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February 25, 2014

Flood insurance

Insurance is meant to spread risk. This does not mean subsidizing stupid behaviors. A risk easily foreseen should be avoided. Some places flood with monotonous regularity. If you choose to build a house there, you should be prepared to suffer losses. If that means that people don’t build on floodplains or barrier islands, it is better for both our economic and our ecological future.

Our Congress wants to reinstate subsidies of flood insurance that they only recently voted to end. It is a mistake.

We should not subsidize stupid behavior. I know it is very hard not to have sympathy for our fellow citizens whose dreams lie in ruins, houses and businesses clogged with muddy water and it is likely to get worse with changes in climate. We should not leave our fellow citizens in dire straights, but we should perhaps help them move if their previous abodes are no longer well suited to habitation. It is not generous to enable people to stay in places where they will be serial victims to foreseeable vicissitudes of nature. Help a man rebuild his home on a floodplain and you are condemning him to misery and grief again and again. How can we be so cruel?

There is a story about a preacher in a town that was flooding. The water reached the roof of his church and along came a boat. "Get in," said the boatman "It is still raining and the flood is rising." No," replied the preacher "the Lord will take care of me." The water continues to rise. Comes another boat and then a third. Each time the preacher dismisses them, explaining that he has faith that the Lord will help him. Finally, there are no more boats and the water is rising. The preacher sees he will drown and calls to the Lord. "I trusted you," he cries "Why have you forsaken me?" To which the Lord replies, "I sent three boats. Why didn't you get into one of them?"

In our more modern time, maybe people have too much "faith" in government subsidized insurance. Maybe they should get in the figurative boat and move up the hill or away from the low estuaries.

February 23, 2014

Better decisions through randomness

I was asked to be on a committee to figure out who got into a prestigious university program. They told me that they had many times more QUALIFIED applicants than slots. I asked about the meaning of qualified; they said it meant that students could do the work and have a good chance success. So I suggested rock-paper-scissors or some sort of random number generator. Since they were all qualified, we were assured a good class. They could publish the odds ahead of time and make it fair and clear.

The committee was unimpressed. As happens in these things, they didn't kick me off; they just never invited me back. But I was right. My offense was not being wrong, it was threatening the phony-baloney jobs of admissions committees. I am convinced you would get a BETTER class if you introduced randomness, since it would eliminate bias.  Dice have no prejudice and no memory. Have a threshold requirement to assure quality, but then take advantage of the beauty & simplicity of random chance.

Such a system also has the advantage of broadening the base of possible classes and it implicitly recognizes that current "experts" do not have the necessary knowledge to micro-manage future needs.

Beyond that, we should let no kids into college when they are 18. Let all who are interested go to open enrollment community colleges. They will then have time to work out what they want, what they are good at doing and where they want to be.  Some who were uninterested in college might find a passion there. Other who were pushed into academics may find more joy in other lines of work. Better all around.

I have thought about this before and wrote about it here. 

The reason I was thinking about this, BTW, was a new book about not fearing to fail, linked here. 

February 15, 2014

Big plans

Big, comprehensive plans usually come to grief. It is impossible to identify all the variables and how they interact even if things stay the same - and they never do. Big plans make hard, still and brittle systems. Being robust & adaptive is better in a world that cannot be predicted. Having a good process in mind is better than a great plan.

In Germany's case, they ended up doing precisely what the plan was supposed to avoid. Carbon emissions are now rising in Germany, even as those in the "plan-less" U.S. are falling.

I have been following this planning debate my whole adult life. I recall that I used to be upset that we had no big plans. When I was in college, professors told me it was a weakness of ours. I recall reading how communists would dominate us because they had a coherent plan. Didn't work out for them. I remember the Japanese supposedly had plans that thought a century ahead. (We should not have thought that was impressive. Imagine a plan from 1914. Assumptions would not have played out.) Well that one didn't work out so well either.

A big, detailed long range plan is a work of fiction. It may be beautiful. Fiction is often clearer and more rational than fact. It makes people feel better but it is pure BS if you get more than a few years out. You cannot predict the big discontinuous change because it is discontinuous. It is the meaning of the concept. All planning depends on the future resembling the past. At times when it doesn't ... we use the simple term overtaken by events, but it is worse.

A better plan is distributed decision making and emergent strategy. You can set goal, but know that you need to change them when conditions change and assumptions prove wrong.

From a strictly personal greed point of view, however, I hope our European friends hold onto their master plan a few more years. We are experiencing a boom in wood pellets, shipped from the Port of Chesapeake to Europe. It has really helped the prices for pulp and even smaller round wood. They use our renewable forest litter to generate electricity. We can produce and ship them cheaper than our European friends can, even with their local advantage. So thanks guys. The plan is working for some people, just not maybe the ones you planned for.

A smile and a shoeshine

It was an evolution.  I needed those programs back then and as I self-improved, I moved to different things.    They sound a little pathetic when I listen to them again.  You know the things I am talking about, things with titles like “the Winner’s Edge,” or “the Secrets of Success.” They seem mostly designed for people in sales and marketing or people trying to get their lives back on track or on track in the first place. 

Most are not subtle. Many have mantras. You repeat things like “I am the best” or “I can do this.”  I never actually did the mantras; even then I was not a mantra sort of guy.  But I did benefit from the programs; that I won’t deny.  I needed to develop a sense of what they called “personal power,” not only the confidence that I COULD do things. I have always been pretty good at actually doing things.  What I needed was the personal power to know that but that I deserved to succeed.   This was important. I was a little too diffident.  I would do a lot of the work and preparation but I never felt that I deserved the success.  I would not cross the finish line.

These brash and pushy people, people I would probably dislike then and now if I met in person, were exactly what I needed. And I could listen to them in my car and on my Walkman (remember those) w/o having to interact. It was useful, what I needed.

I don’t know why I was thinking about this yesterday, but I looked up some of the old tapes and found the Nightingale-Conant webpage.   I used to get their catalogs.  The webpage is pretty much the same, with many of the same programs and authors from the 1980s.  Some have made new ones and they are pictured on the covers, now much older and presumably much more prosperous from taking their own advice about winning and goal setting.   I imagine they have a society of their own increasingly geriatric where they meet to trade platitudes and tales of overcoming. But I am grateful to them.  Take a look at one of them here. This guy changed my life.

I think that the self-improvement reputation suffers because they are seen as shallow, but there come times in every life when you need to be shallower, a little less introspective. Going in with nothing but chutzpah or the old “smile and a shoeshine” is bad, but these guys often get what they are after.  I hate that, but it doesn't make it less true.  The problem for competent but diffident people is that they (we?) don’t know how to close the sale.  We don’t take the last step. We are modest people, sometimes admittedly with much to be modest about but more often with ideas and abilities that deserve ... wait for it ... to win. We have to learn to be winners AND jettison the underlying suspicion that winning is not for us or that winning is vaguely disreputable concept.

My golden age of self-improvement lasted a few years back in the late 1980s.  I should qualify that statement.   Maybe I should call it a “self-help” stage.  We should never stop self-improving and I read more and listen to more audio programs than ever.  But now I do the history, biography, literature and science.  I circled back to my old interests, even tried to relearn some Latin with the Loeb Classic of Lucretius.  It worked not at all. These things are more intellectually defensible, but they are definitely still self-improvement. They help you examine your life and your values and figure out what you should do.

There is also a matter of the hierarchy of needs.  You need to “go for the gold” when you are building a career and creating a life worth living.   If you succeed, you have the luxury of introspection and reflection.   I could disparage those still striving with the self-help programs and call them crass, but they are now what I was then and what I am now they might want to become, maybe not.  I don’t have many of the symbols of success pictured on the covers of the programs and in the brochures, but I still think I am a winner. Maybe I should repeat that mantra a hundred or so times.

February 02, 2014

Forest visit February 2014

Chrissy on the CP forest road 

Went down to the forest farms. This is not the prettiest time to visit.  In fact, it tends to be the ugliest time of the year.  Lots of the plants are dead or brown. The pine trees are a little anemic; they will become much more brilliant green in a few months.

Longleaf pine seedlingOn the plus side, you can see better, since leaves and growing plants are not there to obscure. I was happy to see my longleaf pines are still there and doing okay. A few have really started to grow, as you see in the picture.  Most are still in the "grass" stage.

They are building a big new natural gas fired generator near the Freeman place. They are going to expand the transmission lines and lay gas pipelines.  It won't affect my land directly, but I am not enthusiastic about any changes.  I like things to stay in forestry. But I recognize that development happens and it is probably a good thing for many people.  As I wrote in a earlier post, this part of Virginia is poor.  My forests create few jobs.  The gas generator will do better.

The top picture shows Chrissy on the CP forest road.  me in new forestTrees are getting bigger.  Notice on the side of the road are sycamore trees.  They grew by themselves, but I cut out the brush and thinned them into a nice colonnade. They are growing very rapidly.  I am mildly allergic to sycamore. When I do a lot of cutting, I have to cough a lot.

The middle picture shows one of the longleaf pine seedlings.  I doubt I will ever see this forest mature, but it will be magnificent.  Longleaf used to be very common in the south.  The State of Virginia is working on restoration. My five acres of longleaf are a drop in the bucket, but better than nothing.  Below is me in the new forest.  I think we will cut that this year or next and plant some genetically strong trees that will grow even faster and better. 

The State of Virginia is now also advocating shortleaf pine restoration. I don't know much about them, but I will see what I can find out. I want to have more diversity in my forests in order to make them more robust and useful for wildlife.  I have to admit, however, that I really cannot identify a shortleaf pine.  I may have some and not know it.  I think they can hybridize with loblolly. 

Brunswick stew

Brunswick stew 

We went down to the forests to do the usual look around.  Trees are looking okay.  They will soon start their spring growth.  We stopped to see our local friends who were making Brunswick stew.  This is the signature dish of Brunswick County, where the forests are located.

You see they make it in big pots.  The hunt club uses the stew as a fund raiser.  They told me that they had originally used the stew pots to make stew as fundraiser to rebuild the local church, destroyed by fire. 

Extinction is forever?

News about Neanderthal genes in modern humans makes you think about the whole concept of species and extinction. Among modern humans, 1-3% of our genes are Neanderthal, but these are not always the same genes in every person, so if you summed up the Neanderthal genes found in modern humans, you could reconstruct 20% of the Neanderthal genome. Someday we could recreate Neanderthals. Would that be a good idea?

The idea of a species is a human construct. As our understanding of genetics improves, we begin to see how fluid the concept really is. You could argue that Neanderthals and humans are/were the same species. Polar bears and grizzly bears could be called the same species; they just come in different colors and a few other variations. Maybe even horses and donkeys. The boundaries are not clear.

Any species has lots of variety within its boundaries and the “species” changes every day. This might seem a little strange, so let me explain. A species is made up of individuals, each one of them is a little different genetically than all the others. Every day some die and others are born. Those exiting are different in some ways than those entering the species. This is one of the requirements of evolution. Over a short time, things don’t seem to change much. Over a long time, they change a lot.

This kind of complexity and evolution explains many things beyond biology, BTW. This kind of emergent behavior can help explain development and change in almost every system, such as languages, cultures etc. But this is another story.

Anybody who has seen Jurassic Park is familiar with the theory of species restoration. It may soon become a widespread reality, although maybe not with dinosaurs. This will present us with various dilemmas. What should we do with restored species? Some will probably be uncompetitive with their evolutionary descendants; that is how went extinct in the first place, but others might displace their modern cousins. If we restore an animal, does it deserve protection as an endangered species? These choices will be on us sooner than we think. Somebody will restore a long dead species very soon; somebody probably already has.

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