition, as is the country. 

I understand that I am repeating many of the same themes. Maybe I should sometime combine related posts and make them more coherent, but I am writing day-to-day.

My picture up top show the SwB group at the Brazilian Embassy, where we were invited to give a readout of our various visits. We had a reception at the residence that evening.  The second picture shows the entrance at Meridian House.  Meridian House organized the program and we did a discussion there.

March 03, 2012

Reunited

Chrysler Building in New YorkOur groups of Brazilian education leaders went East, West and Center to learn about Americans higher education and to explore opportunities for linkages, especially Science w/o Borders. Then we came back to together, gathering in Washington to discuss our experiences. We went all over the country, but we seem to have had remarkably similar experiences. I suppose that is because the ingredients were the same: Brazilian & American higher education folks talking about their interest in internationalizing their programs. There were some variations. 

One significant difference evidently was the fame of Science w/o Borders. In the Eastern campaign, we had to explain details of Science w/o Borders, but most of our interlocutors already knew a lot about the program.  Our Western group reported less general knowledge of the program. I can think of several reasons why this might be true. I also have considered the possibility that it might simply be a perception difference on our part or self-fulfilling, i.e. we got what we expected. But I don’t think it much matters. One of the central goals of our trip was to inform and persuade. In this we succeeded. Whether it was explaining details to the already reasonably well-informed or bringing new information to the erstwhile benighted, they’ve got it right now.  

We found almost an embarrassment of riches. The American higher-education system provides more opportunities than can be exploited. A welcome challenge is the choosing among the many opportunities, but we should not believe that the beguiling number and variety of choices is not a serious challenge.  Two extremes must be avoided.  Our Brazilians friends are aware that they need to take care not to concentrate too much on a few places or dissipate their resources and people across to broad a spectrum.

IMO the best options are in the land-grant colleges and similar institutions. They have long had the mission and the infrastructure needed to take in large numbers of students from diverse backgrounds and they have first-class research capabilities in practical sciences – the kinds of things you need to build a country.   

Duke University Quad
 

We were also mightily impressed by the community colleges we visited. They have the capacity to train large numbers in English and study habits. I believe that my Brazilians friends experienced a minor epiphany when the toured community colleges (our group visited Northern Virginia Community College and Montgomery College) and I did too, BTW. Before this visit They were not much interested in sending their students to community colleges, which they saw in the old paradigm as second-class or junior colleges. We were surprised by their connections with local firms and flexibility in responding to their training & research needs. Something along the lines of the American community college paradigm will be a key ingredient in Brazil’s development, especially in the integration of the new middle class into prosperity. Brazil has excellent universities to train the best-and-brightest. What they need is that bridge.

University of North Carolina Chapel Hil 

I was less enamored by the receptions we got at our elite universities. Maybe they are less hungry because they already have much more demand for places in their universities than they can possibly satisfy and maybe they think they have enough international connections, but the difference was palpable. We got enthusiastic receptions at the excellent middle ranked universities and community colleges; the elite universities were polite but we tended to get one or two officials explaining that it was hard to get in. This is no real problem. As I wrote above, there are more opportunities than our Brazilian friends can exploit. 

I believe, and told my Brazilian friends, that rankings are overrated. As a practical proposition, you can get as great an education at a big state school as you can at the elite institution. They understand this and are sophisticated enough to look to programs and department, not to the big name. If you want to study water resources, you are a lot better off at the University of Nebraska than at Harvard, for example.

So I think this trip succeeded in fulfilling all the expectations. The Science w/o Borders initiative will succeed and we helped.  

My pictures are from the recently completed trip. Most people will recognize the picture up top as the Chrysler building in New York with its art deco crown.  The middle picture is the quad at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. The bottom is the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.  It was our first public university.

March 01, 2012

Stay Hungry

Ben Franklin statue at University of Pennslyvania

One of the things about American universities that most impresses our Brazilians friends is the density and depth of outside connections. Most American universities work in a web of other universities, private firms and NGOs to a much greater extent than their Brazilian counterparts. Students at American universities often work as interns and in co-ops with businesses. Researchers at American universities mix freely with outsider.  American professors consult. Universities are not outside; they are fully part of society's fabric. (This may seem obvious to us, but recall that many universities traditionally have seen themselves as separate with separate norms and sometimes special rules and laws. In Europe, they were based on religious institutions with traditions of separation.)

Frankin statue at University of Penn 

In trying to explain this difference, one of our Brazilian friends credited relative insecurity among American academics.  He said that Brazilian academics are relatively well paid and secure in their positions.  They are not hungry for other things. They don’t need to look for outside opportunities. Only hungry wolves hunt.   American academics are hungry, at least in the figurative case.

This makes a lot of sense.  I am not sure the hunger metaphor is perfect, but I do think that American universities have a feeling of incompleteness. They need to partner with outsiders.  This makes the universities better and more robust as well as more useful to society.

Street at University of Pennsylvania 

This is not an uncontroversial idea. When I was in school lo those many years ago, there was a lot of gnashing of teeth that academics were getting involved with private business. There was a kind of chastity idea that universities should start apart from the hustle, bustle and especially the profit motives of the larger society.  This has weakened in recent decades.   Describing academics in an “ivory tower” – separate from society - is usually a pejorative description.  But we still see some of this idea.  There really is not much merit to the idea of separateness it, although it is resembles the valid idea that scholars should have some space for contemplation.  

The value of a scholarly pursuit is that it should allow the thinking person the space to think. You can be so involved in doing things that you don’t have time to think about what you are doing or why. This we should defend.  But a step back or a pause to think should not mean separation.

The irony for a scholar being separate is that separating yourself allows you to do exactly what scholarship should never do, i.e. isolating yourself from people and ideas that might challenge your own ideas.  We all look for confirming information and people who support us. We need to be pushed out of this comfort zone usually by needing to interact with people who might prefer to avoid.  

That is why it is good to be hungry, at least sometimes. It forces us to get out there, try new things, innovate and overcome.  Challenges lead to growth; comfort to stagnation.

My pictures are Ben Franklin at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a man who questioned, tried lots of new things and produced practical wisdom. He founded the University of Pennsylvania, an academic pursuit, but he also invented the Franklin stove, very practical, discovered the nature of electricity, very technical, originated lighting rods, very helpful and described the Gulf Stream, very much natural science. And he did almost everything he did in cooperation with others. He in his person formed a good template for what universities might be.  I also have a picture of a walking street at the University of Pennsylvania.


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