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December 28, 2013

Wimpification, bureaucratization and time wasting

Steep slope 

You can see it just by walking around. You don’t even have to walk around; you can see it by looking around the house and seeing all the signs warning you about things that aren’t very dangerous or admonishing you not to do things that no reasonable person would contemplate. 

I noticed a few funny signs as I walked around the neighborhood. But they are not really funny when you think about it. Each of these signs was erected to solve a problem that didn’t really exist. They needlessly make people – at least some people – anxious about harmless things like a rise so gentle that it wouldn’t stop a fast rolling tennis ball, as you see in the top picture above.

Ice trail 

But consider the cost. I know from experience with our home owners’ association’s experiences (they managed to spend something like $90,000 to cut down medium sized existing trees and replace them with similar smaller ones)  that nothing like this can be done inexpensively. Dozens of people need to be involved in the decision process. They will almost certainly need an expert to figure out the exact placement of the sign and just to be safe will get a legal opinion from a lawyer.  That is before you bring in three or four workers, equipped with expensive specialized digging and construction equipment to erect the sign. After that it will require periodic maintenance. That silly sign about the little grade must have cost thousands of dollars to install and maintain.

I have always been a kind of a minimalist.  I think you should always have “do nothing” as the default option.  Those advocating any kind of action should have the responsibility of proving its worth. Lots of activity does nothing but cost money and many actually do harm.   We are fooled into believing the activity is effective by things just returning to normal.  There was an interesting article in WSJ about knee surgery.  It usually doesn’t work better than nothing and since it costs money and can create complications, it is worse than nothing.  But people who go to doctors expect something and they usually get it. I recall an old episode from the “Beverly Hillbillies” where Granny discovered a cure for the common cold.  You took the medicine, and in a week or ten days you were better.

Tree protection zone 

It is a bias in the human condition to attribute causality to activity. In Granny’s case, it is clear what is at work, but it is not always so clear. Politicians make all sorts of promises and regulations.  Sometimes things do get better, but it may or may not be the result of their actions. 

There is an interesting example from behavioral economics that illustrates. David Kahneman, one of the fathers of behavior economics, had a dilemma while working with pilot trainers.  He understood that positive reinforcement worked better than negative, but the data seemed to be against him.  Trainers were right when they told him that yelling at someone who did worse than usual almost always made them do a better job the next time, while praising a good performance almost always resulted in a poorer result next time out.  The data was right but misinterpreted.   What was really happening was a simple regression to the mean.   Someone who does worse than usual will almost certainly return to normal next time.  The same will be the case for someone who does unusually well.

This is comforting to me, but also disturbing. It is a hard lesson to learn that lots of what you do really makes no difference. Many people make a living out of doing things that have no lasting effect but doing it with style and conviction.

I recently watched an episode of “Big Bang Theory” where Sheldon gets his girlfriend Amy to watch “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  She is unimpressed and points out that had Indiana Jones done nothing at all, the outcome would have been the same.  The Nazis would have found the Ark, a little sooner. They would have opened it, as they did anyway. The spirits would have come out and killed them all, just as happened. Perhaps the only outcome Indiana Jones influenced was the deposition of the Ark in the giant warehouse where it is again lost at the end of the film.

Let me return to my prosaic sign watching.  I am guessing that the sign making the “dangerous” knoll was put up because some fool tripped over the grade and maybe hurt himself. You can make a reasonable assumption that since that time nobody else has suffered a similar fate. The sign makers might take credit for the increase in human safety and happiness. At least Indiana Jones dressed well while he was cavorting around uselessly spending energy.

December 27, 2013

Thugs and perceptions

Kids in Baltimore 

We went to see the Hobbit 2 yesterday at AMC.  Seats were reserved. When we got to our seats, some were occupied.  We couldn't resolve the situation easily, so I went to get the usher.  On the way back in, another customer told the usher that a couple of toughs with leather jackets were trying to take seats.  Those were my boys.  They are big now and I guess seem threatening. They do have leather jackets, but they are very polite and soft spoken and they were standing with Mariza and Chrissy.

You are judged by appearances.  It is not fair but true. I suppose it makes sense to be safe.  If you see a couple of big guys with leather jackets, it is probably better to avoid them until you are reasonably certain that they are safe. As we used to say in the old arms control debates, you have to judge capacity as well as intention. 

The picture up top shows the kids. As I was thinking about the above, I thought how that could look dangerous, maybe the guy with hoody about to attack the two people in front.  Alex has been lifting weights.  He has gained about 20lbs of muscle.  I wonder if those thugs who attacked him back a couple years ago would have done so had he looked more like he does now.  

December 26, 2013

Mariza's new place

Mariza's house in Baltimore 

The boys and I helped Mariza move into her new place.  It is a very nice place, completely renovated, and they did a really good job. I like the neighborhood.  It is “recovering” but already pretty nice. Within easy walking distance are restaurants, take out places and a Giant.

Street near Mariza's House 

I know that my impressions are not statistically valid, but I think you can get a feel for a neighborhood by walking around.   It seemed peaceful. One of Mariza’s neighbors, a guy called Greg, introduced himself as we were bringing in stuff. He said that he had lived in the neighborhood for thirty years. It had gone through good and bad times, but things were getting better.  It is the kind of neighborhood where I would be happy to live so I am glad Mariza is there.

commercial street near Mariza 

December 20, 2013

Happy days are here again

US Capitol December 2013 

2013 was not a good career year for me, as I have written elsewhere. I tried not to let it bother me. I was content that I was doing the best I could and was producing great results. I understand that randomness plays a much bigger role in career success than most of us like to admit. Throwing snake eyes is against the odds but it happens. Of course, the mind can understand things that the heart cannot feel. Today my good luck came back big time.  

Today I was offered the senior international adviser job at Smithsonian. This is great. I have been interested in this job since I found out about it. State Department seconds a senior FSO to Smithsonian. The job is a kind of State liaison and involves helping Smithsonian make international connections. I will be able to do a good job, make a contribution and it will really be fun.

I have always been fond of museums and of the kinds of outreach they do in terms of culture and education. Science, history, innovation, arts, I will be doing the kinds of things I love. And it gets even better. My office will be in the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. In all the world, there probably is no better location. 

So this is pretty sweet. I have been very lucky with my assignments. I “settled” only once for an assignment that I didn’t want when I did my time in the Ops Center, but I was only there for nine months punctuated by three months temporary assignment in my beloved Poland. My assignment at IIP/P went south. I just couldn’t make that one work, but I really cannot complain about how they treated me. Besides those two, it was a string of great jobs: Porto Alegre, Oslo, Krakow, Warsaw and Brasília. I even found Iraq fulfilling, if not physically pleasant. State Department gave me a great gift when they assigned me to Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy ten years ago. I think Smithsonian is even a bigger deal. Excuse my exuberance. I am very happy just now.  

I took the picture yesterday. It is the view I will have just a few steps from my office next year. 

December 19, 2013

Another tequila sunrise

TequilaThe last time I drank tequila was on January 4, 1974. I worked at Medusa Cement Company over Christmas break that year.  It was tough work.  I did the night shift, midnight to noon, unloading hopper cars full of cement.  It was cold.  I remember being out there looking at the Allen-Bradley clock and temperature.  I can still picture it today, the clock at one in the morning and the temperature -5 or less.  We would run out to the hopper cars and set up the shakers and then run back in to our shacks with heaters. The heaters ran on propane and were shaped like torpedoes.  They produced lots of heat along with of noxious fumes and the occasional belch of flame.  My partner LC Duckworth (he evidently had no first name, just initials) actually set his pants on fire when he fell asleep in front of the heater.  No real harm was done.  It was only on the bottom and the coveralls were fire resistant. He woke up a little startled.  I ran in and I helped put him out.  

I made the big bucks that year; at least it was big bucks to me at that time.  The twelve hour shifts meant four hours a day of time and a half overtime, but it interfered with my social life, which consisted mostly of boozing with my friends.  My nights were always cut short, as I had to be to work at midnight.  In that time and place, they didn’t really mind if showed up a little tipsy.   In the land of soaks, the semi-sober man is king.  I have a theory about how this affected all of U.S. society, which I include below. But I still felt oppressed and longed for the end of my working term so that I could go back to my dissolute ways.  

I finished my working week and my working term on Friday and set up a party at my house, in the basement.  With some of the big bucks I made, I bought all sorts of booze. I used to walk back from work and buy a couple of bottles at Bay View Liquor on my way home, so I had the feeling that I was building up to this for a long time.  I invited all my friends and acquaintances. My plan was to give away free booze.  I would stay perfectly sober and talk to my old HS friends. That was the plan. The flaw in my bold plan was that everybody else was drinking.   It is not much fun to talk to drunks when you are not among them. So I set about to catch up. 

I had a long way to go and wanted to get there quick as I could. There was a bottle of tequila that had remained untouched.  I started to drink that, one shot at a time, but persistently and with vigor. I am not really sure if I finished the bottle, but I knocked down a lot of it. The last thing I recall from that night was noticing that it seemed like I was looking through a broken mirror and the world was spinning. The last person I remember seeing was a girl I knew from HS called Janie Peterson.  There was a two or three of these Peterson sisters.  They all looked alike and they all were blond and pretty. I didn’t impress her. Actually, I am not entirely sure she was there. Lots of things I remember from that time may not have happened and many things that happened I forgot.

The next morning I woke up with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt. As an experienced boozer, I thought that I would take care of it in the usual way. My method was to run. It moved the blood around and provoked a horrendous headache. After about a mile you would usually throw up, but then you felt okay. I still recall with some fondness walking back in the sublimely icy air (it was winter a lot in Wisconsin) feeling restored. Not this time. 

This time I could not even get out of bed.  When I stood up, the world would spin and I fell back.  I was really thirsty, but just about as fast as I could drink water, I would throw it back up.  I spent the whole day trying to get up, drinking some water, throwing it up, sleeping a little and then starting it all over. Sometime around evening, I could move again. I was extraordinarily hungry.  There was not much around the house and in those days we didn’t have that many restaurant choices.  I walked down Kinnickinnic Av and ended up in “the Ritz.”  It was not a great place, but it was open. Hunger is the best cook and I recall with joy the greasy hamburger and fries.

This experience did not entice me to swear off booze or even swear off tequila, but I found that the smell of tequila and even the thought of tequila brought back vivid and unpleasant memories.  I didn’t drink a drop of tequila for the next nearly forty years, no Margaritas, no tequila sunrises, no tequila with salt or lemon, nothing.

I told this story to Espen, who told me that I should give tequila another chance on the fortieth anniversary of the great unpleasantness. I didn’t quite wait for forty years, jumping the gun by a couple weeks.  I tried tequila again.  It was surprisingly hard to drink a shot. It was like jumping into a pool of cold water, ready – go…go.  Are you going or not?  But I did it. It didn’t taste that bad, but neither was it good. It was a long run for a short slide, something maybe worth doing but not worth thinking about doing for four decades.  I will never become a fan of tequila, but I suppose I should be grateful to the cactus whiskey for crystallizing a memory. 

Re my theory of boozing and work.  I was a member of the Longshoremen’s Union Local 815 back in the early 1970s.  We were in that union because we were near the river and some of our cement came in boats.  Most of my brothers worked on the Milwaukee docks and most were hard workers. Many were also boozers, but it didn’t matter.  You could come to work a little tipsy and some of the jobs didn’t require that you work every day.  You could show up and work hard for a few days and then take off. The hard manual work could be done by people recovering from a bender.  I observed that guys sweating out a drunk are often very hard workers.   Besides,  there were “opportunities” to find things that “fell off the back” of trucks.  This world was destroyed in the 1970s when containerized cargo came in.  They needed fewer men to work on the docks and those men could no longer be boozers.  They had to run big machines and come in every day. IMO, some of the homeless problem can be blamed on these developments. There was a general disappearance of short-term, itinerant jobs.   Some guys can work hard, they just cannot work consistently. They had a place before; they do no longer.  I am not saying this was a great world.  It was not.  But it did have an easier time for some marginal people.

December 16, 2013

How the world has changed

The argument today is whether or not the U.S. should export oil. I continue to marvel at energy developments of the last ten years. The U.S. will soon be the world’s largest energy producer, an energy superpower. All the experience of the past forty years has been overtaken by events. It is the energy equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall and will have consequences as far reaching.

I should not be so surprised. I have been an optimist all my life, trusting that human imagination, intelligence and innovation can overcome all obstacles. But I came to maturity during the dark and cold days of the late 1970s, when President Carter told us that we would have to recognize limits, when books and movies emphasized the end of our resources. It is hard for me to believe that it is all so different.

When I was young, people around me made stuff out of raw materials. It seems perfectly intuitive that you could - would - run out of raw materials if you kept on making stuff. I remember hearing stories about the great range Mesabi Range in Minnesota just running out of iron ore. I pictured it just as empty.  It was the end of the line.  Those big iron ore boats coming through the lakes would come no more. I remember being a little surprised by the great song by Gordon Lightfoot about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. I thought those boats had mostly stopped already.

It seemed to make sense to see the world as a bunch of boxed filled with resources. Our ancestors had emptied lots of these boxes and we were emptying them even faster. Soon there would be no more full boxes and we would be out stuff and out of luck. This formulation is easy for child to understand, maybe because it is childish.

In real life, we have constantly developing technologies and techniques. We do indeed "run out" of some stuff, but by the time we do we have transitioned into something else, usually something that works better for our needs.

I recall my first class is business policy. We were assigned a well-known business and told to ask what business they were in. I was assigned McDonald's and it seemed an easy answer. McDonald's was in the hamburger business. This was the wrong answer. I expanded to fast-food. Still not right. I finally ended up with a vague "customer satisfaction" explanation. This was almost right, but still not broad enough. McDonald's is in the customer satisfaction business, using mostly a fast and integrated process to do that. It is also in the logistics business, the technology business and the real estate business, among others. If people stopped eating hamburgers, McDonald's would face challenges, but it would not necessarily go out of business, especially if the changes took place over some years. In fact, we have seen McDonald's diversify its offerings since that time many years ago when I first gave my incorrect answer.

McDonald's is just one firm. How much more adaptive is the great diversity of our society? I could have been asked a similar question about energy. Back in the 1970s, I might have talked about the need to secure foreign energy sources and to cut way back on energy consumption, maybe put on a sweater, turn down the lights and sit in the cold as President Carter implied. But things don't really work like that.

So today we talk about how much energy we should export. The big energy producers in the world worry about the U.S. as a competitor. They can no longer ration our energy or use it against us. If they embargo oil to us, we don't really care. In fact, the big geopolitical talk of today is whether or not we will ALLOW Iran to sell more oil. How the world has changed.

December 08, 2013

Orderly in its own peculiar way

Front flower garden 

I don’t like things too orderly, at least not in the usual sense. I have to emphasize, not in the sense usually understood.  I have been reading and studying for the last couple of years about randomness, chaos and spontaneous order. Most systems have an element of self-organization and all are subject to randomness. I am beginning to think that there is a higher order, a more subtle one but one more appropriate to the complex and changing situations we generally face. There is much we cannot control and it is probably better not to try. Instead of making plans that won’t work, it is better to have robust processes in place that take advantage of many situations. If you want to plan, maybe optimize it for the most likely scenario, but be ready to adapt.  

Back yard garden 

I have come to accept and even celebrate my ignorance, uncertainty and lack of detailed plans. It can be difficult to explain to others. I sometimes find it useful to have a profound plan that I can explain. Who knows?  It might work. But I rarely believe that. I know with moral certitude that I will have to vary the plan, so it really is not a good idea to get too detailed into the planning. I suppose it is related to the "don't spend a dollar to make a dime decision" rule of thumb.  Don't spend a lot of time and resources on something that is likely to be overtaken by events.

Things have been working out very well for me with my belief in the contingency nature of planning.  I trust it will continue to work like that.  People with plans seem to have things better in hand, but when those plans work it is merely a species of my random contingencies.  

Ground cover 

It doesn’t mean I don’t have any plans of my own, but I keep my goals firm and my methods flexible.  IMO, some planners get this exactly wrong. They are less clear where they want to go than about the steps they will need to take to get there.

I was thinking about this today as I was weeding my “garden”. You can see the pictures of my flowers.  It is disorderly in some senses, self-organizing and others and goal oriented for me.  I pull weeds all the time and I move plants around. For example, I am establishing that ground cover you see with the blue flowers. Once in place, there will be no grass to cut in that place. The grass never grew very well there anyway.  I have been gathering plants from other parts of the yard. The flowers come from seeds I gather when I ride my bike and then spread. They are all volunteers. I weed out what I don’t like, so it is not unplanned, but I do depend on what grows. My system is maintained w/o any power tools and I compost everything, so there is no garbage going out.   

When I briefly had a gardener, we “exported” several bags of organic waste every week. I got rid of the gardener because he dissed by disorder and composting. I have not cut the whole lawn since May of 2012, although I knock down parts with my hand mover and scythe. There are lots of bees and butterflies and I suppose perhaps some of the nastier denizens of nature too, but they need a place to live too.  The disorder gives us more diversity and more of everything in its disorder. 

I think that is a good metaphor for life.  It might be easier just to mow everything down, as it was when I got here.  It would seem much more orderly, but it would be less interesting. Next week it will be different in ways I can anticipate but don't control. I am always interested to see what will grow and how. I get to play in the garden every day and exert my influence, but there is the aspect of randomness. I like that. I established order in my peculiar way.  

December 07, 2013

Fracking stimulus: real energy for the real economy

American energy is booming and energy is driving the economy. It is a stimulus much larger, more effective and sustainable than anything the Obama folks have done. And it is reaching all over the U.S. Fracking is lowering energy costs and reducing pollution. It is giving business to railroads, jobs to truckers and money to rural landowners. Beyond that, the fracking boom is stimulating a renaissance in heartland industries, such as fertilizers, plastics and other petrochemicals.

In my native state of Wisconsin, the western part of the state had some problems in rural areas. Then came the fracking boom in North Dakota. Fracking fluid is mostly sand and water and Wisconsin sand is particularly well-suited for fracking.

This story is being repeated all over the American heartland. I suspect that the immense proportions of the success are under reported because much of the value and the jobs are going to smaller cities or rural communities outside the general purview of the bicoastal elites. But it is real and sustainable. This is not cash for clunkers or Solyndra pipe dreams. This is real and sustainable. And instead of costing billions, it is providing billions in earnings and taxes.

Of course there is also the conspiratorial reason to think it is under reported. The bicoastal elites tend to dislike both fossil fuels and the "hicks" in the heartland. Beyond that, if we understand the true engine pulling the American economy, how can politicians take credit?

W/o the fracking stimulus, our economy would be even more in the dumps and it may be fracking and its less expensive energy and abundant petrochemical complex that pulls us out.

Everything about fracking appeals to me. My blue collar heritage loves jobs for honest working people in an America is making real things, wealth through creation, not artificial stimulus or redistribution. The environmentalist in me sees the carbon reduction and the clean burning gas energy. My inner economist figures the potential salvation for an economy still in slow recovery from the great recession. My spirit of enterprise is excited by the courage and imagination of the men who took this technology discarded by big oil and made it great. My sense of fairness is enamored with the spread of prosperity to my people of Middle America and my patriotism is exalted by American energy letting us give the middle finger salute to despots and tyrants that control so much foreign oil and gas. We did it again.


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