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December 30, 2012

Science wins for now

Scientists at FDA say that genetically engineered salmon would not have a significant impact (FONSI) on the U.S. environment and safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon . This should clear the way for the fish to be farmed, adding a less expensive and healthier option to world diets. It will also take some pressure off badly stressed wild fisheries and generally make our environment better than it would have been. It is great that this report finally came out. 

There is lots of similar good news that is not well reported. For example, I think it is remarkable that U.S. CO2 emissions have dropped to twenty year lows and that we have become the world leader in reducing emissions. Few people seem to know these things and I find little in the media. There used to be a lot more when we were not doing as well. Of course, one of the best things in the environment in my lifetimes is the natural gas revolution.

More on fracking.

We are accustomed to bad environmental news and it is easy to provide. Much of it is just plain BS with scary images - like the tap water starting on fire in the pseudo-documentary "Gas Land." A lot of it is based on fear of change. Most of it is true, however, but it is truth out of context. A natural environment is constantly changing, with some things coming and others going.

As trees in a forest grow bigger, the wildlife it supports changes. I remember the controversy on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. It is one of the most studied places in the U.S. because of the interaction of wolves and moose. The different animal populations and the forests are always changing. The wolves wiped out the coyotes and impacted the beaver population. If you wanted to document loss, here it is. On the other hand, the wolves at first prospered, by killing moose. Again, look at the moose herd and you can document loss. The decline of the moose numbers allowed forests to regrow, but you could document the loss of moose forage. You get the point. Change is constant. Change brings losses and gains. If you look at only one side of the equation, you can easily paint the picture you want.

For the U.S. in my lifetime, we have had mostly good ecological news. Lakes are cleaner today than when I was growing up. Forests are healthier. Wildlife is so robust some are even becoming nuisances. Of course, there have been losses. Our task is to judge the balance.

This balance goes for every choice we make. Choices should be informed by information, but there is rarely a choice with only a plus side. This salmon is a good thing, on balance. I like salmon, but it is a little expensive. I look forward to the being able to eat this new salmon.

NB - I posted this on a different site and included some comments that I think make the post better.

More on Biotech here & here, plus a little on bioenergy

December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

Fireworks in Brasilia 

I am glad that Espen is here. We had a Christmas on Skype with Chrissy, Mariza & Alex. I read the Christmas story from Mathew as I have for many years. The kids seem bored, but that is the way it is. Ceremonies are important.   We use the King James Version. Whether or not you religious, the King James Version is beautiful from the literature point of view.

Our Brazilian neighbors put on a big firework show at midnight. It went on for about five minutes; it was very close and very complete. They celebrate Christmas more festively here.

This is also the time for my “look back”. It’s easier to look back than forward, so my technique is to imagine a place I want to be and reasonably can expect to be in five years. I then write how it happened. It has been useful since I started to do it back in 1991. I have never been right, but the exercise makes me think more deeply about priorities. I came fairly close in the early 2000, but that was a little bit of a setup, since I knew I was going to Poland well in advance and options were limited. Otherwise I get no closer than if I played rock-paper-scissors. 

I think that is the true lesson. You really cannot make detailed plans five years out, even with a fairly predictable life like mine. I suppose I am being silly. I have the same career with a little different specific job. Predictions are not and really cannot be that far off, unless I do something like win the lottery, which is especially unlikely since I never buy tickets. My “black swan” was being promoted to senior FS. It was not really so unexpected but I just didn’t expect that upside surprise. Good thing. My plan for post-FS life was a little vague and I would have come out just in time for the bad economy of 2009. Of course, what seemed impossible now seems inevitable. Life is such an exquisite mixture of chance and preparation. The operative skill is not the ability to make precise predictions, but rather a kind of Bayesian approach that allows for changing probabilities and effective adaptions.

The difference with this five year retrospective is that it takes me past my 62th birthday. They almost certainly will kick me out of the FS by then and I will be doing something else. That is hard to predict. I thought of posting the plan on the blog, but it would not be a good idea. 

December 23, 2012

Forward to a better environmental future

Dear habitat in Milwaukee

We talk about how things peak and decline.  These are often illusions.  There really is no such thing as “peak oil” in any practical sense, for example, but we can see peaks in human activities. The U.S. probably reached peak gasoline in 2007, i.e. we will never again burn as much gasoline again. We probably reached peak U.S. CO2 emissions about the same time. Our emissions are generally falling. Today scientists believe we have reached peak farmland, i.e. our footprint on the land will be reduced in the future.

This thanks to improved agricultural productivity. In the not too distant past, farmland under the plow increased in relation to the amount of crops grown. From 1870-1940, for example, the corn harvest closely tracked acres planted. Today we produce five times as much corn each year, but on LESS land. We will ever again plant as much land in corn as we during the 1940s.

The total amount of land planted in crops worldwide continued to rise in recent years because population was growing and the world's people were improving their diet, i.e. eating more in general and eating more meat. But these trends are slowing too.

Population growth is much slower than it was a generation ago and is expected to slow and maybe even reverse within the lifetime of people already alive today. As for eating more, people's appetite for more and better food goes up, but then also stabilizes. Although we all know some people who are pushing the limits, eventually there is only so much a person can eat.

We can expect agricultural yields to continue to improve, especially if we can get beyond the troglodyte fear of GMOs. Even w/o this source of improvement, there are lots of things that can be done. I read recently about a lettuce bot that can efficiently weed, thin and pick lettuce. This will improve cultivation techniques, while dispensing with the need for backbreaking labor current applied in the fields.

We can already see the results of more efficient agriculture, although it is so much around us and happened so slowly that we might not notice. In the last century, forests in the Eastern U.S. and Western Europe have returned as cropland no longer needed was recolonized by forests. There is more forest canopy in the Eastern U.S. then there was in 1812. With that has come wildlife. Deer, turkeys and even squirrels were almost extinct in some states a century ago. Today they are common enough to be pests in lots of places. ears are back on our tree farms. Before about ten years ago, they had been absent for a hundred years. I am not sure I am completely happy about their return, BTW. (I prefer not to share my land with dangerous animals. I don't really think that they would be more afraid of me than I would be of them.) But return they have.

Anyway, the smaller footprint on the land will give us the luxury of small scale organic farming for the upscale markets as well as the capacity to conserve natural areas and better protect soil and water resources. We really need to update our conception. For my entire life we have talked about fragile nature.

It has been a narrative of sad loss. According to this paradigm, each year there was less: less clean water, fewer animals and trees etc. I recall "ecological clocks" ticking inexorably toward a bleak dystopia like those portrayed in movies like "Soylent Green" or "Blade Runner." But we have turned a corner w/o perceiving it. And we did it by going forward, not backward. Today we have more and better options than we did in 1970, when I first started to worry about these things. It has turned about much better than I thought it would.

In the new paradigm, we need to restore humans in nature. IMO, in the old paradigm there is too much separation. We want to protect nature FROM humans. This follows naturally if you believe in the idea that we are merely trying to slow the inevitable loss. In the renewable and renewed world we live in today, I think it is important for people to understand their integration. I like the idea of community farms, not because I think locovores are more ecologically beneficial (I don't) but rather because it helps people understand where food comes from.

I also think we need to encourage a new generation of hunters. Hunting is dying out, as the older generation of hunters literally dies out. It would be a good thing if at least some of our calories came from wild game now expanding numbers into our neighborhoods. No matter what, the mind-sets and adaptions of the past fifty years will be increasingly out of date in the next.

Another addition - return of wolves to the Eastern forests.

December 22, 2012

Don't choose to be fat

Free choice is a slippery thing. If you think you don’t have it, you don’t. And it is tempting NOT to have it - easier to blame your problems on others or on capricious fortune than make the tough choices. A good test case is obesity, a growing problem worldwide. Most fat people choose to be fat by what they do or won’t do, but it is not that simple.

The Economist runs a special report on the growing problem of obesity. We Americans are still world leaders, but the rest of the world is quickly catching up. Fat people often blame genetics. They are wrong; people today are generally fatter than their parents or grandparents. Watch the "fat guys" in old movies. People who were legendarily fat in the 1950s or 1960s would today seem normal, maybe a little "husky".  Thnk of Jackie Gleason, one of the fattest guys on TV.  If you saw him on the street today ...  Genetics can't change that fast. Habits can and habits did.

BTW - I do not advocate that everyone be in Olympic athlete shape. Maybe a very simple standard would be to be no heavier than your grandparents at a similar age or to be consistent, given different generations,  be no fatter than whichever of your ancestors was about your age in 1950.  That would be a good start for many.  Fat people were few in 1950 America.

Change in diet is the most facile explanation for the new fattiness. We eat a lot more fatty or sugary food. Well, maybe. I grew on a diet of Polish sausage, bratwurst and the now defunct Hostess cupcakes - and in those days nothing was made "lean."  But let’s concede the point that we eat more today.  We clearly have more chances to eat and we use of them. But it seems to me that the larger change is on the other side of the equation. We still eat like farmers and workers, but we no longer work like farmers and workers. Even people who are still farming and working don't do the kinds of physical labor of the past. Machines do the heavy work. Most of us don't do any real physical work at all. It gets worse. Many opportunities for routine exercise are gone. In lots of office buildings, you cannot take the stairs even if you want to. Stairways are locked and alarmed. Parking is provided close to buildings. Most devices come with remote controls, so you can do all you want to do from the comfort of your lazy-boy lounger.

Maybe we could start attacking the obesity problem by making life a little less convenient. Stairs should always be available. I know it is impolite, but when I know stairs are available, I sometimes inform people waiting for the elevator that they have fixed the stairs. It might be a good idea to copy an idea from our German and Scandinavian friends. They often have a central parking area, from which you have to walk significant distances to get to shops and offices. These little things don't seem like much, but over the course of a day they can add up. It would be a good idea to get calorie rich junk foods out of schools, but I think the war against such things is a little misplaced. Young people like to drink soda. Why not let them, but make it diet.  I drink at least two liters of Coke Zero every day.  I have been drinking Coke like that since I was seven or eight years old, so that means I have fifty years of experience.  I think it is actually good for me, but no matter what, it sure doesn’t hurt.

One thing we should NOT do is to accept obesity. There is some push to regularize it, even to make fat people a kind of protected group, a civil right. That is why I don't like the use of the word epidemic in relation to obesity. "Epidemic" implies that the victims have no choice. It is impossible to be obese w/o the complicity of the "victim". We can never address this problem if we take that kind of attitude. As I said up to, choice is a slippery concept.

I don't believe that the legions of fat people can simply decide to slim down by force of will. There is a place for public policy. We can encourage Coke drinkers to switch to Coke-Zero and we can put pressure on restaurants and shops to feature more nutritious foods. Consider the history of the anti-smoking movement. It is true that localities made laws against smoking and began to ban it from more and more places. But those laws did not turn the tide. The reason it worked was the social pressure. In the span of a very short time, it became socially unacceptable to smoke in most places. Smoking went from being a casual act (people lit up w/o a second thought), to being a slightly impolite one, to being an act of defiance of norms to being almost gone in the course of around two decades. A similar rapid social change is related to drunk driving. I can still recall when drunk driving was a kind of joke and the police would cut a drunk some slack. This is nearly impossible to believe today.

We have to stigmatize overeating the same way we did smoking and public drunkenness. Obesity is already one of our biggest health problems. Fat people have greater incidence of almost any malady you can think of. I knew a woman so fat that she cracked the bones in her ankles and crippled herself. Being fat is associated with heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. It is probably the biggest source of preventable suffering in the world today. We weren't so fat a generation ago, even a decade ago. We don't have to be so fat in the future. It is a choice.

The gordos of the world have choices. They can eat less, move more or try a combination of those things (probably the best choice). Or they can choose to remain fat, not good for them and not good for any of us.  Normal people also have choices.  In the tradition of hating the sin but loving the sinner, we should help gordo when we can, but never accept obesity as a routine or accidental.

 

December 15, 2012

For a few dollars more or less

Fernand Braudel Institute 

My travel budget is cut. Luckily, I had already been taking steps to save money. We try hard to get the least expensive tickets, sometimes saving hundreds of dollars by going earlier or later and/or avoiding peak periods. On my last trip to São Paulo, I used Marriott points to pay for the hotel and I how have enough points on TAM to get a free trip next time I travel. But these can only count for so much. You have to stay about five times before you can get a free night, for example. Nobody can live off of this. We have to make serious cuts, consolidating trips and sometimes just not going.  It will impact our staffs around Brazil and I expect to sometimes be less popular than I otherwise would be when I have to say no. But I will still say yes most of the time, maybe with modifications.

I consider being places, boots on the ground, to be the essence of our work. Diplomats have to see and be seen. It has always been thus. Sometimes this is the whole task. When I was in Iraq, one of my most important jobs was to walk around in the villages and be seen. I worried a little when a police chief I had not yet met told me that he already knew who I was because my Anbar village walks were locally famous. I figured that if he knew it, so did the bad guys and it could be dangerous, but I trusted the Marines to keep me safe and they did. I think my walks did some good to calm the situation.  And they did help me develop and use my banana index.

Instituto_Socio_Ambiental_Av_Higienopolis_ 

Of course, you can learn a lot from secondary sources, i.e. books, internet, TV. Most of what anybody knows if from secondary sources, but I learned the hard way that you learn things by being places that you cannot easily measure and may discount. The mistake has to do with a persistent bias.  Once we learn something and integrate it into our knowledge base, we often think we knew it already.  That is why it is sometimes so hard to convince people that an idea is good but just as hard a short time later to convince them that they didn’t always believe this.

I was putting it in this context with my recent visit to São Paulo. I went there because I thought it was important for me personally to meet a delegation from NEA-F, get their perspective and give them ours.  Could I have done this at a distance?  Maybe.  But I think I have a much better feel for their perspective and they understand ours.  When I made related decisions later, I will be better informed. But there is more.

Besides the NEA-F meetings, I got a chance to have a long talk with some of my São Paulo Brazilian and American colleagues. They told me about some of their problems and aspirations. I am in daily contact with them via email etc. but I still learned some things AND showed my own personal commitment. They can tell when I am serious and what I might just let go and I get the same back.

Beyond that, I had some good meetings with people and institutions I would not have known.  For example, at Fernand Braudel Institute I learned about reading circles, which use the classics to bring marginalized kids into the mainstream.  I am not sure what I will do with that information and of course I could have read about it, but it is not the same. I also went to an environmental organization called Instituto Socio-Ambiental.  We used to have good relations with them, but we kind of drifted away.  My visit was a good pretext to come back.  And this visit shows the usefulness of connections.

I listened to them talk about their projects with indigenous people, quilombos and environmental restoration.  (A quilombo is a settlement originally of escaped slaves.  The 1988 Brazilian constitution granted such communities communal property rights similar to those of indigenous people.)  I thought of connections they might make with the U.S. Smithsonian came to mind, maybe because Smithsonian was so recently down in Brazil to set up connections. They saw what a great place Brazil really was.  People hear about this, but when they actually see it, it makes a big difference.  And I knew just who to call. I got an answer the same day.  It might be the start of a sustained institutional linkage that happened only because of boots on the ground.

Finally, I had a chance to meet with alumni of our youth programs and our youth council. They like to talk to us and it gives me a chance to hear what young Brazilians have to say.  Not surprisingly, they are interested in their future careers, but they also gave me something concrete to think about.  We talked a little about social media. They said that they and their friends were getting sick of Facebook because it was too uncontrolled. They use twitter more to communicate more precisely.  Facebook is a central part of our social media strategy; if it is going into decline we need to move to other platforms.  But that is another story. 

I have to figure out how to do more with less.  I think the way to do that is to go after the little things and the big ones, i.e. work those discounts I mentioned above but also identify the bigger money sinks.  I have found a few already.  It is the old 80/20 Pareto principle rule of thumb.  It is good to try to save the taxpayer money.  I have always tried to do that.  But I do also believe in the mission I am sent to accomplish and I don’t want to save my way into ineffectiveness.

I truly believe that this is a time of great leverage in U.S.-Brazil relationships, a golden opportunity, when Brazilian development has taken off to the extent that we really have a great field for cooperation but before conditions have stabilized. The connections I help foster today will link our great nations for a generation.  It is good work and it is important that I do it well. Brazil is an important country.  We have a lot of common interests, lots of areas of big win-win for everybody. I won’t lose sight of this in an effort to save a few dollars … but I will save a few dollars.  

My top picture is Ferdand Braudel Insitute. Below is ISA. They are both in nice areas of São Paulo called Higienopolis, the old Jewish section of the city. 

December 09, 2012

Advancing education with Fulbright

Falls in Goias 

Our biggest tool in SwB and education involvement in Brazil in general is the Fulbright. It was Fulbright that made possible the Brazilian use of IIE and Laspau, without which SwB just would not have worked for us.  It is Fulbright that is administering the 1080 Brazilian English teachers travel to the U.S., the U.S. Community Colleges  & the Humphrey Program, among many other things.

We don’t think about Fulbright much of the time because it just works. But clearly, if we didn’t have a Fulbright Program, we would have to invent one to do the many things we want done.

I chaired the Fulbright Board meeting Thursday, and would like to share some notes. The Fulbright Board meets four times a year. It is a binational board with Brazilian and American members. I am the ex-officio president and I have a counterpart appointed by Itamaraty. The Brazilian and American governments jointly support Fulbright activities. Given the GOB emphasis on education in the last couple years, Fulbright has become more important, but most of that growth has been as a facilitator of programs. Another crucial role Fulbright has been playing is that of connector. Our board includes influential people, among them reps from CAPES, Itamaraty and academia. These connections have proved extremely valuable in coordinating Mission contacts with Brazil.

As SwB came on the scene, we decided to move Fulbright efforts for Brazilians going to the U.S. more into the social sciences and humanities.  The logic was that Fulbright could not compete and should not compete with SwB and, besides, this need was being met.  This has turned out to be a good decision.  We are getting many good quality applications for the scholarships, more than three candidates for each one.   Far from taking away from Fulbright, Science w/o Borders has helped Fulbright by raising its profile.  We have more quality applicants than ever.

Among the expanding less traditional programs is Foreign Language Teaching Assistants (FLTA).  We will have 45 grants, funded by the Brazilian government.   These FLTAs will work in U.S. universities to increase interest and competency in Portuguese among U.S. students.  U.S. students also come to Brazil to help at teachers' colleges. They are spread all over the country, currently at eighteen host institutions. More and more American schools are offering Portuguese and interest is growing. 

I learned that the University of Georgia is the flagship of Portuguese learning, i.e. received a big grant from the National Security Education Program (NSEP) to establish an Undergraduate Flagship Program in Portuguese.  It is a program of intensive language instruction, one-on-one tutorials, Skype partners in Brazil, and other innovative curriculum. Flagship students will also spend a year in Brazil where they will reach professional-level Portuguese proficiency through language and content courses, as well as an internship experience. UGA is partnering with São Paulo State University (UNESP). This program started in 2012.  Pardon the digression.

To me the most impressive thing about Fulbright was the scholarship it sponsors.   You can find more about what Fulbright offers at this link, but let me list them.  Fulbright Commission in Brazil sponsors programs for Brazilian scholars.  There are two main types: all field grants, which offer 3-4 month terms in all fields of study at U.S. universities.  There are twenty-five of these grants, plus several specialized “chairs”.   The chairs include: Dr Ruth Cardoso Chair in social science at Columbia, Distinguished Chair of Human Rights at Notre Dame, Distinguished Chair of Agricultural Studies at University of Nebraska – Lincoln, Distinguished Chair of Environmental Sciences at University of Texas – Austin, Distinguished Chair of Brazilian Studies at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, Distinguished Chair of Music & Musicology at Indiana University.  In addition, there is a new program that will offer five nine-month research awards.

For American scholars there are forty-nine grants for 2-4 months at Brazilian institutions.  Forty-five are regular grants plus five specialties including:  Awards in the humanities and social sciences,  Fulbright-Science w/o Borders awards in the STEM fields,  Distinguished Chair in American Studies at PUC-Rio, Distinguished Chair in Environmental Sciences and Engineering at UFOPA (Santarém in Pará),  Distinguished Chair in Oil and Gas sciences at. Fundação de Amparo a Ciência e Tecnologia do Estado de Pernambuco,  Distinguished Chair  in Visual Arts at Fundação Armando Álvares Penteado in São Paulo, plus Five nine-month post doctoral grants in any field.  

An important change we have decided to make is to move our EducationUSA coordinator from Rio to Brasilia.   We have a network of twenty-four advisors around Brazil. Until the revolution provoked by SwB, the system worked well.  Now the volume is greatly increased and we need to adapt.  For example, it is no longer good to let advisors wait for people to come. Rather we need boots on the ground all over the country.  We also need them to help with “simple” things like helping Brazilian students fill out the common application.   In any case, we think a more proactive stance is needed and that Brasília is that place to base our efforts, since it is the nation’s capital and is centrally located.  Brasília has the best connections of any city in Brazil. You can get a direct flight from Brasília to any of the state capitals except Macapá and Boa Vista.  For those you need to hop via Belém and Manaus respectively. 

Otherwise there was the usual business.  We are moving ahead on our SwB facilitation, our English teachers and our school principal program. Lots to do and lots being done.   As I learn more about how Fulbright is connected and my role, I see more possibilities.  It really is a great program and I am so proud that I can be a part of it.  

My picture is an from when Mariza visited.  It is the base of Itiquira Falls near Brasilia. The spray is exhilarating. It keeps it constantly wet and green.

December 08, 2012

Decisions, real and imaginary

Pig and chicken 

When I worked on case studies in school, I always wondered why real life decision makers could not see the solutions as easily as we students could. The simple answer was that they did not have all the facts that we did.  A slightly more  sophisticated explanation was that they did not have all the fact laid out for them as we did.  But the biggest reason was that we were merely answering questions, whereas they need to determine what questions to ask and what values to prioritize.

How to do something is often much clearer than knowing what to do. Understanding what to do, in turn, depends on a deep understanding of the environment and the available options and then figuring out the essence of the problem. This is the hard part and the part we often skip over or refuse to do. We want to jump in and get to the serious work of deciding. Most of us have limited patience with framing the problem and parameters. Thinking about the problems looks too much like inactivity. Once you got that down, however, solutions often seem self-evident.

Case studies are easier than real life because all the heavy intellectual lifting has been done and the problem simplified, defined.  It is the same reason that people looking backward from today often can't understand the dilemmas faced by people looking forward in the past, why most people are much more successful in theoretical retrospect than they are in the here and now. Of course, figuring out the solution in an academic sense is much easier than making it work in the real world, but that is another story.

My picture shows a pig and chicken in Acre. It is not unrelated to my text. One of my management maxims is to to separate  commitment from mere involvement. You can tell the difference when you look at  your ham and eggs breakfast. The chicken is only involved; the pig is committed.

December 07, 2012

Museums for the 21st Century

A delegation from State and the Smithsonian were in Brazil to look at the Casa Thomas Jefferson as a “Model American Space” While in town, they also visited other important cultural spaces like Museu da Republica, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil and SESC Ceilândia among others and Myles Gordon, the Smithsonian consultant gave a talk about how museums were changing.

Milwaukee Museum 

Museums used to be about collecting & preserving stuff.  They were like temples of knowledge, where experts spoke to each other and decided what should be shown to the larger public.  They still collect and preserve stuff, but now they are much more outward oriented.  They have moved from preservation to study, from defined to interactive, and in many ways from emphasis on tangible things to a more intangible experience. 

You can see an example of the old version in my picture above.  You can almost smell the formaldehyde. Of course, not all museums are like this and not all parts of museums are equally affected.  Parts of the old model remain very useful.  You still need stuff and you still need to protect it. 

There has also been a change in how museums are managed and funded. In the classic model, museums were financed by some kind of patron.  It usually was some sort of institution like a government or a university, but it could be a private person or organization.   The key was that the patron paid. Today’s museums get their funding from a wider variety of sources. Many still have a patron that pays a lot of the bills, but they supplement with things like memberships, diverse donations, shops, merchandise etc.  They are much more entrepreneurial than they used to be.  This goes with the changes mentioned above, but the trends are part tied to the same changes in society; one does not cause the other.

The Smithsonian has had a mixed system from the beginning.  It is the only museum (actually museum complex) run by the Federal government, but it began with private money. James Smithson, a British subject, left his fortune "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge ...." Smithson was an amateur scientist. He has never been to the United States.  We are not exactly sure what Smithson had in mind.  Some people think he intended a university. Congress argued about what to do with the money but finally decided to create the kind of museum cum research and knowledge disseminating organization we have today.  It has been a good model. 

Today the Smithsonian consists of nineteen museums, nine research centers, twenty libraries and the National Zoo.   It is affiliated with 170 institutions in a national network.  Most of the buildings are along or near the Capitol Mall in Washington.  About 65% of the funding comes from the Federal government, with private sources, NGOs etc. coming up with the rest.  The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is the Chairman of the Smithsonian board; the Vice President is the Vice Chairman.  They have 6000 employees and an equal number of volunteers.   The museums are free and each year they get 30 million in person visits and 188 million unique visitors on their websites.  Only 2% of the collection is on display at any time, which is one reason they are digitizing the collections, so that scholars and ordinary viewers can use and enjoy more than can be put in display cases.

I have been enjoying Smithsonian for nearly thirty years.  Because it is free and accessible, you can wander in and out w/o feeling that you have to spend the whole day and see everything there is to see in each of the venues.  The only problem since 2001 has been that there are security lines and not all the doors are open.  I used to just cut through some of the buildings and look at whatever I came across.   That is no longer possible.   It is still nice to wander around.  The Mall is nice in general.  They hold lots of events there and you get Smithsonian Folk Life Festivals every summer.

I wrote a few posts about similar topics.  Milwaukee MuseumSmithsonian goes south & Science changes

December 05, 2012

Climate change challenges

My first encounter with climate change came when I was a kid in Wisconsin. We talked a lot about the Ice Ages and went on field trips to the nearby Kettle-Moraine State forest, where you could see the physical evidence of the ice age. The last Ice Age, in fact, is named the Wisconsin. It ended only 10,000 years ago. Until then, my native state was covered with glaciers. Then it got warmer and Wisconsin became the green and pleasant place it is, at least part of the year.

The Ice Age created most of our lakes and gentle hills. Glaciers did not cover Southwestern Wisconsin with its long hills and coolies. A coolie is a narrow valley formed by the scouring of melt water from the glaciers. Grand Coolie in Washington is a big example, formed when melt water broke through an ice dam, flushing everything before it from what is now Idaho all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Nothing like that happened in recorded human history.

Human history is a short time. We have just about 5000 years of history, i.e. when records were kept and there was no history in this sense in much of the world until much more recently. This means that our recorded human experience with climate change is very short and we recorded nothing as profoundly important as the rapid global warming at the end of the last Ice Age. But lots happened.

The Sumerian civilization, the people who first invented writing, were probably wiped out by a prolonged drought that lasted a couple hundred years. The Egyptians were driven into the Nile Valley by the encroaching Sahara desert. Mycenaean Greek & Hittite civilizations were destroyed at least partially by "climate refugees," who moved in from places suffering rapid changes. The Philistines of Bible fame were probably among them.

On the plus side, Roman civilization flourished during the first and second centuries because of a generally warmer climate that pushed the boundaries of Mediterranean style agriculture and lifestyle into Germany and what is now the UK. This happy time ended in the fourth century and the sixth century had lots of especially nasty cool weather that brought with it famine and sickness.

We enjoyed another warm period in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This was the period of the high Gothic, when European civilization flowered. It was significantly warmer in Europe, producing ample harvest and general prosperity. This ended with the onset of the little ice age. Frosts came earlier and lingered longer.People starved. The Black Death came around this time. While Black Death was not caused by climate change, the more desperate conditions caused by the cooling exacerbated it and hastened the spread.

None of these fluctuations in climate were evidently the result of human activity, but they had profound effects. I cannot point to a situation where climate was the only cause in the flowering or destruction of a civilization, but it was a big contributor to the rise and fall of Rome and the civilization of the high middle ages, mentioned above. There is an interesting speculation about the spread of the Indo-European language group found from India all the way to Ireland. Nobody has been able to find the original "homeland." The closest many scientist come is Anatolia near the Black Sea. Some have speculated that it is UNDER the Black Sea. In prehistoric times, the theory goes, the Black Sea was much smaller and a fresh water lake divided from the salt sea of the Mediterranean by a narrow land bridge in what is today Dardanelles and the Bosporus. This eroded through, quickly filling the basin with salt water and pushing people up and out in all directions. The relatively rapid desertification of North Africa and the Middle East pushed people into river valleys (the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates) and in that respect contributed to the rise of the first civilizations. It is also important to recall that no climate change in recorded history has been as extreme as the end of the last ice age.

I don't know if history should be a comfort or a terror when confronting today's climate change. The earth has been much colder than it is today and much warmer than it will be in the next century with even the direst predictions. However, civilizations have risen and fallen on the backs of changes of smaller magnitude than we may soon experience. The difference is that changes in the past came as a surprise. People in the ancient Middle East may have noticed that game was becoming scarcer and the land drier, but given their short life spans and lack of good record keeping, it fell more into the realm of legend. We will be able to make increasingly accurate estimates of what is likely to happen. Nevertheless, we will be faced with the same choices our ancestors had. We can adapt in place or move.

Human civilization - ALL human civilization - flowered in the Holocene. This was an usually tranquil time in geological history. Some people have advocated that we call our most recent epoch the Anthropocene because it is so influenced by human activity. Certainly future centuries will merit that moniker. We have choices to make. We can look back on our history and earth history and see that it has been a series of upheavals and we have adapted to each of them. This tells us we can adapt to the next and we should do it sooner rather than later.

December 01, 2012

Progessive & conservative Acre

Bridge in Rio Brano 

I like Rio Branco.  It is not a big city, as are most Brazilian capitals.  Rather, it is a pleasant middle-sized city, kind of like Madison. And I have to admire the way Acre is run.  They are progressive in the sense of the word I remember in the Wisconsin of my childhood.  It is a kind of progressive conservatism. They are trying hard to make life better for the common people, while conserving their environment & making it worthwhile to work hard, all the while affirming the traditions and the values of the people of Acre. You can see picture of Rio Branco above. The statues are based on ordinary people walking the city's streets. Below are the Nelore cattle now so common in Brazil.  They can thrive on low quality food and are adapted to hot weather. Being white is good for reflecting the tropical sun.

Nelore cattle in Acre, Brazil

The Economist ran an article in its recent issue.  I suggest that read at this link.

 

Acre is still underdeveloped. We stopped at a store, one of the few places you could stop along the only road between Rio Branco and Taraucuá.  The "bathroom" literally consisted of a pot to p*ss in.  Above is the store and a few other pictures I took from Mariza's Facebook.

There is a joke in the other parts of Brazil asking if Acre really exists. Acre does and its development is breaking new ground.  They are trying to find ways to make it as profitable or more profitable to keep the forests intact than to cut them.  I think this is possible, although I think there needs to be some modifications.  For example,  a strong conservation ethic requires/requires hunting and timber harvesting.   I think that in the longer run some of the preservation will need to give way to conservation, although it is understandable that preservation will seem more urgent right after so much was threatened or destroyed. Below you can see the pasture and erosion. The tree on the little hump of land is presumably the former level.  Most of the clearing took place in the 1970s. The grass is growing well.

Pasture land

So Acre is my kind of place … almost.I love the forest protection & I really like the way they celebrate and help common people.But Acres is a little too hot for me.I miss the season and the cold, or at least the cool that I grew up with. I guess I am getting homesick.I love Brazil, but America is where my soul will always abide.

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