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May 28, 2013

One day

No littering sign 

I got to walk through St. Louis in the morning and evening. It was different.  The morning was great weather, sunny and 70.  I noticed the sign above. I wondered if I would have to toss something on the ground in order to avoid the penalty.

Rain 

The way home was less pleasant.  It poured.  But it lasted only about as long as it took me to walk home.  Chrissy & I went to Denny's for supper and by the time we were done eating it was clear and pleasant again. Tomorrow I go back to Brasilia and Chrissy goes back to Virginia. Time together was too short. 

Indian mounds at Cahokia

Cahokia is the biggest native settlement north of Mexico.   The inhabitants built mounds for temples, burials and platforms. Nobody is really sure what they used them for, since the civilization had no discovered writing and it completely disappeared before any European exporters showed up to write anything down for them.Cahokia was the biggest of the mound building societies.  Since mostly they lived in the Mississippi drainage basin, we call them Mississippian culture.

View of St Louis from Monk's Mound
 

Archeology indicates that 10-20,000 people lived at Cahokia during the height, around 900 years ago. That was a big deal for the time and available technology.  The concentration was made possible by the rich river soils that allowed surplus of corn.  It seems to have been a highly structured society with rigid castes.

Nobody can be sure why the civilization disappeared. The leading candidate is ecological degradation. Cahokians probably just outran their resource base, exhausted their soils and killed off local game. We also don't know where the people went. Since their civilization collapsed before the introduction of the horse to the plains, they could not have suffered the fate of so many other farming tribes, i.e. being wiped out by plains Indians mounted on horses. The horse changed the balance of power on the plains, allowing previously backward tribes to kick ass. Tribes like to Comanche, Sioux and the Cheyenne more or less wiped out the farming tribes. These genocides were mostly per-historic, in that there are few historic records, but it changed the ethnic mix of middle of America.

View of St Louis from Monk's Mound 

The museum was really nice, but I did not particularly like the juxtaposition of the archeologist versus the storyteller, implying an equality of myth and science.  Oral history can inform science and real history, but it is always seriously flawed. It cannot be properly evaluated until somebody writes it down and then it stops being oral history.  In other words, oral history is a raw material for historical analysis.  It is even worse in this case, since there is no oral history.  The Cahokians are gone.  There was no oral history, so all the "wisdom" is conjecture.

Storyteller 

Cahokia is worth seeing if you are in the St. Louis area, although I doubt I would drive very far to see it. I drove out of my way to visit Chillicothe, Ohio a couple years ago. It was similar. Cahokia is a little bigger. I visited Aztalan in Wisconsin too, but that was a long time ago and I don't recall much.

Woodhenge 

Above is "Wood henge." It is the ancient American answer to Stonehenge.  Looks a lot like telephone pole henge, but I suppose it was the thought that counted.

My first visit to an Indian mound was Lizard Mound in Wisconsin. I went as a child and I still remember the exhibit with a skeleton. Scared me for days and I still remember it.

May 27, 2013

The Gay '90s feel & old trees

Oak Prominade 

Tower Grove Park was founded in 1867. There are lots of nice old homes around and it has the feel that I associate with the turn of the last century.  There are bandstands and picnic areas.  The trees are big and old, some of them probably planted more than a century ago.

Grand Avenue 

I wouldn't want to go back to any period in history except as a tourist.  Even in the best of times, old times were not good, given the technology of medicine etc.  But the time around 1900 had a lot of promise.  IMO, urban living reached a plateau with the "garden city movement" that integrated living into park like settings.  People like these neighborhoods. Above is Grand Boulevard, a renewed commercial district near the park.

Bald cypress grove 

I loved the big trees.  There was a grove of bald cypress in one of the low lying places.  You can see in the picture above.  Bald cypress look a lot like dawn redwoods. Below is a mix.  In the front are cypress and the back are dawn redwoods or Metasequoia glyptostroboides.  None of them are very old, since they were only rediscovered in 1944 in China.  They have been planted a lot in America. They grow fast. Nobody is sure how big they will get, since none of them are more than around sixty years old.  You can tell them from bald cypress by their trunks and general shape. The dawn redwoods are more conical and their trunks are more twisted.

Bald cypress and dawn redwood 

The gingko trees are also exotic. They are from the time of the dinosaurs and are very resistant to pests, presumably they outlived most of the threats.  They are also fairly impervious to pollution, salt and bad soil. They are also called maidenhair trees because the leaves remind of combs. 

gingko leaves 

My picture doesn't show it, but they are not really leaves in the ordinary sense. They are actually needles like pines but meshed together into a leaf.  The gingko trees in the park were very big.  You rarely see such big gingko trees.

Old gingko trees  

May 26, 2013

St. Louis Blues Week

Blues Week stage 

We were lucky enough to have our hotel a short walk from the St. Louis Blues week. It was sponsored by Jack Daniels, so they were selling Jack with various combinations.  They had Jack Daniels and Diet Coke. It is very good. I just had the straight stuff followed by beer and lots of pulled pork. Lucky we could walk back the hotel. It wore off some of the food and avoided a drunk driving experience.

Making the pulled pork 

Making good barbeque is a real art.  People work on it. They have special recipes and techniques. I am not a connoisseur of pulled pork but I do like to try the different types.  I ate too much and went back the next day. I can admire the artists of pork.

Picturesque customers 

I love the variety of America.  Above are perhaps not "typical" but they are picturesque.

Schiller statue 

I was vaguely aware of St. Louis, but didn't really think much or know much about it. It is a really nice city.  It is much like Milwaukee, probably because of the German influence on civic pride, but (excuse my hometown) a little nicer in many ways.  If it had Lake Michigan it would beat Milwaukee.  Speaking of German heritage in St Louis, above is a statue of the great German poet & philosopher Frederich Schiller.  Below is the great German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.  Germans made great contributions to America and our country. Our universities are based on German models; much of our civic culture was cultured by German immigrants; of course we eat hamburgers and frankfurters (hot dogs) and drive on highways inspired by the autobahns.  The experience of two terrible wars has made us forget how much our country was affected positively by Germans. It is useful to recall, even in this, that our American armies and navies in those wars had lots of German Americans, including leaders such as Eisenhower, Chester Nimitz and John J Pershing. On the 2000 census 58 million Americans claimed to be primarily of German ancestry.  It is still our largest ethnic heritage.

Alexander von Humboldt 

May 25, 2013

St. Louis Arch and Market Street

St Louis Court House and Arch 

St. Louis is a pleasant city and I was lucky to get a nice day. I walked down Market Street down to the St. Louis Arch. It is a pleasant walk.  There was evidently some urban renewal done here to make all the green space. There are lots of offices and government buildings but I don't think many people actually live down here. Above is the Courthouse against the Arch. This is the courthouse where the Dred Scott case was first decided. That decision helped lead to the Civil War. The man most responsible for ending it is below.

Ulysses S Grant 

Below is the St Louis Arch. It is much bigger than it seems in pictures and pictures don't do it justice.

St Louis Arch

You can see some people near the arch that shows the scale. 

Scale for St Louis Arch 

I have some other pictures that are interesting but you can click on them separately. 

Statue of Dred Scott

Union Station

Scale of the St. Louis Arch

Don't climb on the bears

St. Louis buildings

 

May 24, 2013

Smells

Linden Trees 

Sense of smell is a very persistent and emotional sense.   It can evoke feelings and memories like no other sense.

St. Louis is a Midwestern city and so is familiar to me on a visceral level. Some of the familiarity has to do with the sights; some is sound.  St. Louis has my familiar robins and red wing blackbirds, with their pretty calls and the grackles without.  But a big deal are the smells. I am here at the right time of the year.  The hawthorns are blooming.  This brings back memories at least back to sixth grade when we took a field trip to Hawthorn Glen.   That was back in 1966.   I also remember the smells from Grant Park. It is a distinctive smell. At the hotel, I am near the pool. I like the smell of chlorine, reminds me of my swim team days.

hawthorne 

Another memorable smell is from the linden trees.   They are just coming out here.  I have written about this before.  There are not many lindens in Milwaukee. Although their American cousins, the basswoods, are very common, they don’t have the same sweet smell.   I remember the lindens from my first trip to Germany.  They are a common tree in central Europe.   Poland also has lots of them, so many than their word for the month of July is Lipiec from the Polish word for linden, which is lipa.   In North America the lindens flower in late May or June.  In Poland they are out late June or July, hence the name.   

Fountain 

There is also lots of lavender.  Lavender is an interesting memory.  I became familiar with lavender smells because of air fresheners.  When I first encountered lavender in real life, I was surprised how much it smelled like air fresheners.  I guess Glade does a good job of mimicking it.

Urban farm 

A few blocks later was the tannery. That was probably the worst stink.Just past the river, we got into the yeast smell from Schlitz & Pabst breweries.When the wind was right, you got the sweet chocolate smell from Ambrosia Chocolate factory.            

Today the air is much cleaner.  When it has any smell at all, it tends to be perfumed with flowers and trees and not the old familiar industrial smells.  It is better, but it was kind of interesting to be able to tell where you were in the city by the taste of the air.

My pictures show lindens, hawthorns, a nice fountain and an urban farm. St. Louis is looking good. 

May 20, 2013

Focusing on students returning from the U.S.

Bible Garden at PUC Rio 

The first group of roughly 600 students from Brazil’s “Science Mobility Program” aka “Science without Borders” returned from the U.S. in recent months. More than 5000 more have already gone to programs and thousands more are expected to travel in a program that is meant to send 101,000 Brazilians out of the country to study in the STEM field.   PAS Brazil is using the opportunity of so many students to learn about Brazilian experience in the U.S. with a series of focus group style meetings held in various Brazilian cities and so far have been carried out in São Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Rio, with plans for similar outreach in Porto Alegre, Fortaleza, Recife, Brasília and Manaus.  We have been achieving what we consider an ideal group size of around twenty participants, small enough to control and not intimidate any individual participants, but large enough to get some synergy and back and forth among participants.  The sessions are almost entirely in Portuguese, with a few questions about English capacity asked in English.  Response has been good. Students like it that we are taking the time to talk to them and word of our efforts is spread well beyond the initial groups.   

After our third meeting, this one at PUC Rio, a pattern is becoming clear. The program is a spectacular success from the students’ point of view and the consistency and the unanimity of the responses in widely separated places are interesting. The caveat is that we have a self-selected group of people who want to talk to us. But the more statistically valid studies done by IIE seem to bear out much of what we are observing.  The following are major points.  

All of our groups recognized that they were pioneers and were not surprised that it was a challenge to get to universities in the U.S. in such short time and adapt.  We discussed the necessity of moving quickly fast and students seemed to accept that had we not moved quickly to get the program running, we could have lost the initiative and maybe not achieved the success that is clearly coming now.   

Two of the women who had gone to Parsons School of Design in New York, illustrated the evolution. They said that they were welcomed at Parsons, but nobody knew exactly what to do with them.  This problem was exacerbated by their arrival in January instead of the usual fall semester.   When the second wave of Brazilians showed up for fall semester, it was easier for them and by extension for those already there. One of the women recounted that she had become inured to having to explain to her unique status and was surprised when she made one of her usual calls, prepared to explain, the person on the other side of the conversation blandly said, “Oh, you are with Science w/o Borders.”

Medical care was a concern. The SwB participants have insurance, but they are uncertain what to do and how to use it.  One participant said that he hurt his knee and had trouble figuring out where to go or who would pay the bills. Another was bit by a stray dog and needed a series of shots.  That was painful both physically and logistically.  There is also the challenge of multiple bills.  In many U.S. clinics, each of various care-givers bills separately and some of the bills come much later.  We explained that this is also a problem for Americans, but it is little solace.  

Most of the students managed to get summer internships and one woman’s summer internship in environmental management matured into a full-time job with CH2MHill in Brazil.  But participants in the first wave of students found it more difficult than the next because they arrived in January.  Many positions were filled already by that time and everybody had to scramble.  Universities were helpful in this regard.  All but a few actually got internships.

We heard some complaints that coursework in the U.S. did not easily translate into Brazilian credits.  Some were bureaucratic tribulations that should be easily solved. For example, American courses have less class time but more homework than most in Brazil. A Brazilian course might have ten class hours where the U.S. would have only three and so the schools think it is ten hours versus three in the U.S. for credits too.

Brazilian schools were required to accept credits as part of their agreement with the Brazilian government made when they sent students to the U.S., but they expected that courses would be more general and less core. The idea would be to take courses in the U.S. that were not available or not available in the same way in Brazil. There is no reason to take calculus II in the U.S., for example, when the same thing is taught much the same way in Brazil. The very fact that classes are different – a good thing – means that they will not easily translate into the standard courses in Brazil. One participant commented that she saw her time in the U.S. as a special benefit and did not expect a direct translation of course. Not everyone could be so insouciant about it this was one of the things that seems most to upset participants.  One participant complained that some participants were just taking fun classes like football or archery.  He thought this was not in the spirit of the program.  Other participants did not think this was happening often, or at least not happening often enough to be a serious problem.  

We got the usual observations that American schools demand less time in class, but require more homework and professors in the U.S. are more open to working with students and discussing projects with them. There is less social distance in the U.S. between professors and students. This is something many Americans find right and natural, but we are beginning to see that this is one of the fundamental strengths of American education, a source of much innovation and immensely attractive to foreign students.  Our Brazilian students observed that American students are not expected to master material as much as they are encouraged to discover it for themselves. American universities also encourage students to study in teams and do projects with other student, with professors acting as coaches or guides. Our Brazilian students like this.

They also mentioned, as the others have before, that American classes start on time and people show up when they are supposed to be there.  What is becoming a meme is the idea that American professors have office hours and they are usually really in their offices at these times and available to students.   

We close our meetings with a set of ideas that we find appropriate and that seem to resonate with groups of young people and academics.  We thanked them for their interest in our country and tell them that their participation in this program will help bring our two countries into even better partnership.  We compliment the Brazilian initiative. This is important, since we don’t want to give the impression that we are trying to steal Brazil’s glory.  We tell them that we hope that they might return to get their PhDs in America or do other sorts of advanced study (America is indeed the best place for this) but that we want them to return to Brazil and do their real work here in their own place.  They are more valuable to Brazil and to us in their own country and in the long run to us too. We are not looking for a brain drain to the U.S. but rather a brain circulation and idea exchange that helps all of us.  We are looking for the win-win.  They like it when we say that, and it has the virtue of being objectively true – all good things.

May 19, 2013

Common origins

DNA studies are turning out some interesting findings and solving some of the mysteries of history and sometimes creating some interesting paradoxes. For example, African-Americans who trace their genetic ancestry through the male line are often finding that their ancestors came from the British Isles. Deeper in history, recent DNA investigations show that the “native” populations of Europe were all but obliterated by migrations into the continent in the Neolithic age from around 4000-6000 years ago.

The invaders brought with them new skills and farming cultures that likely simply overwhelmed the local hunters and gatherers. This would be similar to what happened in North America with European contact. Only a very small percentage of the North American population is genetically related to the population that lived on the continent in 1492, although in the ancient case the process took 2000 years and not only a couple hundred. 

 This replacement, however, is evidently not as common as we might think. When I learned anthropology, we were still influenced by the experience of European colonization. Even if "modern" scholars of the 1960s rejected the theories of the 19th Century, they - we - were still living in their patterns. We knew that populations could be replaced because we had seen it done and we postulated that back into the past.

Our literature seemed to support this paradigm. There were heroic stories of ancient foundations and ancient people often claimed heritage from pioneers. Aeneas brought his Trojans to Italy and they formed the core of the Roman people, according to legend. Clearly languages spread geographically. Latin spread over most of Western Europe and it makes some intuitive sense to think that people came with it. The same goes for Arabic in later times. But the spread of English in modern times shows the flaw in that argument. Of the many modern speakers of English, only a minority have predominant or even significant ancestry in the English population of 1492, for example. The English migrated, that is true; their language migrated farther.

An interesting counter example is Finland. Finnish is a language of northern Asia and the "original" Finns were Asians. Over the centuries, a steady immigration from Scandinavia changed the genetic nature of the Finnish population while keeping the language intact

DNA is providing a more nuanced picture of migrations and assimilation. I read an article today that shows that the Minoans, the mysterious ancient people of Crete, whose language we still cannot read, were similar genetically to modern Europeans and modern Cretans. This tends to disprove 19th Century postulations, some of which I learned in school, that they were largest the product of some migration, maybe from Egypt or Africa. This supports a general observation that the core population of a place remains remarkably stable, despite significant changes in language, religion, customs and government. I recall an earlier study that indicated that most of the modern population of Lebanon was descended from the ancient Phoenicians. They are Arab in language and culture, but related more closely to the ancient people of Canaan than to the invaders who swept in form the Arab peninsula. In other words, the same families were at one time or another Phoenicians, Hebrews, Greeks, Syrians, Romans or Arabs.

It is tempting to take current situations and project them backward. One of things I really hate about some modern books or TV programs is when they take a contemporary map and project it back on past times. A modern map of Europe, for example, makes little sense when superimposed on the Europe of 1000 years ago. A few of the countries had similar names back then, most did not, but none of them were exactly where they are today nor was the culture the same.

The countries that became France, Germany, Spain or Italy just did not exist 1000 years ago, despite what current nationalists might assert, i.e. they were so different that it makes no sense to call them by those names. Most of eastern France had more in common with what became western Germany. They could easily have become the modern nation. Italy was divided up among people who could not understand each other's languages. Spain was mostly occupied by Muslims. Anybody who guessed at the future disposition of these places would certainly have been wrong. Modern nationalities simply do not project very far into the past. The people occupying the territory are fairly mutable.

Of course, migrations do happen and Vikings, Mongols and other disruptive forces spread their DNA far and wide, (something like 8% of the population of the former Mongol Empire is related to Genghis Khan, probably the result of thousands of short-term non-consensual relationships and the Mongol habit of killing all the men around) Nevertheless, established populations evidently abide for long times. They were really a nasty bunch, but part of our common history too.

I study ancient history and even more ancient anthropology because I enjoy it and most of what I know has little practical value. But I think that this information is useful. It shows the adaptability of humans and how we are very similar to each other despite our purported ethnic heritage. When someone says that his ancestry is German or French or anything else, it really is not a meaningful concept in the longer run of things. We all can become something else and we are constantly in the process of becoming.

My general view of history is that after events pass from living memory, history belongs equally to all of the current generation of mankind. I don't have to be a Greek to appreciate Greek history and there is no reason to believe that a contemporary Greek will understand the ancient history of "his" country any better than I can. We all are descended from the good people and the bad people of the past and none of us has any particular reason to be proud or ashamed of anything that happened long before we were born. But ALL of us should learn from the experience of the past and know it. As a Western man, I am an inheritor of Greek & Roman culture. I kind of see them as "my" people, but why? My ancestors were not primarily Greek or Roman. My ancestors were mostly those barbarians that the classical world disparaged and tried to keep out of the civilized empire. My relatives would be found farting in the Roman Forum just before breaking up the local shops and setting fires. If I was transported back to ancient Rome, they would see me as a barbaric Gaul or German. I would not be welcome. Yet it is not the ancient people of Gaul or Germany that inform most of my thought today.

My genetic ancestors have not very much to teach me from ancient times. They really were barbarians. They didn't write; they constantly warred and they tended to do silly things like rub butter on their hair. The main thing they did that I do too is that, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, they drank beer. This is interesting in two ways. First it is interesting to find out what my ancient ancestors did, but more importantly, I have to learn about it from a Roman. It goes to show who ruled and who just slopped butter on their hair.

May 16, 2013

Rio port, again.

Rio Port 

I have been trying to get to know Rio better by talking to people around here.  There are lots of good contacts here and lots to do.  In Brasília, we talk mostly to government officials and work to leverage big projects.  I am very proud of our work in this area.  We are doing great things.  Our operations in Rio and São Paulo are different.  They do more programming, i.e. speakers outreach etc.  I have to balance the needs of the leverage with those of the outreach.  The choices are not easy, which is why we get the big bucks, I suppose. 

New buildings at Rio Port 

Today I went over to see the Rio port project, again, called Operação urbana Porto Maravilha It is a really big deal, which will include lots of housing, shops and hotels, including docks for cruise ships and a new Trump Tower.  They have a really interesting exhibit showing how this will work.  We are involved in this with our international visitor program.  We sent one of the leaders of the project to the U.S. to meet and exchange ideas with Americans who were involved in similar big projects.  This came from a visit a couple years ago. The picture below is an old slave market. They found it when they were digging for the project and made a monument.

Slave market 

You can see the video of what the project will – is supposed to do at this link 

On the video, you see that they plan to demolish an elevated freeway, as they did in Boston and other places.  The irony is that these highways were thought to be the sign of progress, the solution of the past.  You can see the old highway in the top picture. There was a lot of dust in the air from the construction. It gives the picture a kind of old fashioned looking patina.

We are working with Brazilian partners on this project, but it is hard to measure success in public affairs.   The guy we sent on the visit to the U.S. says that he has made dozens of sustainable contacts with Americans.  This has already led to exchanges of ideas and may lead to exchange of goods and services.  We hope American firms and individuals will benefit.   We can put some numbers to the analysis, but I don’t know exactly how to interpret them.   The port project webpage went from ten visitors the month before the tour to 9,500 visitors the next month.  This is a big change, certainly unlikely to be the result of random chance.  But I have been unable to find a good way to measure the practical value of internet connections.  

Hole in Rio which will be a parking garage 

Anyway, look at the pictures and use your imagination to picture the future.  The picture above shows the digging  a tunnel that will replace the elevated highway.  This actual hole on top of the tunnel will be an underground parking garage.

May 15, 2013

Life is good

Beer in Brazil 

I am in Rio holding down the post.  All three of our American PA officers are out.  Our Brazilian colleagues can well handle most things, but we need to do the representation and sign things, so I am here this week.  It is also a good way to get to know the posts.  I have responsibly for all of Brazil, which implies I need to know about all of Brazil. In any case, I can’t complain. My big work of the week was finishing EER and getting ready for the Biden visit, both things can be done just as well from Rio as Brasilia.

Rio is truly a marvelous city.  I take the shuttle from my hotel to the consulate and today I got off about a mile early and walked along the ocean.  On the way are lots of little places where you can get a tap beer and look out over the beach and the ocean.  I stopped today.  It was nice.  This is Copacabana after all. 

My reverie was broken a few times by people selling things.  I was offered a selection of hats, blankets, bags and little statues of Christ the Redeemer that flashed alternatively in yellow, red and blue.  I bought a hat I didn’t want from a guy who told me his kids needed the money.  I didn’t really believe him, but I figured I could afford it.  A few minutes later, a different guy showed up selling the same sorts hats.  I told him that I already had a hat but didn’t really want it so I gave it to him to sell to some other sucker.  

The waitress laughed at me and told me that if I wanted to waste my money it would be used to better purpose by giving her a bigger tip.  These kinds of “transactions” used to bother me, but they don’t anymore.  Brazilian beach salesmen are usually light-hearted.  I told the guy with the plastic Jesus that nobody in his right mind would buy such a thing.  He laughed and pointed out that his little statues would light the way to heaven, but admitted that he didn’t own one himself that he wasn’t trying to sell.

My picture is the view from my seat.  Brahma is really good on tap, and tastes even better in situations like this.

Reverie - that is my word for the day.  I am usually not an Emily Dickinson fan, but her short poem is kind of nice here.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,—
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

May 08, 2013

Learn Latin

People overestimate ability to learn and maintain second languages. An interesting article explaining how American Hispanics are losing their Spanish tracks with my experience. Sic semper erat, et sic semper erit. People say we should learn foreign langauges. Which one? Learn Latin.

I feel that I have something special to add to the language debate. I am a non-linguist with lots of language experience. At one time I SPOKE fluently four languages, although never at the same time. I know that most people who think they can speak more than one foreign language are fooling themselves. Such people exist, but they are rare. I don't believe that average people can maintain practical professional level competence is even one foreign language unless they use it on a daily basis. Daily basis.

This presents Americans with a dilemma that people from non-English speaking countries do not face. People from other languages know that English is essential if they want careers in science or international business. It makes perfect sense to require English in primary or secondary schools. English is the world language; the only one that is universally useful. Even if individuals never leave their own countries, English will often still be an advantage for them. No other language is like that.

What does an American do? We say you should study Chinese. Fine. This works if you plan to go to China. If you plan to do business with Chinese businesspeople you encounter in Europe they and you will have to speak English. What about Spanish? North of the Pyrenees, it is not much use in Europe and almost no use at all anywhere else except in Latin America. Half of the South American population is Portuguese speaking. Portuguese speakers tend to understand lots of Spanish, but it is a one-way street. As a Spanish speaker, most Portuguese will go over your head. Arabic? Okay in the Middle East, but locals may not understand your dialect and will probably default into English.

I believe that you should learn the language of a country if you plan to live or do business there. I have done that myself. I also understand that learning another language is great intellectual exercise. We Americans should not remain stubbornly monolingual just because our language is the one used throughout the world. But what should be our FIRST language. If we are talking about an American kid with no plans to go to any particular place in the world, what language should he/she learn?

Latin. Kids should learn Latin first. It is true that nobody outside the Vatican actually speaks Latin, but Latin is the basis of all Romance languages. It is much easier to learn French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and even Romansh and Romanian if you have a Latin base. Latin has had a big influence on our own English language and has infiltrated almost all the world's major languages. But there are other reasons to learn the language of Caesar, Cicero, Augustine, Bacon and Spinoza.

Latin literature is unusually rich and varied. Many of the classics of Western Civilization were written originally in Latin, starting with the Romans and continuing on for more than a thousand years after the fall of the great Empire. Isaac Newton wrote in Latin, hence his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

The study of Latin implies the study of Latin literature and that is something of lasting value. I studied Latin many years ago. I can no longer read Latin w/o great difficulty. I cannot say I have any facility left at all. As I wrote up top, maintaining a language is very difficult. But my English vocabulary is superb, partly due to my Latin experience, and I still recall much of the literature I imbibed only semi-willingly when studying the ancient language.

I think we make a big mistake when we demand that everything we teach or learn should be relevant to our immediate needs. This almost guarantees that we are surrendering the bigger picture, the long term. IMO, we give in too readily to the auto-erotic impulse of letting students study themselves. A lot of this started in the 1960s. Schools gave up the classics to concentrate on various self-esteem studies. How did that work out? Instead of reaching toward things of lasting common value, we explored differences that didn't make much difference then and today don't make any difference at all.

I don't expect a Latin Renaissance. Too bad.

May 06, 2013

Dreaming of Spontaneity

It takes a lot of thought to be spontaneous, at least if you want to be effective.  I have been thinking about planning and achievement because it is EER season.  EERs are like some made for TV movies; they are inspired by a true story.  But a good story is not enough.  I am very interested in figuring out what exactly I had contributed to the significant success we achieved.  It is not only for personal aggrandizement.  I need an idea of what I contributed so that I can manage the process and improve it.  

If it is mostly just luck, I can do nothing except hope it continues.  If I just blundered into a good strategy, I need to know so that I can adapt it.   I think our success is a combination of luck, opportunity and a type of planning.  I say a type of planning because I don’t plan in the step-by-step way.  Actually, I sometimes do, but I don’t expect those exquisite but fragile plans to survive contact with reality.  

I plan less now than I did twenty years ago, but I think the planning is better. I don’t need to overt discipline I forced on myself earlier in my career for a few big reasons.  The first is that I can rely on my colleagues to protect me.  They do lots of the details and backstop for me.  Thanks.  Life has also become simpler because of technology.  Think of travel.  You don’t need to keep track of tickets anymore.  They are all online.  You can do your accounting online; actually the accounting is done for you online.  Many of the chores that were so hard for me are gone.  Life is easier.  But the big reason I don’t have to plan consciously is because I now have internalized the processes and I plan automatically in ways that I could not do before.  

At my level, almost all my planning is contingent.  It is not step by step and it is full of feedback loops.  What I learned in business school just doesn’t work.  I know that I sometimes give the impression that I am a mystic and/or I am just not paying attention.  This is not my intention but it comes with some advantages.  After they get to know me, people come to trust me, which is an important prerequisite.  My vagueness gives them license to innovate but their faith that I know where I am going provides direction.  Almost all of what I accomplish is done through others and returning to my original question, where do I add value? 

I think my main contribution is as a connector and a facilitator or shared vision. I say facilitator because it would be an oxymoron to claim to be a creator of a shared vision. A shared vision requires that participants share in its creation and then in its flexible implementation.  The better the shared vision, the more people want to be part and contribute, the less you can tell where your ideas and skills stop and those of others begin.  The more successful you are in facilitating the success, the less you can identify the parts you “did” but the better the results.  I guess it is a sort of mysticism.  

None of my teams greatest accomplishments at the end of this year could have been predicted in detail at the beginning.  They resulted from opportunities offered, taken and expanded. We knew where we wanted to be and we developed a range of tools and skills and then waited for the chance to use them.  

All greatness is based on contradiction and we should not try to resolve all contradictions and tension. Contradiction and tension are the fonts of creativity.  But I will add that in addition to being creative, you really have to be excellent first in some basics. I worked hard to get my basic skills up to standard.  Without my capacity in Portuguese, I could not be successful here. My basic ability to understand accounting procedures made it possible to work with budgets. Things like this make a difference too.  The poetry of creativity needs to be based on a prosaic base, else it comes to nothing.  I suppose that is the difference between dreaming and making them happen.

Of course, in my EER I sound a bit less tentative and more take charge than I do above. As I said, it is inspired by a true story and reads a little more coherently than it was lived.

May 05, 2013

Unseen São Paulo

Sao Paulo Uraguai Street 

It is a São Paulo few people see, quiet and pleasant. To get to a conference at the Meliá Hotel at 9 am on Sunday morning I walked the three miles from Renaissance Marriott (my favorite hotel in São Paulo) and left a little before 8 am. São Paulo is quiet early on Sunday morning. 

Haddock Lobo Street Sao Paulo 

The streets were mostly free of cars. There was some pedestrian traffic and the quiet whoosh of gardeners sweeping or washing down walkways with water. It was very peaceful. I brought my I-Pad but didn't use it. Sometimes you just want to be in the moment.

Market 

The walk took me through some very pleasant neighborhoods. On the negative side, sidewalks are uneven and hard to navigate, but on the plus side there are lots of trees.  São Paulo gets a bum rap.  It is known as a concrete jungle, but much of São Paulo is a green and pleasant place. Of course, I tend to see the best parts. I would not walk in the less pleasant and more dangerous places.

German house 

I will let the pictures illustrate. I would be happy to live in neighborhoods like this; I couldn't afford it.

Our Lady of Brazil 

May 01, 2013

A world undone

World War I may be the biggest tragedy in history. It destroyed a promising civilization and led to the evils of communism and Nazism. “A World Undone” is the best book I have read about this tragedy. The title is apt. A world was indeed undone. Meyer describes that world and how its faults AND its strengths led to the tragedy. For example, virtues such as courage, perseverance and planning many times made things worse.

Author G.J. Meyer describes the privations on the home fronts. The situation in Germany is especially interesting, as we get little of that in most of the histories I have read.

I found most interesting descriptions of interactions among leaders, military and civilian. There was plenty of incompetence and short sightedness, but there were also rational and well-thought out plans that just didn't work, perhaps because both sides were similarly matched and both sides were thinking of moves and counter moves. Meyer does a good job of talking about all sides. This is a useful antidote to one-sided accounts we often get. When I say "one-sided" I am not talking about only or even mostly patriotic accounts. Rather, it is a big mistake, often repeated, to treat the other side as an object on which we apply our best efforts. Enemies adapt. We learn from each other. It is easy to say "If we did..." This is naive and not pernicious. We and our adversaries share a system in which our common actions invariably produce results neither side could have foreseen.

Viewing all human interactions systemically is a good idea. War, especially a protracted and terrible war like World War I, brings this our in sharper detail, but the complexity and unpredictable nature of human interaction is true always and everywhere. It should be one of the lessons of history and it is what makes reading books like "A World Undone" more than an academic exercise.

Others have written if there is one book you read ... I don't think it is ever a good idea to read just one book about anything, but this one would be a good start. I have thought long about the question of whether historian create history or just report it. It is clear that some creation is going on, as authors must make sense of events and put them in a context that is the creation of the historian and his/her culture. A book like this is possible only in the post-Cold War environment, where we can better see the complexity of multiple relationships.

America has ordered the world as long as most of us have been alive. We have trouble understanding the world of 1914, when was no dominant power. Our world might be becoming more like that of 1914. I hope we do better this time.


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