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October 31, 2013

I bought a scale

fig trees 

I am not skinny and don't want to be, but was getting too fat, year-by-year the weight just ratcheted up. So I bought a scale back in may to measure the problem. I wanted to get below 200lbs. At my height and build I think that is okay. The last time I was down to that level was back in 1995, before I "filled out." I doubt I put on more muscle in the last 18 years, so it was not a good thing.  I gained in winter and lost almost as much during the summer running season. It ratcheted up. You can make "adjustments" to the mirror; the scale is more precise.  My new scale told me I weighed 217lb. There is some daily variation, but I was tipping in at an average of 215.

Ficus trees in Brasilia 

You cannot reverse years in days or even weeks; real success comes from thinking systemically. In a complex system, like our own behaviors, little changes, over time, make big changes.  You have to address the pressure points and it can take time to show results. I identified habits and triggers. I was thoughtlessly eating candy, cookies & chips. The trigger was minor anxiety, usually around ten in the morning and two in the afternoon.  I couldn't really fight the habit, so I altered the trigger.  When I felt the anxiety, I still got up, but instead of buying cookies etc. I just walked around or bought a bottle of Coke Zero. That is almost all it took. 

They say that it doesn't make much sense to weigh yourself every day, but it does. It is true that there are variations in water retention etc. that make the false the precision of the statistic.  But knowing that you will weight yourself the next morning affects late night snacking the day before.  When I reach for the cheese and crackers at 10pm ... well I don't do that anymore either.  

Me with weightsSo, today I reached my goal. This morning I weighed in at 199.8.  Fifteen pounds in almost five months won't be written up in the diet magazines, but I think the lifestyle changes are sustainable.  I still eat junk food, just not as much.  I go to McDonald's still about once a week (I get the Big Mac menu with large fries) and have not given up Dunkin Donuts, although I cannot get them here so it is a mute question. I still like the beer and pizza too. I see no reason to push those things out.  Nothing too much. I am not sure how much more weight I will lose. There is no reason the weight will simply stop at 200 because I set that as an arbitrary goal.  My guess is that it will level out at around 195, although I admit I have no hard reason to pick that number either.

There is some irony here. When I was nineteen years old, I thought it would be good to weigh 200lbs. I tried to reach that level w/o success. I pushed up to around 190 and never could achieve more. Today getting to that weight from the other direction is a challenge.  Of course, as you see in the picture nearby, at 19 & 190 I was fat free as I will never be again.  Some things pass never to return. I had hair back then too.  (actually, I think I am 20 or 21 in the picture) I suppose you could say that I had my gains and losses.

My challenge is to avoid the accretion of bad habits.  I picked them up a little at a time and could do it again.  But I am okay for now. Losing weight proves that old idea that what is simple is often not easy.  Time and persistence seems to have worked.

My picture has nothing to do with the text. These are trees I saw growing in Brasilia.  I think they are what we call ficus plants when we have them indoors.  They get much bigger here. 

October 28, 2013

An opportunity postponed

Bike trail 

Brasília is not the kind of place with many surprises. It is a pleasant city, and I like to live here most of the time, but planners designed it to be uniform and boring and they succeeded.  The same pattern repeats with monotonous regularity. Brasília is the vision of the future projected by leftish planners from 1960. That future never arrived, but time froze here.

Bike trail and bushes 

That is why I was happy to find something a little different. They are building bike lanes. You can see on the pictures that it is pleasant.  It really doesn’t go anywhere.  Like most things around here, it is not an organic development. They probably expect that you will drive to this place and then ride. The second picture shows the trail along one of the usual streets, green canyons.

River in Lago Sul 

Brasília is a postponed opportunity.  The location is superb.  It is mostly gently uphill from the lake and the man-made lake is pleasant.  Brasília sits in big-sky country.  And lots of things grow here with a little coaxing and a little care. The weather is pleasant all year around.  You could have been the perfect walking and biking city. A city for people.  But it was built for cars.

Brazilians have made this a pleasant place despite the design. Imagine how nice it could be if the start had been better.  It can be improved, retrofitted.  It is already better than it was and I am confident it will get still better. That is why I don't think it is an opportunity lost, just postponed.

October 27, 2013

A dry wet season

Yard View 

The rainy season has been unusually dry so far this year. This is good in that I can ride my bike to work for a longer season. But you can tell that the grass is dry, green mostly, but not that vibrant green common during the wet season. I suppose the rains will come. 

In the absence of rain, it gets pretty hot. The rainy season and the clouds usually keep the temperatures down.  I don’t use air-conditioning. Don’t have to in Brasília’s year-round pleasant weather. But I am thinking it might not be a bad idea.

October 26, 2013

Feed the birds

Damaged corn 

Above you see part of my corn crop.  I looked at it this morning and figured that it needs a few more days.  Evidently the birds didn’t agree.  I have some bananas at the end of the yard.  They are still green and hard, but maybe I should harvest them before some bird, mammal or bug decides they are ready.  

We used to grow tomatoes when I was a kid, but always had to wait for a longer time to get our first taste. My father liked tomatoes while they were still green and hard.  He harvested them before anybody else wanted to eat them. We didn't get our share until the productivity of the tomato vines overtook his daily consumption. 

I really don’t have much success with my food crops. I got one watermelon. It was good, but not very big and the vines took up lots of space.  I got a fair amount of tomatoes, but only after I changed to smaller, faster maturing varieties that beat the bugs.  I doubt I will get any corn.  I don’t like mangoes, but even if I did the fantastic production of the tree in my yard wouldn’t be worth much. The birds go after them high in the tree.  We get dozens of those florescent green bungees. They are kind of pretty, but their songs suck. They show up at dawn and squabble.  I suppose I can take pride in that I am feeding the birds, bugs and possums. It is a lot easier to buy produce at the supermarket. Given the actual yield from my gardens, it is probably cheaper too.

Below is my giant compost heap produced by the spring cleaning.  Supposedly things decompose really fast in the tropics, but I have not noticed that it happens faster than in Virginia. To be fair, I suppose I am thinking only of the warm months in Virginia. Nothing much decomposes in the cold. The tree in the front with the interesting leaves is a breadfruit.  This is what Captain Bligh was supposed to bring back on the Bounty when that famous mutiny took place.  It was a Polynesian plant and is one of the most productive food sources.  Breadfruit is starchy and hard to prepare.  My tree doesn't have much fruit and if it did I would not work too hard to cook. 

Compost heap 

October 25, 2013

Green AND Growing - U.S. CO2 emissions drop again

Elm trees at the WH

The U.S. economy grew 2.8% last year, But energy use DROPPED by 2.4% and CO2 emission DROPPED even more, by 3.8%. And despite the overall decline in renewables, the carbon intensity of power generation still fell by 3.5 percent, mostly because natural gas is replacing coal. We are figuring out how to grow the economy, keep the free market and still go green.  

This provides a good case study. Our European friends, who talk green, have not achieved both growth and carbon reduction. They have also sometimes reduced CO2, but at the expense of growth. Meanwhile, the U.S. is successfully separating growth from increased energy use and energy from increased carbon emissions. 

This is not the first time we have responded well. Our American market system just works better than the planners in other places. It often doesn't seem that way. Planners have a rhetorical advantage. They can point to their plan. We can only respond with the true but unsatisfying, "Our plan is to let millions of people make plans in the belief that what they come up with will be better than your experts."

This is something I have noticed in my years of travel and living overseas. Many places are nicer than the U.S. in theory. People have more rights, in theory. They get more stuff, in theory. But Americans do better in reality. I think it is just difficult for academics to understand the U.S. market economy. Market forces are as protean as they are ubiquitous. They defy explanation. So for many years, since before we were even a country, intellectuals have been predicting our imminent demise.

The CO2 problem remains, however. China and others are emitting enough CO2 to swamp any improvements we make. In less than ten years, China will emit more CO2 all by itself than the whole world did in 1990.

We can figure out how to make the future work;  I have less confidence in some others.

My picture shows elm trees at the White House. These elms resist Dutch elm disease that wiped out so many elms in the 1960s and 1970.

October 16, 2013

Something to Share

Road out in tree farm September 2013 

I wrote this article for "Virginia Forests" magazine. Presumably a similar, maybe improved, version will be out soon.   

People who own or work with forestry are in a controversial business. Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, most (not some most) people misunderstand what we do and a significant number of people consider a term like “logger” a type of insult.  

This point of view is mostly based on ignorance, but it is ignorance that we cannot ignore.  In a democracy, policies are based on the desires of the majority and, yes, on their misconceptions and prejudices too. If a majority does not understand, they can be pushed into doing dumb things by vocal minorities. As development comes closer and even into our forests, more people are interested in what we do; it is our interest to make sure their interest turns into understanding.

I was reminded of this need while reading about the recent disastrous fires in the West. One article talked about the need to thin forests in order to improve forests’ health and make them more fire resistant. I didn’t learn much that I didn’t already know from the article itself, but the comments were very enlightening. By the time it was all done, there were dozens of comments. Some  readers were evidently appalled that anyone would even suggest that a human activity like thinning would be proposed for nature’s forests.  Others thought they might accept thinning, but wanted to make sure that nobody made a profit from it.

Comments are not necessarily representative of the general population, but they do come from people who have an opinion and who care enough to take the time to write about it, in other words, motivated people more likely to take action.

Our problem seems to be that a significant number of people view forestry as a kind of mining.  Their attitude seems to be that nature provides forests that humans disrupt and exploit. And then they are gone, maybe for years and maybe forever. This is a silly idea to people who work in forests, especially older people who might have seen several thinnings and harvests on the same tract of land. We must not overlook, however,  that the narrative of loss, destruction, exploitation and the heavy footprint of man is firmly and passionately believed by some people who vote and influence policies toward forests. We should also accept that their passion is based on good will. They think they are the good guys. The facts are on our side, but that doesn’t diminish the intensity of their passion.

This is not a discussion we can or should want to avoid. We are doing the right things and trying with each planting and with each harvest to do them better. Tree farmers act today with the promise of the future firmly in mind.  Sustainability is our concept, one practiced by foresters long before it was stylish or even described. Each of us lives from the gifts of the past and leaves more for those who come after us. This is what sustainable means. 

Our story is important and we should tell it with eagerness and vigor, not just to each other but to all who want to listen, and maybe even to some who don’t. Our narrative is not one of “leaving a smaller footprint” or “reducing damage.” Ours is the affirmative story or renewal and regeneration, of imagination, intelligence and innovation making things better. Generations of tree farmers have been protecting water, soils and wildlife while producing wood and forest products.  It is what we do. We know it works because we see it, smell it in the air we breathe and feel it under our feet as we walk across the land. It is something to share.

October 13, 2013

Average not normal

Average American man 

A normal man has two arms, two arms and two eyes.  The average man has just a little less, since some men have fewer than two arms and nobody has more.  That illustrates the difference between normal and average and maybe some of the dangers of talking about averages.  The median American has all the parts and is much closer to normal.

The average man is changing all the time.  The average American is getting shorter and fatter.  Shorter is a statistically artifact.  As the ethnic mix of the U.S. changes, on average we get shorter.  Consider how it works with immigration. The average Hispanic-American is almost three inches shorter than the average non-Hispanic American.  As that population grows in relation to the total population, the average changes.

Becoming fatter is a matter of changing lifestyles.

I read an interesting articles showing the average American.  Take a look. It is interesting.  

 

October 06, 2013

Lost, found & maybe lost again

Things should be lost and only sometimes found.  We try too hard to preserve things for a posterity that should be left alone to discover for themselves what we knew, what we were and what they have become.  It is sad when something of old beauty disappears and tragic when hard-won lessons are lost, but it might be sadder and more tragic still if they persist and crowd new beauty and lessons to be learned by another age.  

We have a passion to preserve, or at least try to.  We embrace change in theory but in practice try to hold onto everything, memorialize each moment.  But things pass and when they are gone they cannot be persevered, perhaps only fossilized, a lifeless impression reminiscent of the vital living thing, but w/o any of its essence. The essence of vital life is change and the fossil preserved cannot do that.  

Sometimes just let go, let that moment pass into obscurity, with maybe some lingering meaning to be discovered by an explorer or an antiquarian of a future generation, when it will be rediscovered and misinterpreted to fit their needs.  

Things preserved are things dead.  The world should belong to the living. My historian’s heart loves the past and knows that we can learn from the experience of others.   Our ancestors left us a wonderful legacy and I count as MY ancestor every human who came before me whose legacy I touch: good, bad and indifferent. Events change but human nature abides.   But with all due respect to what went before, the future is what matters. Knowing what came before should enable us, not hold us down. They are our ancestors but we have no responsibility for what they did. 

I often feel most awe in lonely places. I recall coming on a big pile of rocks while hiking in Norway.  It turns out that it was a Neolithic monument.  Thousands of years ago, the local hunters and farmer just piled rocks.  There was a marker, which is how I knew what it was, but it didn't really have a good explanation. Maybe it was just that somebody started to do it and other just did it too.  The tradition perhaps persists along hiking trails, where you find piles of rocks that people create as a type of fetish.

When I come on a sign of some great past event, I feel pensive but also connected. I feel connected, however fleetingly, to humans who like me strives, achieved, failed and overcame.  I know that all I do will soon be like all they did.  I take a moment to respect them and also myself.  I try to take a lesson and then I move on.  

Memories real and imagined

I watched a TED talk by Elizabeth Loftus, a researcher who studies when people remember wrong. She started with an example of a guy who was convicted of rape based on the absolute certainty that he was the perpetrator, but he wasn’t. Later they found the real guy.

Memory is not like a recording device.  It is more like Wikipedia.  It is reconstructed each time and can be changed by us AND by others.  Suggestive questions can cause memories to change and sometimes create whole new ones. Memory can also be contaminated by other witnesses.

Maybe twenty years ago, I read a book she wrote called, “Witness for the Defense,” where she talked about some cases she worked on. Of course, it is not always true that eyewitnesses get it wrong. But we put too much emphasis on eyewitness testimony and way too much influence on their supposed degree of certainty.  Expressing great confidence in a memory does not mean it is accurate. In fact, in some cases certainty interferes with accuracy. 

It reminds me of a joke.  At a trial a lawyer asks a witness, “How far were you from the scene?”  To which the witness says, “Precisely seven feet and three inches.” The lawyer retorts, “Ha, how can you be so certain?”  The response, “I knew some jackass lawyer would ask me that, so I measured it and wrote it down.”

In the 1990, there was a big scandal with “recovered memories.” This often had to do with supposedly remembered long ago abuse.  Relatives, friends, coworkers and others were accused, almost always w/o physical evidence.  In many of these situations some form of psychotherapy had actually created these memories. It is unlikely that the therapists did this on purpose, but they were too ready to accept and even be proactive.  Often they were driven by an ideology that assumed widespread abuse and wanted to expose the evils.  Loftus tells about the trouble she had when she pointed out the fallacy of these techniques. She was attacked by organized interests and even sued by a woman who “remembered” falsely that she has been abused as a child. During the 1990s, this repressed memory fiasco was very powerful and fraught with emotions.  It took great courage to stand against it and be accused of attacking abused women and children.  

Can a false memory really affect future behavior? Probably. People cannot distinguish the false memories from real ones and since we routinely act on what we remember, false memory is important.  In fact, a high percentage of our memories are wrong in many details and some are just plain wrong.  We remember things that happened to others as happening to us, or maybe the reverse and we often get mixed up about who did what to whom and when.    

You can see an ethical problem with this beyond the obvious one of eyewitness testimony wrongly convicting innocent people.  What we are as people is largely dependent on what happened to us and even more on what we remember about what happened to us.  Might it not be good to forget a traumatic event or alter it so that it was not so traumatic, maybe add a part where we came out on top of the bad situation, turning the memory from one of defeat and depression into one of triumph and overcoming?

I know that I have done this with my kids, myself and others; at least that’s what I remember. I didn’t think of it as planting false memories but rather as interpreting and reinterpreting. Usually, there are different, maybe conflicting memories and when you sort them out you really are choosing and altering “the facts.”  For example, in a stressful situation you are likely to feel both frightened and determined.  Remembering mostly the fear leads to one vision of yourself, while emphasizing the determination a very different one.  

You can extrapolate this to the wider world.  I have long wrested with the question about whether history is created by historians or if historians merely record it with greater or lesser accuracy and precision.  Of course it is both, but I have been leaning more and more toward the creation theory with the prosaic analogy of a cook on a show called “Chopped” that Chrissy likes to watch.  Chopped is an elimination contest.  The contestants get a bunch of ingredients.  They have to use only those ingredients and they have to use all of them, but they combine them as they believe most appropriate.  All are valid, but they taste, look and are very different.  

I have digressed from the TED talk and from Loftus.  I suggest you watch it and remember just because somebody tells you something they believe with confidence and passion doesn’t mean it is true, even if they tell a compelling story with precise details.  Precision and accuracy are not the same, BTW.  We need outside collaboration.

I think we need to apply to ourselves Ronald Reagan's  the old adage “trust but verify” and, to adapt another old saying, know that it isn’t what we forget that gets us in trouble but it’s what we remember that isn’t so.

October 05, 2013

Government shutdown

I don't really understand.  I went to a census webpage today and got a message that it was suspended because of the shutdown.  Why?  If there is still electricity to run the site, and there is because I got the message, there is no additional cost to leaving the information accessible. In fact, it probably cost more to put up that message than it would to just leave it alone. 

I am still working, since overseas diplomacy is considered crucial at least for now. My Brazilian colleagues cannot be furloughed because of Brazilian law, which applies to them. Since we are on the job, I think we should do our jobs to extent we can given that our resources have been cut. 

We are shut down due to lack of appropriations. It isn't like being on strike; it means that we still want to work but don't have money and I cannot spend money on new things. But we still have a lot of not new things that we can use or do and we have our skills, talents and time.  I don't want to stand down until I have nothing left to stand with.  The work we do is valuable.  It was worth doing last week and is worth doing now. There are rules about these things, however, and perhaps protean interpretations.  I just want to do the job that they are still paying me to do and I think most of my colleagues do too. We should do our best to minimize the pain and mitigate the damage. That is what I intend to do as far as I am allowed: maybe even a little bit farther.


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