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 22, 2012

Don't choose to be fat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


April 29, 2012

Keeping Busy

I have not written much for a while.  We have been unusually busy in the office.  What have I been doing?  

We have had visits by important people like the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. This sucks in more people and time than you might think. I remember when Secretary of State Eagleburger came to Norway back in the 1990s.  This was my first SecState visit. He came with a few people. We didn’t have to spend a lot of time preparing for the visit. He knew his business and was not much interested in VIP treatment. I tried to give him some talking points. As near as I can recall his response he said, “I don’t need these things; I make them up.” Suffice to say that it is not like this anymore.  

Of course Eagleburger is a special case. He is the only career FSO ever to be Secretary of State.  If that is not enough reason to revere him, he was born in Milwaukee, went to school in Stevens Point and got his degree from the University of Wisconsin.  

Another thing that has been taking time is writing fitness reports. I wrote my own (we write our own first page), those of my key staff and reviewed those from our consulates. Since I had experience on promotion panels, colleagues have asked me to help with theirs. I tried my best. I work with really great people and when I read their accomplishments I feel much honored to be in this group.   

Writing the reports is one of the most important things I do. Good people should get what they deserve.  But I really hate the software we have to use to file the reports.  It is complicated and troublesome. I never met anybody who actually likes it.  It is not intuitive. You spend several hours learning how to use it each April and then don’t use it for a year and have to relearn it next time.  But we cannot seem to get beyond it. We used to have a simple Word document that you could fill in. It took a few minutes. But a couple years back, they started to make us use this thing called e-Performance.  It transforms a few minutes of work into hours or even days of wresting with the kind of software everybody thought was obsolete in back in the 1990s.   

I should not complain. I am very lucky to work in this place, at this time with these people. There is no place I would rather work. I don’t have any unfulfilled career ambitions.  Promotion for me would be an honor, but it isn’t very important to me. I am not angling for any job beyond the one I have now. My goal in taking the job as PAO in Brazil was to pursue excellence. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but I just wanted to get it really right before my time was done.  This time I felt that I could really devote my full attention. I always thought that if conditions were right,  I could produce excellence. Conditions are excellent; me ... still not so much. It is humbling to come up against the limitations.  

December 10, 2011

Matters of Fact

People like me like facts. I like to quote John Adams who said. "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." Or even more practical from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." But facts are not what they used to be. The latter quote illustrates that. It is likely that Moynihan did not say that, or at least he did not originate it.

I was a nerdy kid. I used to read the "World Almanac" and then I would dazzle/baffle/bore my friends with my ersatz erudition. Knowing lots of facts was seen as a sign of intelligence back in the halcyon days of my youth. In the intervening time, however, I have noticed that facts change. Some change is unsurprising. Populations grow and cities change. The facts of these things are ephemeral by nature. But I have seen lots of hard realities change. I used to know a lot about dinosaurs. Many of those facts are now wrong, as are many things I learned about biology, ecology and even physics. Textbooks full of "facts" written in the 1950s are now obsolete and these were supposed to be the hardest of all hard facts, the product of our proud science. Our current "facts" are unlikely to do age any better.

The fact about facts is that they often come with an expiration date and they do not travel well. Brazilians credit Santos Dumont with inventing the airplane in 1906. An airport in Rio is named after him. Americans know the Wright Brothers did it three years earlier. Both things can be "facts" because the fact about facts is that they are usually not facts, but rather constructs that most people in a particular time and place agree should be true. Worse yet, what makes a "fact guy" like me profoundly dejected is that we are leaving the "age of facts" and entering or reentering an age when what we know is more fluid and open to interpretation.

Facts as we know them today cannot exist is a mostly illiterate society and did not really exist at all until the invention of the printing press. Let me be clear. I am not saying that truth did not exist, but facts, in the sense of a checkable specific requires writing. Without something in writing, you have to depend on human memory, which is notoriously mutable. Even when people are trying to tell the whole truth, they will get "facts" wrong. Worse yet, human memory changes in response to changing conditions and requirement. Memory is not like a book or a movie. It is not stored in your brain as a file. Instead, you have to recreate memory each time you want to use it. Past events, present conditions and future aspiration mix, so your memory of things past isn't only about those things past.

This is why oral history - as history - is not worth the paper it is printed on and also why oral history tends to seem more logical than the real thing and makes a better story. Especially if it has passed through many minds and maybe many generations, the stories have been rationalized and coordinated with prevailing cultural norms. Legends are always more entertaining than the facts.

Thanks to Internet and greater diversity of our populations, we are reentering the age of legend, as opposed to fact. We left the age of legend - at least in the West - when Gutenberg's invention became widespread. But if printing created the concept of fact, how can the much more widespread use of the equivalent of the printed word destroy it?

The Internet "printed word" is not the same thing as a word on paper. The Internet word is mutable and often anonymous. A printed word on paper has a source that you can find. There is a publisher, who you can trust ... or not. Whether or not you trust the source, you can judge it. Furthermore, there are a limited number of publishers. Finally, your book will not change if the author changes his mind. This is not true of other sources.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have changed aspects of "Star Wars" or the Indiana Jones films to fit in better with their later films or with changing societal mores. I saw "Return of the Jedi," formerly Star Wars #3 now #6 in the eponymous Saga. I remember the original with the ghost of Darth Vader. He was an old, bald guy. Now he is the young long-haired actor who played Darth Vader in the prequels. Lucas claims he had the whole idea thirty or forty years ago and he altered the historical record to support his claim. (The "first" three are really crappy, BTW, and I can well understand why Lucas feels the need to support them any way he can.)

You really cannot tell for sure what they have done if you have no comparison. I rely on my imperfect memory. Others have the concrete "proof" of the picture on the screen. (Ironically, this is exactly what the dystopian totalitarian state did in George Orwell's 1984. Ingsoc (English Socialism in newspeak) theorized that all knowledge belonged in collective mind of the Party and they have had right to change history as they change their collective mind. "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future." Winston's (the main character) job was to systematically alter the past to fit the current needs of the party. But in those days, he had to physically destroy paper.)

Of course, you still can check in some cases. For example, on a recent episode of "Glee" (which Chrissy likes, not me) I noticed that when they sang "I feel Pretty" from West Side Story, they sang that "I feel pretty and witty and BRIGHT." In the original, Maria feels "Pretty and witty and GAY." The word didn't mean homosexual back then. Modern writers feel the need to go with the PC meaning rather than the dictionary.

On the other hand, I have a copy of the "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" that my mother gave to my father before I was born. When I look at those yellowed pages, I am morally certain that nobody has altered a word to make it fit in better with current prejudices.

Most of what the Internet has done to spread information is good, although my own results are mixed. I feel a little less smart today because of it. My encyclopedic knowledge used to be admired. Now my son just tells me that I have "wiki-intelligence" which he can duplicate or surpass on his computer. He is right. But I do worry about matters of fact.

Sometimes on the Internet, I find things that are just wrong. It is especially true when somebody asks a question and then chooses the "best answer". Sometimes my old books, written and printed closer to the fact in question, tell me a different thing. The Internet makes difficult or almost impossible the formerly reliable, if painstaking, process and analyzing texts. Not only cannot you find the physical source, you often cannot tell where the source comes from and have no way of even guessing whether it has been altered.

I studied historiography many years ago. Those who know what that is, know that it is not history. It is the study of the creation of history. In one of my seminars, we studied Polybius and not only traced back to his sources but also looked forward to historians who used Polybius as a source, sometimes w/o even knowing it. It was a truly fascinating few months and it made an impression on me that lasted (so far) a lifetime. I learned that the weight of sources is less important than their lineage. Some of the most elegant narratives are just not based on reliable sources and it doesn't matter how popular they are or how logical they sound. They are wrong. If you find the weak link in the source, you don't have to argue anymore about details. All those analysis that depend on the source are wrong too. Of course, nobody will really believe you if the story is good. The legends are more fun.

Somebody might even "fact check" you using one of those weak link sources.

December 06, 2011

State Delegations

We have been getting lots of visitors in Brazil. They have to come now, since much activity shut down for the holidays a couple of weeks from now and will not really recommence until after Carnival.  

The most interesting for me was a visit by a delegation from the State of Massachusetts led by Governor Deval Patrick.  Most of the delegation consisted of business people representing high-tech and life-science firms, but there were also representatives of Massachusetts’ universities.  We were happy to see them, since they fit in well with our support for the Ciência sem Fronteiras project.  The universities reps said that they were interested in taking Brazilian students and the Brazilians are interested in going to Massachusetts, so it looks like we have the beginnings of a beautiful friendship.  

Massachusetts is a case study in the value of education. The state has gone through good times and hard times, but it always adapts.  The high levels of education make this much easier.  I gave a short presentation to the group and they were pleased when I called their home a “state of brains” but I was not trying to flatter.  Massachusetts has long been one of the case studies I use when talking about renewal, resilience and the crucial role that education plays in easing transitions.   

Nobody can predict the future with any certainty.  The best plans and most elegant adaptions to current conditions will someday become useless and maybe even dysfunctional when technologies, trade patterns or other relationships change.  Education cannot protect you from change, but it can help you identify trends and develop options to deal with them.  

November 15, 2011


I am home today for a Brazilian holiday. If it stops raining, I will go run.  In the meantime I am thinking about how ideas get developed.

Simply having good ideas is easy.  Developing them into integrating them into meaningful systems is hard and making them operationally useful is even harder than that.  And then there is the problem of communicating to others.  Idea creators are rarely the ones who can make them work.  Of course, everything takes time and there are lots of distractions along the way.  

We have a marketplace of ideas.  I understand that term is a little cliché, but I think it fits.  But I think we need to think of the marketplace is broader terms and include the element of time.  In the short term, both products and ideas compete in something almost like a zero sum game.  I buy more Coke and less Pepsi. But the longer term is much more dynamic.  New products are introduced; old ones change. Some products disappear, but something very much like them fills their market niche and you could see how the new one is related to the old one.  In the long run, it is very much NOT a zero sum game.  It is a vast interaction with everything and everyone reacting and changing to the others.  Products in markets tend to improve over time, or at least they better serve current needs and the best markets have lots of diverse participants.   

Like products in a dynamic market, ideas do not merely compete. Instead they develop and change in response to conditions and each other. Unlike physical products, ideas can merge in create whole new combinations. Historians of ideas like to trace the ancestry.  They make categories to differentiate the “species”. Sometimes trace the way back to ancient Greece or Ancient China; the more PC include supposed contributions by pre-literate cultures.  The lineages make sense and they are compelling, but they are wrong if taken too literally.  The historian not only tells the story, but also creates it.  In fact, the lives of ideas are much more chaotic than any story can capture, since everybody has a different hybrid of even the simplest concept.  

I understand that there is no such thing as linear causality in any even reasonably complex in system.  Everything is subject to complex feedback loops with the cause affected by the effect.  It rarely makes any practical sense to trace an idea to its origin.  At best it is like tracing a river to its source.  They say, for example, that Lake Itasca in Minnesota is the source of the Mississippi, but only a few drops of water that reach the Gulf of Mexico actually came from Lake Itasca and w/o water from additional sources, the river would never make it even as far as Bemidji.  Ideas are like that.  Even the best idea cannot get past Bemidji unless they are carried along by others.

So John Maynard Keynes was correct in principle when he wrote that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist,”   but he was exhibiting more than a bit of intellectual arrogance when he assumed that the “practical men” are simply vessels for the ideas or that the ideas came down to them in a clear line; he also overestimated the role of individual ideas and thinkers.  

We are used to thinking of ideas as coming from one wise person (or maybe a wise guy). Whole branches of ideology traced back to a single individual sometimes even named after them. We have Platonism, Marxism or Confucianism.  But how much are they really the product of their eponymous creator?   Not really very much.  How can we know? Think about how many varieties there are of any long-established “ism” and how they change over time.  Plato has been dead for more than two millennia. Presumably he is no longer editing his work, so they changes in interpretation cannot be his.  

Good philosophies are group projects, produced by interactions among individuals often over time, sometimes generations.  This allows the accumulated wisdom of people from different places and times to be put into the balance.   They evolve.  And the best do it while accomplishing the ostensibly contradictory task of maintaining and changing traditions.

Nothing new here, I guess. Just some thoughts on a rainy morning.

November 11, 2011

Things We Should Not Forget

I go to Arlington on Veterans’ Day when I am in Washington, but in Brazil I have no place like that. I don’t go for the ceremonies anyway, but rather to remind myself of the debt of gratitude we owe to those who defended our freedom, some at the cost of their own lives.  That I can do anywhere.

My father and most of the men of his generation were veterans. My generation contains many fewer.  The all-volunteer military means that service is concentrated, often among families or places with tradition of military service.  Our military resembles U.S. society in general. The poorest groups in society are significantly under-represented in the military, probably because they more often lack the basic qualifications, such as HS diplomas and clean criminal records. The very rich don’t seem to enlist in great numbers, but contrary to popular conceptions, the wealthier 40% of the population is overrepresented.  So the military tends to be middle-America. It is also a little more rural and more southern (the South accounts for 40% of new recruits) than the general population.  Both blacks and non-Hispanic whites are slightly overrepresented; Asians and Hispanics are not represented as many as their numbers would imply.  Some people speculate that it is because these communities contain many immigrants who have not yet fully integrated into U.S. society. Native-Americans (i.e. Indians), although they make up a small percentage of the American population, are well-represented in the U.S. military.  

I didn’t know very much first-hand about military in combat situations until I spend my year with the Marines in Iraq. (I tried to enlist after college, but I was kept out by a diagnosis of an ulcer when I was sixteen. I don’t think it was correct, but it kept me out.)  I spent much of my time talking to senior officers (majors, colonels and generals) and I know that skewed my perceptions. These guys were very intelligent and disciplined. I was proud to be among in their company and to be more or less accepted.  I say “more or less” because Marines have a very strong circle that I don’t believe any non-Marine can enter.    

I also spent a lot of time with ordinary Marines. The thing that was most admirable about them was how they took responsibility. The twenty-year-old in charge of the vehicle commanded it. I put my life in their hands and had confidence in them. When I was their age, I had responsibility for the French fries at McDonald’s and didn’t do such a good job even at that. Young Marines are amazing.   

I heard on the radio that veterans were having trouble finding jobs back home and I have talked to Chrissy about this. The problem evidently is that military job classifications don’t translate well with civilians ones. The guy that saved lives in Iraq lacks the formal certifications to do the same thing in the back home.   

There is a general problem of translating experience. Life was intense in Iraq. We worked as a team and had a feeling of community against shared risk. When you come home, nobody understands what you did and you really cannot explain it to those who have not been there. When I look back, I think it took me a few months, maybe longer, to readjust and I was lucky to have a stable family life and a good job. The scary thing is that at the time I didn’t perceive the problem. When you are in the desert, you idealize coming home. Nothing can live up to that ideal.  Ordinary life is sometimes harder than extraordinary challenges and hardships. 

I was lucky in Iraq. I got there in September 2007, just as the war was winding down. I remember rolling into Haditha soon after I arrived. It was still smoking from the fighting. Within a few months, we could walk in the market-place among friendly people, grateful for the order we had helped establish. It was an unbelievable change. It also meant that fewer people were getting hurt and killed. But still it happened.

When we lost somebody, they would declare “river city Charlie”. Routine communications were cut until the next of kin were contacted. Just writing that phrase chokes me up. I think of the promising young men killed.  I truly dislike the feeling, but I want never to forget.  There was one young man, called Aaron, who I particularly remember. I didn’t know him personally and I didn’t see him killed, but listening to his service and talking to his friends made a deep impression. He was a military policeman working with Iraqi security forces in the town of Hit, about Alex’s age at the time. He liked to lift weights, like Alex too. I think his similarity to Alex is what made it touch me so much. He joined the Army in a time of war, knowing he might be sent in harm’s way, wanting to serve his country and hoping to acquire some skills that would be useful later in life.   

Colonel Malay and I went to Hit to talk with Aaron's his colleagues. I remember the day, the setting sun, the concrete barriers, the smell of burning garbage, and of course the ubiquitous dust. They were young and upset about what had happened.  They said that Aaron had gotten out of his vehicle and bent down to stretch.  Everybody does that when they get out of the confined space in a HUMVEE or MRAP. Somebody shot him from a down an alley and ran off. The guy got away and we never found out who it was. It was the "odd angry shot," a surprise. Hit was relatively safe.  It was a war zone, but there was not much war left in it. I felt safe when I walked around on the streets and I am sure Aaron did too.  

I am conflicted about this memory. In some ways, I have no right to it; I have intruded in the grief of others and the one loss has come to symbolize many things to me over a year of my life. Years later I am working to remember a person I never knew. I wrote a note to his mother, sharing my condolences explaining the situation. She told me that it was important not to forget her son and said she appreciated my remembrance. I appreciate her “permission" and I am happy if my very small contribution eases her grief. I am getting a lot more.  It helps me remember things I should not forget. 

May 22, 2011

Nanotech will be Big

A nanometer is a one billionth of a meter. How small is that?  It is so small that a human hair is 100,000 nanometers thick, an average man is 1.7 billion nanometers tall, a strand of DNA is 2-3 nanometers & an atom is 1/10 of a nanometer. You can’t see a nanometer with your naked eye or even with the most powerful optical microscopes.  But we can see them with our electronic microscopes and we can now manipulate matter at the atomic level. This is nanotechnology, one of the most exciting industries of the future.  

I don’t understand the physics, but I am excited by the possibilities. What our expert told me today was that for most of our daily lives, the things we can see with our eyes, Newtonian physics works just fine.  But when things get very small, on the nano level, elements behave in different ways. A nano-particle is not the same as a molecule.  Molecules are stable. Nano-particles are not because they behave according to the rules of quantum physics.

It's like alchemy. Our experts explained that nanotech cannot turn lead into gold, but it can make an element like lead behave like gold in certain circumstance. For example, gold can be used as a catalyst in some situations. At the nano level, a cheaper material such as copper can be made to perform like gold. This is way beyond my level of understanding, but it has to do with surface areas. The surface areas is the only part that really interacts. This is as far as my science goes. 

One of the interesting uses mentioned was to use nanotechnology to minimize the need for or even replace so-called rare-earth elements.  In recent years, the Chinese have cornered the market on many of these.  We don’t require vast quantities of materials, but they are crucial to the production of many high-tech products.  Nanotech will allow us, once again, to do an end run around a would-be monopolist.  

Nanotech is an enabling technology. For example, nanotechnology is already being used in medicine. A nano-particle can deliver medicine directly to cancer cells and kill them w/o affecting neighboring cells. Some nano-particles can be activated by infrared or magnetism. In that case, a nano-particle could be directed to a cancer cell and then activated to get hot and kill the cancers. These advances have developed only in the last five years.  

We are now familiar with the stain repelling, wrinkle free fabrics, even sox that won't stink. These were developed using nanotechnology. We also have self-healing paints. For example, a car paint can cover its own scratches. The closest thing to a mass produced commodity product today are carbon nano tubes. They can be stronger than steel but at almost no weight.  

Nanotech can help with the environment, for example, turning seawater into drinking water with reverse osmosis or using nanotechnology in agriculture and food

Of course, nothing is free and with any advance comes risk. Nano-particles are so small that they can penetrate deep into your body.  They can breach the blood brain barrier, for example. This is great for delivery of medicines but not so good for potentially harmful substances.

R = E * H – i.e. risk equals exposure times hazard. This is how we need to assess risk.  A shark is very hazardous, but if you are not in the ocean and not exposed to it, there is no risk. On the other hand, constant exposure to a low level hazard can be much more dangerous. To most people, bees are a much bigger threat than sharks. Of course, exposure to some things is not hazardous at all.  

In traditional risk management, dosage or amount makes a big difference. In these cases, the difference between a deadly poison and a harmless substance or even a beneficial medicine is often the dosage, even something as deadly as arsenic in small enough quantities is harmless. With nanotech, we are just not sure if that useful rule applies. Researchers disagree. Another uncertainty is just in the production of nano-materials.  We still don’t understand all the processes so there is great variation from batch to batch, even when made by the same people ostensibly the same way. This is why regulating nanotech is a challenge.  

Nanotechnology has the potential to be a revolutionary process. It changes the very nature of matter that we work with. But we do have to evaluate risks versus benefits on individual basis and do so across the whole product lifecycle, i.e. from material to manufacturing to consumer use to final disposal.  

More information from CRS:

Nanotechnology and Environmental, Health, and Safety: Issues for Consideration

Nanotechnology: A Policy Primer

May 16, 2011

No Viable Future w/o Biotechnology

We should base our regulations and plans on actual risks, not the perceptions of risk. Biotechnology is a lot less radical and a lot less risky in than it is perceived to be. Let’s start with some things that are not problems. You can avoid biotech product if you eat nothing but organic food, but all the rest of us have eaten biotech food, since most of our American corn and soybeans, among other things, are genetically modified. There has never been a case of a documented health problem attributed to biotech food. This is a surprising outcome, given the extreme amount of scrutiny biotech gets. It is likely that biotech is actually SAFER than ordinary products because of all the scrutiny.   

Of course, organic food has recently killed at least 30 people and made another 3000 sick, as we saw with the recent e-coli outbreak in Germany attributed to organically grown bean sprouts. The fact is that no food is perfectly safe all the time. You can be sure that if a biotech product had somehow been in contact with this organic product and got infected by it, the biotech would get the blame. We should not “blame” organic food, but recognize that humanity ate organic food for most of our history and our ancestors were not more robustly healthy than we are.

There have been complaints that biotech firms lock farmers into seeds, since they are not allowed to save seeds for next year. This is a meaningless complaint, since it is nothing new in the seed world. Productivity in American corn fields grew fantastically after the introduction of hybrid seeds in the 1930s. Farmers could save seed, but it wouldn’t work. Hybrid seeds are so productive because they have the hybrid vigor. The hybrids are developed to exhibit the best traits from the parent stock. The next generations lose this and may be even poorer performers than the original stock. They may, in fact, exhibit the worst traits of the parents. It is indeed true that farmers using biotech seeds generally agree not to use the seeds again. But if they want to be most productive, they probably would not want to do it. Like those who use hybrid seeds, they can always choose not to use the biotech seeds. They choose to use the better quality seeds because they believe the harvest will improve enough to justify the costs.

Biotech agriculture is becoming more widespread everywhere except Europe. European firms are active in biotechnology, but activists in the Europe resist wider introduction, which is one reason Europeans pay more for their food. Alternative “natural” food is something that only the rich can afford to choose, since it means lower productivity. This might seem like a bold statement, but it approaches a tautology. If the “alternative” is more productive, it becomes the usual method. The poor have often been forced to be organic, since they couldn’t afford other options, but they make the logical choice when they have a choice.

Biotechnology also increases diversity. With traditional agriculture, farmers have to plant one variety, in order to make harvests practical. Biotechnology creates new varieties. You can still keep the old ones if you want, but you have doubled your choices.

Biotechnology is good for the environment, but creating and using plants and animals suited to their environments. They require fewer chemical treatments and less cultivation. This is one reason it increases farm productivity. They farmer needs to spend much less time in the fields spraying or cultivating.

31% of the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases come from agriculture. Biotechnology can reduce that by requiring fewer inputs, everything from herbicides, to fertilizers to the fuel for tractors to deliver these things to the field. No till agriculture, which protects soils, conserves moisture and makes it possible for farmers to cultivate much less often, is very much facilitated by biotechnologies. Overall, the introduction of BT Roundup ready crops is estimated to have been the equivalent of taking 6-8 million cars off the road.

Biotechnology is developed by big firms. This is because only well-financed firms can afford the equipment and trained scientists. But an even bigger consideration is the regulatory environment. Governments require extensive testing and field trials. Only a well-financed firm can afford to comply. However, the biotechnology itself benefits small and big farmers. Biotechnology is scale neutral. The small farmer can get as much benefit as the large one and the relative benefit to small holders is often greater, since they often lack the equipment and expertise to take full advantage of traditional farming technologies.

I personally believe that biotechnology is a necessary tool to protect the environment and keep our world reasonably pleasant. We live in a global world. Even people not very knowledgeable about the environment understand that we face the challenges of climate change. Fewer people are aware of the bigger threat of invasive species or the development of native menaces in the face of changing environments. Everything can catch rides on our modern mobility. This includes plants and animals, but also diseases and bugs. Many of our most treasured plants and trees are threatened, including our oaks, maples, beeches … pretty much everything. Natural systems cannot adapt at the pace of change we humans have created. Biotechnology is the best hope we have to save the ecosystems we love and on which we depend. I am unwilling to accept that my oaks will wilt, my maples will be killed by Chinese beetles; my ashes will all succumb to the emerald borer or my hemlocks will be turned into ghosts by woolly adelgids. We can fight back with chemicals and cultivation, but one of the most potent and ecologically benign tools will be biotechnology

I understand the risks of change. But looking around at what we get w/o biotechnology – the food shortages in developing countries, the widespread death of forest species etc, I don’t think we have a good alternative.

There is no alternative w/o risk. We need to be cautious about what we do, but we also need to adapt to rapidly changing realities. World population growth means we need to increase food production. Climate change will make that productivity growth harder. We need to use all the tools we possess and certainly should not refrain from employing the most exciting innovations recently created by human imaginations. We need to deploy biotechnology. We should be circumspect by not timid. The future belongs to the innovative.

April 19, 2011

Finishing Portuguese

I finished my Portuguese today.   

I have no feelings of accomplishment. I just feel uneasy. This always happens when I finish a big long-term task. For the last six months, I thought of little else but Portuguese. I never had to wonder what I should do. There was always something in Portuguese to read, watch or memorize. I carried my little book of Portugese phrases to review whenever there was an extra minute. My thoughts were organized around Portuguese. People thought I was nuts, walking around & talking to myself, repeating phrases and strange words. I even did it while riding my bike. I  dreamed about Portuguese. Now the voices have all gone silent. It is lonely. The same thing happened when I finished Polish or Norwegian. This too will pass, after a period of withdrawal.  

Now I have to think of my own projects. Maybe I can finally read that biography of Hadrian that I bought a few months ago.

February 05, 2011

Sound Mind & Sound Body

Keyboard warning 

The ancient Greeks & Romans were fairly unanimous in understanding that body health & mental health were inseparable. The idea slipped during the middle ages, when some believed in the “mortification of the flesh.”  Our ideas in modern America are mixed. Popular culture features the fictional conflicts between nerds/geeks and jocks. According to the formula, the geeks are uncoordinated and physically weak, but hard working and smart. The jocks are the opposite. Like lots of high school concepts, this one is based on a simplified version of brains v brawn and narrow definitions of health and intelligence. 

The Greeks were right.  Healthy bodies and healthy minds go together, at least in a statistical sense, i.e. in general but not always.  I know that somebody will throw up the example of Stephen Hawkins, but he is an exception in almost every way.  The brain is part of the body. When the body functions poorly, the brain is affected.   You just cannot think as clearly if your body is giving you trouble. Think about the last time you had a bad toothache. Did you think about lots of other things when it was acting up?

It is hard to determine the causality in mind-body health. Healthy people can devote more energy to keeping their mind alert and intelligent people understand better the need and methods for staying healthy. We find a correlation between health and success, with obesity and poor health more common among the poor. It some ways it violates our sense of fairness. We like to think there is some kind of compensation, so the guy with the weak body gets the compensation of being smarter.  It just doesn’t seem to work like that.

I go to Gold’s Gym three times a week and I am under no illusions that all those guys built like gorillas are rocket scientists. On the other hand, the people who work out during their lunch hours, before or after work seem a cut above the ones who don’t.  

Talk of the Nation – Science Friday” reported studies that show that moderate exercise, like walking 40 minutes three times a week actually increase the size of your brain. They also discussed “brain exercises” like doing crossword puzzles. These things make you better at crossword puzzles, but don’t do much in general.  Physical exercise, on the other hand, improves the raw material of brain health and so provides across the board benefits.

I know this is not the same thing, but I find that I think more clearly when I am walking. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it is just better to be in motion. I can think about things when I am walking. I suppose if I was just to sit still and try the same thing my mind would wander or I might just fall asleep.  

Another thing the ancient Greeks used to say was “nothing too much” or “everything in moderation.”  You don’t have to be a triathlete to have a healthy mind and body, but it would be a good idea to be able to walk around the block w/o your body complaining. It helps keep the mind clear.

The picture up top show the dumbing down of our society. How dumb do you have to be to require a warning on your computer keyboard? IMO, one of the big challenges to our society is that we allow fewer and fewer responsible decisions.

February 03, 2011

The Great Ronald Reagan & Me

Ronald Reagan would have been 100 years old on February 6. As the partisan passions fade, everybody is starting to recognize the greatness of the man. President Obama recently read a Reagan biography for inspiration and wrote an article in USA Today praising him.  

Any president who leads a big change will provoke dislike on the part of his opponents and I recall the rabid hatred among some of them in the 1980s. They can be forgiven some of their faults. Reagan was a very insightful & intelligent man and a hard worker. We know that now from reading his journals and from other sources coming out about him. But he evidently liked to hide these things. Maybe he was modest or maybe it was a strategy.  

Ronald Reagan used to say that you can accomplish almost anything as long as you don’t care who gets the credit. The easygoing persona that he projected allowed lots of people to feel they deserved credit. It also allowed people to give him things he wanted w/o appearing to give in. Reagan didn’t score points off the failures of others, but his affable personality also led opponents to underestimate him. They thought many of his accomplishments were just dumb luck. In my experience, someone who is consistently “lucky” has something special going on. Only a man truly confident in himself can behave as Reagan did. That is one reason he was such a unique leader.

I voted for Reagan in 1980 & 1984. It was a little hard for me to do in 1980. I had voted for Carter in my first election in 1976 and I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, in one of the nation’s most liberal enclaves. When I would say anything good about Reagan, or even when I didn’t join in the criticism of him, my colleagues would make fun of me. There is considerable social pressure in a liberal university setting to “rebel” within acceptable margins. I was finishing my MA in history and looking forward to going on to my PhD. As I recall, most of my colleagues considered Jimmy Carter too conservative and Reagan was clean off the map. The popular candidate around my part of town was a guy called Barry Commoner. Commoner was a bit of a nut, but he said the right things about the environment and was sufficiently obscure to get the “intelligent” student vote. 

Anyway, it came as a surprise to me too that Reagan made sense to me. Up until that time, I just assumed that I was a type of liberal, which was the local default option. I think that my vote for Reagan actually had significant effect on my life. Of course, not the vote itself, but the cognitive dissonance it provoked.  I have never been good at keeping secrets and so I talked about it with my friends. They treated me like someone who had been in the sun too long and tried to explain why I was just being foolish.

As I listened to their arguments and defended myself, I came to understand that I really did not hold the same sorts of views as they did. I started to read more widely and came to lots of different conclusions. One of the very practical changes I made was in my course of study. I began to perceive myself as a bit of an outsider in my history-sociology circles. I still loved history, but I became more interested in practical things like business (IMO a kind of applied history) and decided to get an MBA. This was greeted with some distress by my friends. One well-meaning guy carefully explained to me that an MBA was a kind of “trade school” degree and it was not the kind of thing somebody like me should do. For me, at least, the MBA was a lot more of an intellectual challenge than my MA, but maybe that was just me.

You follow well-worn paths for maybe 95% of your life. This is something you have to do, since nobody could abide the chaos of constant uncertain change. There are a small number of inflection points, however. These are usually little things. You may be almost unaware of them at the time, but over time they take you off the old path and put you on a new one. The little half turn doesn’t seem like much, but there can be substantial divergence a few miles down the path as the one change leads to another. 

Somebody once told me that there are only around 5-7 inflection points in any life and if you think about it, you can probably identify them. They are rarely the big, shocking events we think of. The road to Damascus type conversions are the ones we mark, but they may actually be the culmination of a long process of change, not the beginning.  By the time you make the public announcement, or even know it yourself, it may have been stewing for a long time.

Looking back, my decision in 1980 to vote for Ronald Reagan was one of those little decisions that changed the way I thought of myself and ended up changing lots of other things too. So like all Americans, I can thank Ronald Reagan for what he did for the country, but I also have a personal reason to be happy that he came along.

January 31, 2011

A Couple Days in January

Pictures from some ordinary days.  The winter has been colder than usual for Virginia. We have managed to avoid most of the snow, but what we have is hanging around.

Gas prices on January 30 

Above - gas prices are going up again. Given the events in Egypt, maybe these prices will look low after a little while.  Below - not a good time for the Red Cross disaster truck.

Branch on top of Red Cross truck 

Below is a welder at a construction site near Balston. 

Welder at construction site near Balston, VA 

Below is the top of the building.

Construction site near Balston  

December 21, 2010

Encounters with the Legal System

Flag flying at FSI on December 21, 2010

One of the punks that attacked Alex is up for trial.  He is summoned to give testimony.  He doesn’t remember anything, but he has to go anyway.  I don’t know how strong a case they have against this particular guy.  I am fairly sure he is guilty, but as I mentioned before he is one of six guys who attacked Alex.  The bad guys are taking legal refuge in the confusion about which of them actually did the kicking and stomping.

The attack on Alex has made me a lot more sensitive to random crimes and hate crimes.  He is very lucky that he was not hurt more seriously or permanently.  I read in the paper about a kid about his age who was in a fight that put him into a permanent coma.  Of course, Alex could have been killed and for nothing.  He was just in the wrong place and had the wrong appearance.  I like to think that the world is rational, but not always.  Life can change in a second and all the hopes and aspirations can be gone.

Alex really had a hard time last year.  He starts a new school, away from home for the first time.  That is stressful enough.  Then he gets set upon by six thugs.  He still finished his exams on time and never complained about his bad luck.  He didn’t even want to tell his professors why he missed a week of class and why he had some trouble concentrating after he came back.  I admire him for it, although I thought that he should have at least played for a little sympathy.  It must have impacted his grades.

My other contact with the legal system next month will be jury duty.  I have been a registered voter for nearly thirty-seven years, but I have never served on a jury.  Of course, I was overseas a lot of that time, but I don’t think I was ever even summoned before.   We are lucky to live in county with lots of voters in relation to criminals.  Some of my colleagues who live in DC, where the ratio tends to run less favorably, serve on juries with monotonous regularity.

I don’t know if I will actually get to/have to serve on the jury.  I just have to report and see if they need me for anything.   I want to serve on a jury, to have the experience, but I would prefer not at this particular time, when I am focusing all my energy and attention on learning Portuguese and about Brazil.  I suppose there is never a really perfect time to do jury duty, but last October would have been good.

November 11, 2010

The Limit of Tolerance

Those weirdos whose false god wants dead soldiers were out again in front of Arlington Cemetery. Only a handful were there and although they were loud and persistent, they were well obscured by a group of patriotic bikers, who blocked the view by walking in front. One of the bikers told me that the police wouldn’t let them stand, but it was okay if they were “pedestrians.” A cop I talked with told me that he wasn’t serving the weirdos, but rather protecting the good people who might otherwise pummel them. Last year a young Marine got in trouble for rescuing an American flag that a protester was dragging in the dirt.

counter protesters in Arlington

We just have to take it. These clowns have a right to speech & assembly. They were joyful as they predicted that America was doomed & we were all going to hell. I recognized a women I met last year when I challenged her false god to strike me dead. He couldn't, but she assured me that I would go to hell. Only one comment seemed to fluster her. When she told a guy standing near me that, “god hates fags”, he quickly retorted that her god obviously didn’t hate incest, implying she enjoyed a closer than healthy relationship with her father. Maybe he hit too close to home.

I think it worked out as well as it could have. The bikers effectively prevented the weirdos from getting the attention that they craved. Their impact was limited to the couple dozen people took pride in forming a human barrier; they were immune to the protesters. It also provided an environment where people could get close enough to ridicule the protesters w/o shouting, which energizes protesters.

On a day when thousands of us gather to honor the brave people who sacrificed and sometimes died to defend our country, we tolerate the few disrespectful weirdos whose behavior any honorable person cannot but hate. It shows the kind of people we are.These protesters managed to unite liberal and conservative in dislike of them. We agree that we have to tolerate them, but nobody says that we have to like them. We have to respect their right to protest, but we don’t have to respect the protesters.

You can see on the picture up top taken from across the street that the protesters were effectively and peacefully neutered.  The picture below shows the people who were spontaneously taking turns to block the view. I made a special point in not to show the protesters.  You can see a little part of one of their signs, which were very offensive, believe me.

October 31, 2010

Odds & Ends for October 31

I used to talk about the success of South Carolina in attracting foreign investment in the Greenville-Spartanburg area. It was one of my hardy perennial issues when I was in Krakow, since leaders in southern Poland were trying to attract investment and appreciated the successful experience of others. The people in SC are still at it.The latest example is the expansion of BMW. We sometimes complain when American jobs are outsourced to others. The Carolina uplands show how to get them to come to us. They have workers with strong work ethics; living costs are low and unions are scarce. Read a little more here & here.

Better land management in Northern Arizona.  The Forest Service regularly burns the ponderosa pine forests.  The ponderosa pine ecosystem is fire dependent.  When we excluded fire, often limited grazing and made thinning difficult, we created lots of trouble.   The forests grew too thick (what they call dog hair forests).  This overstocking of trees allows bugs like pine beetles to destroy forests (when the trees are too close, the bugs can easily move from tree to tree) and excluding little fires leads to large, disastrous fires.We may not be aware of how much shift has indeed occurred and how industry is now more decentralized, often rural. Nucor Steel, headquartered in Charlotte, NC, is a good example of an American firm that flourishes among Americas medium sized cities and small towns. The trademark rural occupation is agriculture, but when we think of the old guy on a tractor doing what his father taught him, we are more than a generation behind the times. Agriculture in America is high tech and becoming more so and agricultural tech is informing other fields, such as pharmaceuticals. I was recently reading articles about how the North Carolina Biotech Center is using tobacco plants to help develop vaccines. Tobacco used to dominate much of North Carolina and Southern Virginia. It used to be associated with rural poverty, but now that is changing too.

When we think of high tech, our thought usually run to computers and electronics. But the high tech of the near future will be biological/agricultural (biotechnology) and structural (nanotechnology) and a lot of it will be produced far away from the cool and very expensive high tech places we know today.

I still am surprised at how much science goes into something as old fashioned as forestry. We have better trees that grow twice as fast as the species used to, while producing better wood, with fewer inputs & less disease. They are even better looking, IMO. Working smarter allows us to create a more sustainable society.

Land Management

The Brazilians are trying to figure out ways to both conserve and develop the Amazon. They get fairly annoyed when we preach at them and have even developed elaborate conspiracy theories about UN takeovers of the Amazon. It doesn’t help that some activists have indeed proposed an internationalization of the Amazon. It is easy for us living comfortably in North America or Europe to demand that they preserve the “lungs of the world.” Brazilians will develop their country, as we did and development need not mean permanent destruction. When I first studied this issue more than twenty-five years ago, I was convinced that forest cutting would in short order result in destruction of soils and essentially the creation of deserts. We now know more about soils and the ecology and, not surprisingly in such a large area, it depends where you are. Some soils are deep and could be developed; others not. One size does not fit all.

I have been reading a book called The Big Burn. It talks about Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt and the establishment of our own forest service. The story is heroic in many ways. It takes place in 1910 the American environment and describes events around the great blowout fire, which destroyed an area the size of Connecticut in the course of two days. (It was bigger than the great Peshtigo fire, but killed fewer people because it burned over even less populated places.) The fire burned way inland in Montana and Idaho, but smoke was reported 500 miles out in the Pacific Ocean and as far east as New York.

What does 1910 America have to do with 2010 Brazil? Our experiences are remarkably parallel. Many people don’t understand how bad things were 100 years ago in the American environment. There were all sorts of land grabs, destructive mining techniques and illegal logging. All the things we hear about happening in the Amazon were happening in America. We probably reached the nadir sometime in the 1930s, but the years from around 1890 to 1940 were really terrible. Our country was burning, washing away or blowing away. Experts predicted we would run out of wood in a generation and it looked like the high plains would soon be just a desert. We learned a lot since then. And of course we are still learning. Our significant success in preventing fires and belief that nature was self regulating led to disastrous fires and then to different management techniques. By costly error, we learned. We can and we are sharing our experience. We can learn a lot from each other about sustainable development.

The picture up top shows the results of better land management in Northern Arizona. The Forest Service regularly burns the ponderosa pine forests. The ponderosa pine ecosystem is fire dependent. When we excluded fire, often limited grazing and made thinning difficult, we created lots of trouble. The forests grew too thick (what they call dog hair forests). This overstocking of trees allows bugs like pine beetles to destroy forests (when the trees are too close, the bugs can easily move from tree to tree) and excluding little fires leds to large, disastrous fires. We learned the lessons.

August 14, 2010

Industrial Policy

Big issues are perennial. Just details and names change. I recall debating industrial policy back when I was studying for my MBA more than twenty-five years ago. Conventional wisdom back then held that Japan, with its mastery of industrial planning, would overtake the U.S. as the world’s leading capitalist economy. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, with its capacity to focus and centrally command resources, would catch up in the security arena. Our only hope, some argued, was to adapt their methods to our own ponderous, unorganized and chaotic economy through industrial planning.

Things didn’t turn out the way experts predicted/feared. Within a decade, Japan had plunged into an unpleasant and persistent recession that called into question the prowess of the planners. The Soviet Union went out of business entirely, collapsing under the weight of its own centralizing bureaucracy and structural inefficiencies. Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) failed to change the facts on the ground or in the factory; his glasnost (publicity) served only to show the people the previously hidden hideousness of the decaying communist system. But these things that are so blindingly obvious with hindsight eluded the analysts at the time. *

The U.S. did not adopt a coherent industrial policy, but over the next quarter century grew much faster and created millions more jobs than those places, such as France or Japan, that had something approximating one.

Last time we talked seriously about an industrial policy was in the early-mid 1980s, when we were just coming out of a hard recession and people were uncertain about the future. It is no coincidence that in the conditions of today we are talking about it again. It is a hardy, perennial weed that thrives when things get bad and pessimism dominates. But I think the debate has improved, since it is informed by a generation of real experience. Beyond that, researchers have finally begun to explain in theory what people understood in practice for long time – how distributed but aggregated (i.e. market mechanisms) work. The “hidden had” is not as indecipherable as it once was.

I am a simple person and I like the “Economist” magazine because it explains things in simple ways. I suggest you look at these links if you want more background. here & here.

We can all recognize that every country in the world has something we could call an industrial policy but that none (even the most monotonously oppressed such as North Korea) has complete control of its economy. We spent a lot of time arguing a kind of yes or no industrial policy when I was back in school in 1983, but we were just stupid kids scoring rhetorical points on each other. Like most things in life, the question of industrial policy is one of gradations and implementation. In that regard, a little industrial policy is good, but at some point it becomes poisonous and some applications are better than others.

The best policies take advantage of preexisting advantages or propensities. Identifying exactly what those are is easier said than done, but let me give an obvious example. The State of South Dakota probably doesn’t want to invest a lot in becoming a low cost exporter of bananas. You CAN grow bananas there, in greenhouses. And there are some wise guys (sorry wise men) who will correctly tell you that there is plenty of naturally occurring hot water underground in parts of the state to heat them. But how stupid would you have to be to follow that advice? Politicians often don’t want to hear this, since much of the business of politics is to reward followings. Ironically, the reward is much sweeter when it is for something silly. If the recipient can do it w/o the help of the politician, he is likely to feel less grateful.

Another characteristic of successful industrial policy is NOT to pick winners and losers. The government does best when it creates general conditions for prosperity and then allows the people to make choices & investments that make the most sense to them. In other words, there is a good place for planning but not for the planner. More correctly, the planning is done by the people in that effective distributed but aggregated fashion I mentioned above. Remember how much trouble centralization caused the Japanese and the Soviets. Don’t do it. Once again, this is not something that comes easily to politicians. Picking winners and losers is a big part of political power. That power is the reason lobbyists line up to kiss the politicians asses and contribute big money to political campaigns. How is it that big firms are willing to cut big checks to “charities” recommended by politicians? They expect it to pay off if/when the guy they are backing wins.  

The pressure to politicize decision making – for good as well as bad motivations – is the second biggest hazard of industrial planning. The first biggest hazard is lack of timely, useful and accurate information in sufficient detail to allow decision making by the experts. That is precisely why we should not give them much decision making power. Like the watch making god of the Deists, they should set up the system, with its incentives and attributes, enforce the rule of law but otherwise let it grow by the decisions of the participants, intervening only to address true emergencies. This is essentially how it worked with the Internet, one of the most successful U.S. forays into “industrial policy.

The idea that you COULD have an industrial policy that was centrally run, comprehensive and innovated – all at the same times - is a supreme example hubris. Even stipulating that they are smart and honest, what are the chances that politicians or bureaucrats have the information or vision needed to choose tomorrow’s technologies and technology leaders? The record is not encouraging.

And the record goes way back. The Roman Emperor Diocletian did what we would call comprehensive industrial planning. It helped lead to bankrupting the empire and hastened the development of what we would later call serfdom. In more modern times, industrial policy has been associated with mercantilism. A lot of that originated in France in the early 1700s, when France was Europe’s predominant economic power. Suffice to say, it didn’t work out and France didn't stay on top.

The free market requires government for some infrastructure projects, rule of law and provide for the common security. There are some things that have to be decide politically. But for everything else, we are better off deciding for ourselves the things that we care about the most and have the most information about and having faith that our fellow Americans will do the same for the things they know about.


* My professor for business policy, a guy called Bruce Erickson, is one of the only serious people I know who openly and unequivocally predicted the imminent demise of Soviet tyranny. I still remember his simple structural proposition. He understood there were other factors, but this was the new part. Again, today this looks obvious, but in 1983 it was fairly new. He explained that the mainframe computer had been the salvation of communist central planning. They could control access to information and still do the needful computations. But the personal computers, which were just becoming common at the time, would be the death of central control because they decentralized information and decision making.

The communists had two options. They could give up a lot of control and then it wouldn’t really be communism anymore. Or they could resist the new technologies and make their system obsolete a little faster. In fact, the Soviets tried first restrictions and then let loose, so that both things hasted their system collapse. The Chinese saw this and refused to liberalize their political system, repressing dissent in a bloody crackdown of which Tiananmen Square was only the part we saw on TV. But they continued to liberalize their economy, essentially conceding many aspects of economic control (defacto abandoning communism) in return for continued political power. The Chinese experiment continues.

August 11, 2010

Learning & Education


I have more formal education than I can practically use and that is the way I wanted it. I just liked to study when I was in college and for my leisure today I do things very much like studying. I read books and write essays (now known as blog posts). But I think you don’t understand real education until you understand that all of life is – or should be – about learning.

I took the formal “book learning” education route; others chose different ways.  Sometimes we make too much of a distinction. Learning, whether it comes from books, experience or anything else, has to be integrated into a person’s life and outlook. Some people despise “useless” education. Others boldly assert that no education is useless. I think both miss the point. Education of any kind is useful if it changes how you look at and/or do things, if it spawns new ideas or skills or if it just makes you think. This definition would seem to include almost everything, but it doesn’t. There is useless education, although it has more to do with the recipient than the subject. 

Some people just don’t pay attention or don’t integrate what they learned into their behaviors or thoughts. They don't turn information into knowledge. These are the kinds of people who memorize lots of things, but cannot recognize them when they are a little changed or in different contexts. Unfortunately, these are often the people who call for more “education” and are most interested in official credentials. These are the guys that try to trump you by quoting experts or citing their own expertise. I recall discussing economics with a guy who didn’t like my opinion. He said something like, “Wouldn’t you feel stupid if I told you that I wrote my PhD dissertation on this subject?” I just said no. I should have elaborated, “Wouldn’t you feel stupid if I told you that you went through all that trouble and learned so little?”

I have to admit that I take some refuge in my own formal education credentials.  I can be a lot more of a smart-ass because I have some of the smart papers.

Lately I have been in closer contact with practical people who know things I want to learn about buying land, developing property, building roads and sustainable forestry/agriculture. These guys know all sorts of detailed things, like the quality of dirt or the type of rocks you need to use to shore up a bank.  Lots of these things seem really easy until you have to make the decision yourself. As with anything else, some people are better at what they do than others. I was thinking about the type of education you might need and how you could figure it out. There are some places where my education has a very direct connection.  For example, figuring out how much I can pay for things and still make profits and payments is something I did indeed learn in finance class, although I have to admit that I really didn’t understand it until I  bought my first house. Let me jump back to my other life for a minute.

I have been sitting on promotion panels and trying to judge which of my esteemed colleagues should move to the next level. Many of us get formal training at the upper-middle or lower senior level. I valued that training, but I wanted to see what they did with it two or three years later. I wanted to know if it took root and grew or if it was just a pleasant sojourn in academia. I found some of each. Some people were clearly changed and improved by their educations, i.e. they learned something. Among others you just couldn’t tell. Everybody had earned the same credentials, but it was different.

So I guess I am advocating a kind of “Gold’s Gym standard.” I go to Gold’s Gym three times a week.  I do an intense workout that takes me less than 15 minutes and then I am out. People make fun of me for that.  I get a variation of “Leaving so soon?” with monotonous regularity.  Most people spend more time than I do and many spend a lot more time, but time in doesn’t matter. It is like the credentials. The only thing that matters is whether or not you can pick up the weights. The answer to the question, “Can you bench press 250 lbs?” is not, “Well, I come here every day and workout really hard for at least an hour.” All that matters is yes or no, probably followed by an actual demonstration if you answered in the affirmative. Educational achievement is harder to measure, but the same type of standard should apply.

College is not the only place you get educated. Increasingly, there are other options. Many firms have their own training programs, which are often more up-to-date and almost always more specific than the program at the local college. Community colleges are increasingly important because of their low-cost, almost universal access and flexibility. Of course, online options are exploding.

Aristotle thought that the best education was just to live in a good city. I think if he were alive today, he might call it lifetime learning and advocate a learning culture. Learning, like art, truth  and beauty, is ubiquitous. We just need to be aware and constantly searching. And our needs are protean. (Me use hard words from education).  I never thought that variations in rocks and dirt would absorb so much of my intellectual energy.

I apologize if this post has gone off in so many directions, but I think the idea of education is like that.  We talk a lot about the need to educate our population. We say that education is the key to the future.   This is true. But too often we are thinking narrowly of a specific place and time where education will be delivered by certified professionals who will hand out certificates when all the education is done. Maybe instead of education, we should think more about learning.*

*How about a little display of etymological erudition, which is usually not of much value but fits here? Think about the words. Education is a Latin-based word. It means to bring out or lead out. The one being educated may be a little passive in this case. You can be educated by someone else. Learn is a Germanic based word.  Its original meaning was to get knowledge. It requires that you take an active part. Learning is what you are supposed to do during your education. Some people do.   

The reason I made the distinction between Latin and German was because of the nature of our wonderful English language.  English is a Germanic language, but it is heavily Latinized, much of it through the use of Norman French (descended from Latin). After the Norman conquest, since the rich guys spoke French, the educated people read Latin and the poor guys spoke Anglo-Saxon (old-middle English), we tend to have a rich vocabulary of overlapping words; the Latin-French words tend to be classier than  the Germanic-Saxon ones that mean almost the same things.  

Most swear words are Germanic. In Latin-French based English, for example, people have intercourse in the bedroom and they defecate in the bathroom. The German-Saxon words for those things cannot be spoken on network television.  But the twin words do not always mean exactly the same things. So it is with education and learning.  My education taught me the things I just wrote, but I have learned that most people don’t know or care about them. That is another difference between learning and education.

August 10, 2010

Secrets of Success

I wrote these notes for these posts during my time on promotion boards, but held off posting them until the work was done.  

After many years of trying to figure out the tricks of getting promoted, I finally got it.  It is an epiphany. After now reading  the files of 100s of my very competent colleagues, I found that the secret of success is to be good at what you do. Of course, the write up is important. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, it doesn’t make a sound for any practical purpose. But you have to have something to write about.  A week of energetic writing and spinning won’t make up for a year of lethargy on the job. You just cannot sell Edsels.  On the other hand, people stand in line to get the good products they want.

I like the fact that people write their own first pages on their assessments. It gives a better look at what they can do and what they think is important.  Some people “get it” more than others. In their own write-ups they emphasize the right things first and they make logical and meaningful connections among the things they accomplished.  

There is focus.  In the good EERs, I notice a “purposes principle” at work. They explain the “so what?” and list the results and outcomes of what they have accomplished.  I also get the impression that they frequently ask the purpose question.  When someone gives you a task, it is not impertinent to ask, “what do you plan to use it for?” This will often make the person focus more, give you a better idea of what is necessary and maybe make it more of a partnership.  The person getting the task might know, for example, that there is a better way to achieve the goal.   Of course, you have to ask the question in the right way, but a good leader should be glad to have subordinates who try to improve on what they are given.

Nobody is perfect and I like it when I can find areas of actual conflict or mistakes that provided learning opportunities. This is perhaps the hardest part to get right. Nobody likes to be criticized and it is always a risk to have any criticism prominently mentioned. However, it may be a acceptable risk that sets you apart. Nobody has a good year every year. It is unlikely that someone goes from one success to another w/o any setbacks.  I was reminded of the juvenile lovers who ask their partners whether they love them more today than yesterday. Despite what we hear in song and story, the inevitable true answer eventually must be “no”. It doesn’t mean that careers, or love, do not or cannot grow over a long period, but it will never be a straight and clear path in either case.  

That said, it makes no sense to dwell on failure. One of the things I dislike most is when people seem to revel in the hard times they have suffered. Difficult conditions are a mitigating factor, but the fact is that there are two sorts of criteria. You either did something or you didn’t.  Almost fought the great chicken of Bristol just doesn’t compare to actual achievement.  Ideally, you should mention the problem immediately followed by how you moved on from it.  And remember that most FS careers have had some hardships. I served a year in the Western Desert of Iraq, with dust in the air and bad guys behind the rocks; many of our colleagues have had worse. The bad plumbing or poor phone service at someone’s post just doesn’t sound very impressive.

Overall, some files just seem to sing beautifully, others are a little off key and a few are bad. Sometimes one person manages to be/do all three.  That is why I like to see the person in more than one type of job or place.  Some people can do well one time and in one place. That is admirable but doesn’t mean they should be promoted to more responsibility. It is not the one home run that counts but the day-to-day success that adds up over a long period.

July 11, 2010

Imagined Muscular Morality

Yesterday I watched an episode of “Law & Order –Criminal Intent” that featured a murderer obsessed with proving that people were not moral.  He captured loving couples and forced them into situations where one killed the other to save his/her own life.  Today I read about criticisms of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  Evidently modern activists feel Atticus was not sufficiently outraged by the racism around him.   As different as these seem to be, they are both based on pernicious and self-indulgent interpretation of human morality, an interpretation that is superficially perceptive and intelligent, but is in fact just sophomoric.

I understand that my own interpretation will sound shallow compared with the deep thinking that some of the chattering classes do about historical transgressions like racism or the Holocaust, but I think it has the advantage of being more useful.   It has to do with capacities, and sometimes going beyond what we can expect of ourselves and other humans.

There are two types of judgments that are worthless: standards that are so high that nobody can pass and standards so low that everybody can.  Both, unfortunately, are attractive because we can alternatively claim to have high standards or to be inclusive. I was on the swim team in HS, but I cannot swim as fast as Olympic champion Michael Phelps. But there are two sorts of swimming contests where I am his equal.   If the test is simply the ability to swim 100 yards w/o any reference to the time involved in getting there, both of us can do it. If the test is to swim across Lake Michigan, neither of us can make it.   It sounds silly when I put it in these terms, but that is what we constantly do in our moral judgments of others, especially when we are thinking historically.

If you prove that Michael Phelps cannot swim across Lake Michigan, have you proven that he is a poor swimmer?  Of course not.   What if you put a person into an impossible moral situation?  You might conclude that this person is morally lacking, and you would be wrong.  You might conclude that all humans were morally lacking and you would be right by the standard you set up, but it is a stupid standard.   If nobody can succeed, the test is useless.  Why do people insist on postulating such things?  I think it is because it makes them feel better about their own personal moral shortcomings.  

Just as a reasonable person – even a great swimmer - would avoid jumping off the car-ferry in the middle of Lake Michigan because he knows that he cannot swim forty miles to the other side, so a moral person avoids situations where he will be pushed beyond his breaking point.   This is the moral thing to do.  You need to anticipate challenges and take steps in advance to address them.  In my experience, people who constantly get in trouble are not always worse at resisting temptation, but they are very clumsy about falling into situations where they cannot.   Taken to a higher level, a good society is one that permits and facilitates moral choices.  One of the biggest crimes committed in un-free societies is that they corrupt good people by making it very difficult for to make moral choices, or even recognize that there is a moral choice to be made.   As they are threatened or enticed into poor moral choices, they slip farther down the slope.

I am not arguing for moral relativism when I say that we have to judge people’s choices in the context of their situations.   There are standards we should uphold, but we have to recognize that when you are sitting in a comfortable chair in the safety of your home it is easier to postulate that you would make the right choice than if the Gestapo was asking you whether or not you saw someone hiding in a shed.   

There is also the element of knowledge and experience.  I know that I have become more interested in acting ethically as I have become older.  I don’t think it is merely age.   As I experienced more and learned more, my feeling of responsibility has grown.   Some of us like to idealize children as innocents who instinctually know right from wrong.   This is not true.  It is just that we cut them a lot of slack and we don’t expect them to make the really hard choices.  IMO, true ethics requires learning and introspection.  In a similar vein, I am not a big believer in the noble savage ideal.  I think Roseau was full of shit and besides his occasionally stirring phrases; he was harmful to the ethical development of humanity.

July 07, 2010

Time Real & Imaginary

Sundial at Smithsonian

We all understand the concept of time … until we have to explain it. Time progresses at an even pace (at least in our local reality) but time is not experienced the same by everybody or in every situation.   A poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge sums it up well. I have included it at the end.  Chrissy & I got some more scientific insights at a lecture at Smithsonian by neuroscientist Richard Restak called Time & the Brain.  Some would have been obvious  to Coleridge, but it is interesting to get it from the science perspective.

Restak started by talking about “real” time, the kind we measure. Our machines can measure it in nanoseconds, but we don’t perceive it at that level. Events have to be communicated and interpreted by our brains before we can “see” them.  That takes time and in the interpretation time is experienced.  Uncommon or exciting events seem to last longer.  These are times when events seem to unfold in slow motion.  It is an artifact of memory.   When the memories are packed tightly, we have more to remember and we tend to perceive it as a longer time.

This accounts for a paradox is excitement and boredom.  Restak talked about an experiment where some people watch an exciting movie, while others languish in a waiting room. For the people in the movie, time flies by, while it drags for those in the waiting room. However, when both groups are asked to estimate the time actually spent in each activity, the people who watched the movie estimate 10% too high.    That explains why people whose life is boring say that the days drag, but the years fly by.  I recall when I worked at Medusa Cement loading bags for twelve hours a day.  Each day seemed interminable, but  when I think back about each summer it went by quickly. That is because not much changed.  This is also why you tend to remember things that happen early on a job or task, when you are learning it.

Restak explained that in memory past, present and future are not always distinct and if you cannot picture yourself in the past, you cannot project into the future.  That is a problem for people with Alzheimer’s disease.  They cannot envision the future because they cannot recall themselves in the past. There is no longer a continuous identity.   This is also a problem for people experiencing depression. They just cannot envision a brighter future, which affects their perception of the past and the present.

Different cultures perceive time differently.  An important factor in the material success of the West has been our ability to control, or at least to parcel time.  Before the industrial revolution, there was no much need for clocks to have minute hands. Processes were uncoordinated and time was “wasted”.  Even today, not everybody has the concept of time and some people don’t really think we should. 

Our time has become maybe too regimented.  Because of our devices like mobile phones and computers, we always have the possibility of doing something.   It takes away from leisure, but also from time to contemplate and think.  Thinking takes time and if you move from one event or quick decision to the other, you may never have time to understand the purposes and connections.  That is a modern curse.  I remember when the Marine at TQ explained to me that I had to embrace the suck. What that really means is to take the time you have.

Anyway, Calvin Coolidge said that you should always leave when they still want you to stay.  The Q&A lasted a bit too long, with some people just trying to demonstrate their erudition in front of a groups of strangers.   I have been having a little  problem with sciatica and I just cannot sit still for more than an hour, so we slunk out.  Always get a chair convenient to the exit.   I think we got all we could from the talk anyway.

This is the Coleridge poem:

Time Real & Imaginary

On the wide level of a mountain's head,

(I knew not where, but 'twas some faery place)

Their pinions, ostrich-like, for sails out-spread,

Two lovely children run an endless race,

A sister and a brother!

This far outstripp'd the other;

Yet ever runs she with reverted face,

And looks and listens for the boy behind:

For he, alas! is blind!

O'er rough and smooth with even step he passed,

And knows not whether he be first or last.

June 30, 2010

Dumb Things that Seem Smart

I studied two things in college that I have not used since and rarely seen others use.  Those were classical Greek and calculus.  I am not saying that either was useless, but both were more ornamental than practical.  The difference is that everybody knows that Greek is a kind of intellectual exercise, maybe even an indulgence, while many people – most who have never studied calculus – think it that a population generally conversant in calculus is a golden key to international competiveness. Come to think about it, Greek has been more useful to me.
I didn’t come up with this myself.  Gregg Easterbrook in his book Sonic Boom questioned the efficacy of higher math for the masses.  He said that pushing higher math for everybody just has the effect of making lots of teenagers feel stupid. Probably a majority of students cannot master calculus and the time &  energy spent trying to hammer the big square peg of complicated math into the smaller round holes of limited cognitive ability could be better spent elsewhere.  As I said, I took calculus, but the only time I ever used it was to get into business school. I really think the primary purpose was to create a filter for the school.  Requiring calculus keeps down the numbers of applicants and is a proxy for significant years of study.    
Let me be clear. I am not saying that higher math skills are not important for society; I am just saying that they are not important for most people, not attainable for most people and not sustainable even for those who learn them but don’t use them in daily life. I have not used calculus since I left college and now my skills have atrophied to the extent that the difference between me and someone who has never taken the subject at all approaches zero. The same goes for my Greek, BTW, but in the case of the Greek I still retain important knowledge from the underlying documents.
I agree with Easterbrook when he says that it would be much more useful to give the masses of students a better grounding in things like economics and statistics. Those are things that I do use almost every day and it is clear from the decisions people make that many do not understand the basics enough to apply them to their own lives.
Another dumb thing that sounds smart is the idea of self sufficiency. I read Thoreau when I was a kid and I even bought books that explained how a person could support himself on as little as a couple acres of land. Of course you would have to live like a medieval peasant, i.e. like shit, but you could do it. (I am reading another good book called the Rational Optimist that cut through some of the pabulum that life was better in the past or is better still in less developed places.)  Self sufficiency sounds attractive but why would you do it when working and interacting with others is so pleasant and profitable? Specialization is the key to prosperity and happiness.  It is the capacity to do some things well and trade them that makes us better off, not some kind of ability to do lots of things clumsily
I don’t have to know calculus because I know that some smart guys do and I can rely on them. This is just the basic economics that so many people don’t learn about in school. A good essay explains how we are all interacted. It is called I Pencil. Kids would read it in HS, if they were properly educated in economics.
Related to the myth of self sufficiency is the idea that a person should be “well rounded” and be able to do many things.  We hear that at work or in school. People try to make up for their deficiencies, which is great … as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of developing strengths. The fact is that we usually become successful at developing strengths, not  making sure we can do everything. As I mentioned above, I don’t need to learn calculus and time spent developing it, where I have no natural inclinations or talents, would be wasted.
With something like “well rounded” there is threshold. If you are below the threshold, you cannot properly function, but at some point you are good enough at the things you are not very good at doing.  It is binary.  After you cross the threshold, getting better is not necessary.  After crossing the threshold, it is better just to avoid the things you don’t do well. Let somebody else do it, somebody who likes it better and is better at doing it.   
This shows up in my panels. Some people are good at lots of things. They are well rounded. They tend not to get promoted. It is better to be acceptable at most things and really exceptionally good at a few. Playing to strengths while minimizing or avoiding weaknesses is better than trying to fix every problem.

George C Marshall, the architect of victory in World War II, used to say that it was more important to ask what a man could do and let him do that than to ask what he couldn’t do. People with great talent are often uneven personalities. George Patton was not much of a diplomat, but he was very good at pushing armored units through German lines. Marshall used Patton where he could do some good.  Eisenhower was not the greatest strategist in the war, nor did he have real combat experience, but he could cobble together coalitions.  That is what he did.

Finally re the dumb things that sound good is learning foreign languages. We Americans castigate ourselves and accept the criticism of others because we don’t learn foreign languages. Well … what foreign language should we all learn?  It is an easy choice for non-English speakers. English is the world language.  Learn English. No other language is so widespread or universally useful. We already know English. So do we learn Spanish, which is no use anywhere besides Latin America and parts of the Iberian Peninsula? Chinese has the greatest number of speakers, but it is not the language of business of commerce even in Asia. What about all those poor kids whose parents immersed them in Japanese, back when Japan was supposed to take over the world in the early 1990s?  How useful has that been for them, I wonder?

If you don’t know where you are going, you should just keep and improve English or maybe simplify it into Globish.

I have to caveat – again – if you are going to live in a country, learn the language. I learned several and hold myself to a high standard (i.e. I actaully want to speak it well enough the people know what I want and don't feel the overwhelming urge to compliment me on how well I speak their language.  You know you doing poorly when they compliment you in the first couple minutes, especially if they do it in English). That is why I question the idea of general language learning. I am now working to get my Portuguese back. I once spoke it well and will again, but in between not so much.  One of my tasks is to purge out Polish and Norwegian, which are now flowing back into my brain as “foreign”. When my Portuguese is again very good, I won’t be able to command the Polish, Norwegian or German that I once could. 

Language must be used to be kept and few of us have enough time in the day,opportunities to practice or actual talent to remain "mulitlingual," even if we ever mange to achieve it. Most of us also have more important things to do than practice a language we rarely use. Learning languages in college won’t cut it, unless your standards are very low. Which brings me in complete circle back to the Greek or more broadly the classics. I studied both Greek and Latin in college and, as I admitted, I really cannot remember the languages well enough to read them anymore. But I do remember the content of much of what I read. Classical languages give you access to a full panoply of Western thought and literature. 

IMO, if you want to just learn “a language” in college, with no more specificity than that, you are probably better off studying Latin than any “living” language. You will get access to many more centuries of literature of history and when you forget the language, as you inevitably will, you may remember some of that literature and history. When/if you figure out where you want to go in the non-English speaking world, learn the language then. Latin will probably help with that.

June 23, 2010

Not Like Law & Order

We attended the hearing for the six guys accused of beating Alex.  It was painful to hear the story of how these thugs attacked him, unprovoked, and started to kick him in the face.  Evidently there was  a pattern of attacks.  

I don't want innocent people to get in trouble and I know that is why we have all the complicated legal procedures. It is good that the system is stacked in favor of defendants. But their lawyers were clearly fishing. They asked the cop on the stand all sorts of questions clearly designed to tax his recollection, things that really didn’t matter and/or things he could not have known.

Alex took the stand to tell what he knew, which wasn’t much. He only knows that he found himself on the ground being kicked. None of the lawyers for the defendants cross examined him. I was glad for that; he could not have added anything, but I thought the lawyers might try to cloud the issue somehow.  

I made a special point of staring at the defendants as they were identified. They didn’t show emotion. During the recess they all went into the bathroom and I got to wait in line among them.  None of them looked at me. I don’t know what that means, if anything. Maybe they had to go to the bathroom really bad and that was all that was on their minds. I cannot tell who is guilty just by looking. I was hoping they would brag or say something that I could bring to the attention of the authorities, but they were completely silent. They were very savvy defendants, which I think is significant.

The authorities are still waiting for DNA evidence. Human blood was splattered on one of their shirts. You have to wonder how it got there and if it is Alex’s it will prove that the guy in question at least came close enough to get splashed. Until that comes in, they had enough evidence to hold only one of the guys.  As I wrote above, I don’t want innocent guys punished. But they caught these guys at the scene where they were identified at the time by witnesses. Maybe they were not all involved, but the probably all know who was involved. There is no honor in protecting bad guys.

Alex is philosophical about this. He doesn’t want them punished very much, since they are young and perhaps inexperienced. But anybody who would hit a stranger from behind and then commence to kick him in the head and face is dangerous to society. I can understand, if not accept, assault during a robbery, but they didn’t try to rob Alex. It takes a special kind of evil personality to want to hurt a stranger purely out of hatred. I have never even contemplated doing anything like that and I don’t think many people do. It is our civic duty to get these kinds of people out of circulation until his attitude improves or his energy diminishes.

A witness clearly identified the one guy they were able to hold. That is how they got him. She said she had seen him earlier too. Evidently he attacked a customer headed into the gas station with his money in hand. The witness said that the perp hit the customer in the face, took the money and taunted him saying, “What are you gonna do now?” and walked away. That is why she could identify him with such certainty as the one who attacked Alex when he showed up a second time. I stood next to him when waiting in the bathroom line. He just looked at his shoes and seemed very harmless. He was wearing a suit and had cut off the dreadlocks he sported a couple months ago.  He didn’t look much like the picture we had seen before.You cannot judge guilt by looking at people and they tend to behave differently in the courthouse than they do on the street.

June 16, 2010

Learning from Experience of Others

US Capitol from Smithsonian Mall on June 12, 2010 

I wish I had served on the promotion panels before. It is grueling work & eye bugging, but all that reading is paying off in terms of vicarious experience. Each individual report is an encapsulated history/biography for a year and a whole file paints a picture of the progress of a career. My colleagues have done lots of interesting things, achieved some great things and made their shares of mistakes and in these experiences are valuable lessons.

After reading and thinking about what the texts tell, you see patterns in individual careers, in the ways of the FS and – excuse the hyperbole – even in the development of the world in the last decades.  For all the important things that happened, some of us were there, close up and personal.  These sorts of files will someday make excellent primary historical sources. I am sure they do already.  

So serving on the boards has been personally enlightening. I can see how the kinds of work I do fit in – or sometimes not – with the bigger events.  I think it is nearly impossible to see this perspective when you are thinking about your own career or when you are down in the day-to-day fight.  We all like to think we are unique and that the problems we face and solve are special. In detail, they are that; in general they are not.   

The names and the places change, but the situations recur … monotonously. I think we can learn from history and that with the wisdom of experience we may be able to avoid some problems, but not all.  They mutate enough that we just cannot always recognize them or anticipate all the permutations. Experience might allow us to minimize pain or pass through hard times easier and faster, but we will still have hard times.

Progress in careers is never linear. I don’t think it can be.  Not every year can have bigger achievements than the one before.  I can read that there were times when the people involved must have thought their careers were finished.  Often this comes just before a big opportunity or a jump to a bigger achievement. I don’t think this is a mere random occurrence.  Opportunities may come and go, but being able to see them and take advantage of them is a skill and a choice.  Maybe the setback or the career doldrums give the affected person the chance and incentive for introspection and reinvention or maybe just a time to rest before continuing up the mountain.  

It is success that can be more dangerous. It breeds arrogance & complacency and makes you less likely to consider changes, improvements and alternatives. A very successful person may be blind to opportunities. Failure is a better teacher, as long as you can see a way out of it. Of course, if you fail consistently, perhaps you taking the wrong lessons, or none at all.

I can see patterns of success and failure in the files and when I look back I can see them in my own career. They are repetitive and faults are astonishing persistent; it is hard for people to get away from them.  You can travel 1000 miles and leave everything else behind - except you always have to take yourself along on the journey. I recall one of those “de-motivating” saying, “the only consistent factor in your failed relationships is you.” The same goes for success. Of course, we tend to blame failure on outside factors or bad luck, but assume success is earned and maybe overdue.  All those things are true, and vise-versa.

May 25, 2010

Bike to Work & the Snapping Turtle

Last Friday was bike to work day. I noticed an unusual amount of bike traffic that day, but now it is back to normal. The weather has been good for biking, warm but not hot with gentle winds. I have been at FSI this week, which is a little more than half way as far as my usual ride, but since I have to make the return uphill trip, it is a little harder.

Bike locks at FSI 

I see some of the same people on the bike trails, which is not surprising. Most of the people riding at that time are commuters like me.  We tend to ride faster and more consistently. I am very consistent in my biking times. Only a strong wind makes significant differences. 

People who bike only occasionally or for leisure are less predictable or consistent. Sometimes I see someone way ahead, but when I catch up and pass, they go faster and pass me back. Then they slow down again until I pass again and the game continues. One of the habits some bikers have is a kind of lock colonization.  People leave their locks attached to bike racks, presumably because they are too onerous to carry around every day. I think some people just forget about them after a while and they accumulate.

Most people walking dogs on the trail are okay, but some have bad habits and so do their dogs.  The offensive dog walkers have their animals on long leases. The dogs run back and forth across the path, alternatively getting in the way and setting up a rope barrier across the trail. Dogs have become dumber and less agile. They used to be alert. Old time dogs knew when you got close and would leap out of the way with alacrity. Many of today's dogs are like slow-witted drunks. They stare blankly as you come up on them and often don’t move until the owner pulls them away. I think they are too cosseted by their owners. It has dulled their instincts. Maybe there is more inbreeding too. Those little designer dogs seem to be the stupidest.

I haven’t really figured out the runner etiquette. I run to the extreme side of the trail or on the gravel verge. It is easy to bikes to pass me.  Some runners insist on running down the center line.  I give them as much space as I can when I am riding, but if they are striding the center there is not much space to give them. The center runners tend to be the crankiest. Some of them complain when you pass them about not getting enough space or warning.  Shitheads. I just keep on going. But most of the runners are good.  I think the ratio is like I used to tell the kids. Ninety-nine out of a hundred people are good, but you pass more than 100 people.

There is one old guy I have been seeing for more than ten years, a barrel chested guy with a Marine style haircut. I never talk to him but he seems so familiar that I have at him when I pass.  

snapping turtle on Shreve Rd 

A big snapping turtle was stranded in the middle of Shreve Road when I rode home. Cars were swerving to avoid it and I didn’t figure it was long for this world. His shell would have done him no good against the car tires. At the pace he was going, I wondered how he got that far w/o getting squashed. A guy stopped his car and we kicked it along until it ambled to safety on the side of the road. Another passing motorist suggested we grab it by the tail on the assumption that it couldn't snap us in that position, but both of us were afraid of the thing. It opened its mouth threateningly as every time we nudged it and everybody knows that those things can snap off a finger if they get a good shot. There is a wetland on the side of the road where we shooed him. The other side is just a construction site. It seemed like the thing was crossing from the verdant swamp to the rocky construction site. It would have been a mistake, but turtles don't do a lot of hard thinking.

Why did the turtle cross the road? To get to the Shell Station. 

May 07, 2010

You Neanderthal

Neanderthal close up at SmithsonianCalling somebody a Neanderthal is no longer just a hypothetical insult. Evidently our ancestors interbred with Neanderthals, or maybe put the other way, our ancestors interbred with Homo sapiens sapiens. But now that we know that 1-4% of SOME people’s, but not everybody’s come from the Neanderthal, won’t it become politically incorrect to disparage beetle browed cognitively challenged ice age hunter?

The Neanderthals were sorely oppressed by Homo sapiens sapiens (HSS), who evidently were not very inclusive of the Neanderthal. It was unlikely that good looking HSS men dated the stocky, troll-like Neanderthal girls, although some of them may have taken advantage of them sexually.

And why do the HSS think they are so smart anyway? Neanderthals did okay through the tough times of the ice age and as soon as the weather improves here come the HSS, with their fancy flakes spear points and articulate grunting (i.e. actual complex language). Maybe Neanderthals should have been more careful in protecting their southern border.

Trolls & ogres look suspiciously like Neanderthals. Isn’t it likely that they are based on Neanderthal racial stereotypes? Or maybe the Neanderthals were forced to live under bridges and that is how they got to be "trolls". And what about those people who say "don't feed the trolls?" Aren't they really saying, "starve the Neanderthals?" Aren’t the dim-witted but dangerous bad guys in “The 13th Warrior” Neanderthals? In fact, it is hard to think of any common positive media portrayals of Neanderthals.

I am assuming that I have some of those Neanderthal genes. That probably explains why I have not been as successful as I think I should have been. And I am wondering if I should get some kind of restitution or affirmative action as a result of the ancient oppression. In the entire history of the world, not one openly Neanderthal individual has ever been a president, king or even a successful lawyer. Is that mere coincidence? Generations of science books have shown a “progression” of humans from the “lowest” to the “highest”. Neanderthals never get to be on top, despite the fact that Neanderthals had a larger average cranial capacity than modern humans. And what’s up with the German name “Neanderthal?” Neanderthals lived in the Neander valley long before Germans were invented.

The mainstream society has changed its view of Neanderthals but not enough. We should spare no expense to find out what the Neanderthals called themselves, so that we can show them the respect of calling them by that name. After eons of oppression, do they deserve anything less?

April 11, 2010

Hate Crime

Alex at his dorm windowWe got a call last night that Alex was in the hospital in Harrisonburg and would be soon having a CAT scan to see if he had any damage to his brain. He was transferred to UVA hospital in Charlottesville. We drove through the early morning darkness to get him. It is not good, but it looks like he will make a full & rapid recovery, fortunately, although he will have some scars and will be in pain for a while. We hope follow up exams find nothing new. The story that we learned between that call and now is troubling. I don't know if I have all the details down right, but let me try.

Alex was attacked by six young men in what evidently was an act of random hateful violence. They hit him over the head by a beer bottle, so Alex doesn’t remember much about the attack.  What we learned came from witnesses, the police & the perpetrators themselves.    

Alex remembers someone running past him and then he was on the ground being kicked by six guys. What happened, according to witnesses, is that these guys  wanted to beat somebody up. Their first victim was the guy that ran past Alex, but as they chased him they decided Alex would do just as well.  So one of them hit Alex with a beer bottle from behind and the others joined in the beating. The original victim called the police, who were already in the area and quickly arrived; this and bystanders scared the perpetrators off before they did lasting damage.

The police told Alex that they caught the guys who did it and that they would probably be charged with felony assault. Alex and the running kid were not the only ones they attacked last night.  This was not a simple case of drunk and disorderly.  These guys were looking for someone to hurt. They didn’t know Alex; they didn’t try to rob him, ask him anything at all or even look him in the face before smashing him over the head and commencing the beating.  The motivation was simply atavistic hatred, based on nothing, nothing at all, maybe a lust to do violence.

How do you deal with someone who wants nothing from you except to do you harm? We look for motivations.  We might feel more at ease if they had tried to steal Alex’s wallet or if we could discover how he antagonized them in even a trivial way.  But there is no comfort there. 

Chrissy is staying with Alex in Harrisonburg tonight and maybe tomorrow to make sure he is okay.  Espen had been up there visiting one of his old HS friends who also attends school up there.  He didn’t know about Alex until we told him this morning. I drove back with Espen and we talked along the way.  It seems the block party got out of hand generally. People were throwing beer bottles.   

Espen and his friend headed toward his friend’s dorm room and Alex went toward his, which was only a short distance from where he was attacked. Unfortunately for Alex, his dorm was right in the middle of a place where lots of rowdy people were gathering and Alex had to walk through the crowds.  Fortunately, the police were there too and that is probably what ended up saving him from a more severe beating.

The cops interviewed Alex. They took pictures of his various injuries and examined his bloody clothes, but he couldn’t tell them much that was helpful, but there are lots of witnesses and the perpetrators are evidently talking. I am interested to see how this case plays out and I want to learn more.  I don’t know anything about the perpetrators and I will admit that I am more than a little angry at them for hurting my boy. But I think there also is a rational argument for making sure this does not get passed along. I don’t think the attackers are hardened criminals but the kind of hatred and violence that went into this attack is dangerous. It is not something we can ignore or forgive.  Letting the attackers too easily off the hook would do them no favors if the lesson they learn is that what they did is no big deal.  It is something we have to confront.

March 21, 2010

Alex & Mariza

Cook at Kyoto Japanese Restaurant in Harrisonburg, VA on March 21 (Alex's birthday) 

I drove up to Harrisonburg for Alex’s birthday.  He is doing okay, but is still having some loneliness problems. We didn’t do anything extraordinary, mostly talked. We did go to lunch and supper together and went got a few necessities at Walmart. Lunch was at Kyoto, one of those Japanese steak houses where they do the grill show with the food. 

Mariza’s birthday was a couple days ago. She came down from Baltimore for it.  We had some cake, but we aren’t very big on the party things.

I wrote the birthday stuff last year and nobody feels comfortable about too much recent information being divulged. There is a kind of declassification period that must be respected.   

Suffice to say that I am proud of the adults they have become and I enjoy their company, but I miss the children they were. These are the times that I feel that most acutely.

Thoughts on Cars and Trucks

boltsI was part of a new car design survey today. I think that they chose me as part of the control group that knew nothing about cars. I filled out a survey about the kinds of criteria I would use in buying a new car. 

Then I went in and saw about a dozen new car designs.   Evidently they were Volkswagens, Hondas, Toyotas and Chryslers.   We were asked to evaluate each car in terms of looks, interiors etc.   Most of the cars were too small inside, IMO.  I like the feeling of my Honda Civic.  Although the car is small, it has a lot of room in the driver’s seat.  A lot of the bigger cars don’t really have that feel.

I don’t really care much about cars.  I want one that is reasonably safe and comfortable and one that gets good mileage.   Other than that, I cannot tell much about them.   As part of the survey I had to guess what kind of car we were looking at.  I don’t think I did very well. 

I watched an old movie “Convoy” with Kris Kristofferson. It was made in 1978 when the price of gas had gone up and the 55 MPH speed limits were imposed.  There were a few movies like this that portrayed the anger associated with the perceived loss of the freedom of the open road.  “Smokey and the Bandit” was another one like this, a lot of law breaking and destruction of property. 

I wanted to be a long-distance truck driver once. I was an indifferent student when I started college and didn’t see much future in that.  When I worked a Medusa Cement, the truck drivers seemed to have it best.  They got out on the road, while we just loaded the bags of cement on their trucks. I would not have been a good truck driver. It is a subset of the general driving thing and my lack of love of cars (mentioned above) is probably an indicator that it is not one of my strengths.  

The 1970s were the tail end of the trucker golden age anyway.  Traffic was getting worse.  Speed limits were coming down and generally the open road was disappearing.  Everything is a lot more organized now and much less of an adventure.

The 1970s was also the time when containerized cargo changed shipping in general.  It put a lot of truckers and longshoremen out of jobs.   That really revolutionized commerce. 

March 13, 2010

Where No Man Has Gone Before

There are 120+ little boys for every 100 little girls in China & Northern India. This is because baby girl fetuses are aborted and newborn baby girls are killed in the quest for sons. When the boys get old enough to care, they will find a female shortage. The world has never experienced anything like this before. What will be the social ramifications?

Imbalances in the other direction are common. Men have been killed disproportionately in hazardous occupations and in wars. After a big conflict or in some particularly warlike societies, there might be two or three times as many women as men. This was one of the justifications for polygamy and that adaption meant that within very broad boundaries the smaller number of males made no difference in the reproductive success of the population. In these situations, one man is able and usually willing to do the work or three or five. It doesn’t work like that for women. Young men are responsible for most of the violence in any given society and they don’t settle down until they have established themselves in relationships with females. Evolutionary theory explains this very well. They are wild and crazy because they are competing for reproductive success, even if our modern societies sublimate and mask what is going on. Even if we forget about the Darwinian aspects of this situation, the social ramifications are significant.

In 2020, there will be 30-40 million more Chinese men than women in the age groups when they care about those things. For comparison, there are only 23 million boys below the age of twenty in Germany, France and UK combined. That means that essentially China will have more than the whole young male population of these countries w/o girlfriends. Worldwide the estimate is that there will be something like 90 million more men at the key reproductive ages by 2020.

What happens when there are lots of men and not many women? In Roman history, we have the rape of the Sabine women, where young men of Rome just went out and kidnapped women from neighboring tribes. This, in fact, is the way the problem has been handled until modern times. But in these cases they were talking about local shortages.

There is some hope that this will be a passing trend and in the long run relative scarcity will improve the status of women. Already in India dowry prices are falling. Women may be able to get a better deal if there are many more men available.

In the classic movie, "Casablanca", the French Captain Louis Renault chides Rick Blaine (the Humphrey Bogart character) for not paying proper attention to a female admirer. "How extravagant you are throwing away women like that. Someday they may be scarce," Louis says. Maybe he was right, just a little ahead of the time.

March 03, 2010

Lifecycle Funds

NPR featured an article about lifecycle funds.  These are mutual fund that are supposed to automatically adjust to your age and time before retirement by balancing your stocks, bonds and other assets.   Conventional wisdom tells us that your portfolio should be “aggressive” when you are younger, so that you can take advantage of the long term growth potential of stocks.   But as you get closer to retirement, you want to get more conservative, since you won’t have a chance to make up a downturn of the kind we recently experienced.    

Stocks will yield better returns in the long run, but in the long run we are all dead, as the famous economist John Maynard Keynes once quipped. Markets are always rational in the long run, but they can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.

The lifecycle fund is simple. You just decide which year you expect to retire and then let the fund do the rest.   The theory is good, but the practice has a couple of flaws. For one thing, a lifecycle fund usually has higher management fees because it is actively managed. People don’t work for nothing and if you give the management to somebody else, you pay for it.  If the market is doing really well, you might not care. The big stock gains may not be the rule of the future, so fees will be a bigger part of your thinking. But the biggest flaw of the lifecycle fund is the psychological trap. 

People buy into these funds and then outsource their brains and judgment to somebody else.  When I talk to colleagues who have put their portfolio into lifestyle funds, they seem to have more certainty than I think is warranted. There is the idea that when they retire, they will have the projected amount of money waiting for them.

Prospectuses always warn that future returns might not resemble the past.   We cannot know the future and we can only predict it imperfectly by trying to project patterns from the past into the future. Lifecycle funds do this too.  Most of us like certainty, especially when thinking about retirement.   The problem is that we cannot have it.  At best we can get ranges of results with different probabilities connected to them.

The good thing about the lifecycle funds is that they might keep you in the market during hard times and keep you from doing silly things during boom times. Many investors do exactly the opposite of what they should. They buy risky investments and stocks when these things are going up and the prices are high. When prices decline, they sell.  That means that they buy high and sell low. If you have confidence that the fund is taking care of the risk for you, you may be less tempted to do this.

I do my own lifecycle investments, sort of.  I don’t think you can really time the market.  I meet lots of people who claim that they can, but they don’t seem to have the piles of money earned by smart investing that you would expect if they really could.  

I just rely mostly on index funds.  I used to think I could pick stocks well, but I was mistaken.

It is not a smart idea to have all your money in financial investments (i.e. stocks, bonds). Real estate is a good thing too, and with the recent decline in prices it might even be a good time to buy.  Of course, I have my own unusual investment in forestry.   You could call forestry a subset of real estate, but since it has the agricultural production aspect, it is significantly different.

March 02, 2010

Intellectual Property

I finished the first module of the distance learning course on intellectual property rights today and I thought I might put make a short write up of some of the take-aways. 

Intellectual property rights give the holders the exclusive rights through things like patents, trademarks, geographical indications, copyright, trade secrets and other undisclosed information.

The idea is to increase sharing of ideas and innovations, while protecting the rights of those who came up with them for specified amounts of time.  Without protections, most people either will not work very hard to come up with new things or they will try to keep their innovations a secret.   This is exactly what happened in times past and still happens in places where intellectual property protections are weak.   

The U.S. was an early leader in the specific protection of intellectual property.   It is written into the first article of our Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, and Clause 8) and it is one of the contributing factors to our nation’s rapid progress in the sciences and practical technologies.   Ben Franklin, a prolific inventor, was at the Constitutional Convention.    He invented (or perfected) bifocals, the lighting rod and the Franklin stove, among other things, but he refused to patent any of them, preferring to share them with all of mankind.  He had already made enough money by then and was devoting himself to public service.  However, he and others clearly saw that most inventors and innovators would not find themselves in Franklin’s happy condition or mindset.

The dual need to share and protect is reflected in patent law.   A patent give the holder the exclusive right to structures and methods that result from his idea, but only for a specific time and only on the condition that the inventor publicize the specifications.   Beyond that, the patent protects the physical manifestations, not the idea itself.

Copyright refers to the rights of authors and composers to control their work and it is under a lot of strain these days.    You have always been allowed “fair use”.  That means I can quote or take ideas from an author’s work if it is used as part of a new work and it not just copying the whole thing.   This worked well enough until it became easier to copy with Xerox and got even worse with the easy cut and paste or computers.  Now we have a whole new artistic/literary/musical genre of “mash-up.”  It is hard to tell where one work leaves off and another starts.  Beyond that, some artists don’t like their work to be altered.   The details of this are beyond my expertise (and frankly generally beyond my interest) but it makes a difference to some people.   Some countries give authors & artists the rights to control their work long after it has left their hands.   They often call these “moral rights.”  That was part of the controversy when Ted Turner wanted to colorize the classics.  I can see both sides in this case.  It is more fun to watch a movie in color and many of the kids will not even look at one in black and white.  But the techniques of color are different from those of black and white.   It may become a significantly different work when it is colorized.

Trademarks and trade secrets are a little different.  These things usually are not very profound, although they are the things most familiar to us.   You have the golden arches, Colonel Sanders’ face, or the unique way Coca-Cola is written.  They are meant only as a means to differentiate products.  The most famous trade secret is the formula for Coca-Cola.    As much as l like the stuff, the world would not end if it was disclosed, but it would make it a lot harder to know I was getting something I liked to drink or some knockoff.   A trade secret can be held indefinitely. 

I have a little more trouble with geographical indications. The Europeans tend to be much more interested in those things than we are, maybe because they have a lot more geographical distinctions. Many of the foods that we call by ordinary names are actually geographical indications. Champagne or Bordeaux come from a specific place in France. Products from other places should not be called by those names. The same goes for Bologna, Prosciutto, Colby, Munster, Parmesan, or Romano cheese. Lots of things have names that indicate their original region.  Many have become generic and we hardly think of them anymore. But others have retained the geographical protection. That is why you might find something Parmesan or Champagne modified by style. 

A more recently important and even more confusing piece of “intellectual property” is folklore or customs. So far nobody has been able to properly define this, since folklore and customs tend to cross national and regional borders and it is probably impossible to identify the original sources.   I suppose the Greeks could try to get a cut each time someone mentions a Homeric Hero (e.g. Ajax cleanser) or even Homer Simpson. Of course, the original Homer probably lived in what is now Turkey.  Go back more than a couple generations and it all becomes the common heritage of mankind and that is why I don’t think much good will come of this aspect of intellectual property.

I have five more modules on this particular course.  I suppose they will get harder.

February 26, 2010

Understanding Radicals

If we want to understand radicals and counter their influence, we have to get beyond pedantic debates about words. That is one of the ideas I took away from a discussion with Ghaffar Hussein, a representative of the Quilliam Foundation, a UK think tank that studies radicalization and how to prevent it.

Not getting bogged down in terms is the first step in making progress. It is good to have common understandings of terms, but some terms are too loaded for a common agreement. Radical is one such word. And it is worse than mere misunderstanding. Some people use linguistics as an offensive weapon to prevent real discussion. Mr. Hussein says that when he gets into these kinds of word-bogs, he just describes the behaviors and tells the person to call it whatever he wants.

This pragmatic approach to distinctions reminded of the William James anecdote about the squirrel.

So readers can feel free to substitute what terms they want. I am going to use the words Mr. Hussein did to describe the concepts. BTW – I am using his talk as a starting off point and the basic ideas are his. However, I am riffing off them, not reporting, so I will take the position that the good ideas are probably his and the bad ones are more likely my extrapolations. I gave Mr. Hussein the URL for the blog and I hope that he writes in if I say anything too egregiously out there.

Islamism describes an ideology, not a faith, because the ties with traditional Islam are sometimes tenuous and superficial. Islamism wears the clothes of Islam, but its operative ideology is borrowed eclectically from European totalitarian “revolutionary socialism” philosophies of Marxism and fascism. (Baathists, of which Saddam Hussein was the most famous, freely and openly borrowed from both Hitler and Stalin.) These kinds of ideas appeal to committed radicals, who embrace violence as a tactic and are small in number but seek to use masses of people instrumentally to totally change societies. Lenin and Hitler provided roadmaps that they can use.

Like the earlier European models, they tap into a sense of grievance. Of course, grievance alone is not revolutionary. Everybody has grievances and some peoples have been horribly oppressed for centuries w/o doing much of anything about it. You need a grievance as a push, but ideology is the pull. Hitler used the real grievances in postwar Germany and combined them with bogus ones about Jews and others, but w/o some unifying ideology to make it operational, you would just have had a lot of people grumbling and/or they might have worked through their problems and come out at a better place. A radical ideology is truly the serpent in the garden. They don’t want problems solved or mitigated because the grievances are the ostensible justifications that animate their movements.

We talked a little about the profile of a radical. Although Marc Sageman wrote a good book profiling some of terrorists called Understanding Terror Networks, there isn’t one profile that fits them all.  And we should make the distinction between the activists and what we might call the foot soldiers. Most of those involved with radical organizations probably have not made a reasoned choice. In places like Pakistan or Afghanistan, many do to make a little money or they just drifted into it for circumstantial reasons. There are some correlations among activists, however, and perhaps some keys to motivation could be found there.

Sageman pointed out that most of the terrorists were not from the poorer parts of society. In fact, many were very well off. They also generally had not grown up in particularly religious households; they were not especially well-versed in the details of theology and many were not living very pious lifestyles. He suggested that some may even have got into being radicals as a result of a type of cognitive dissonance, since they are living a fairly non-pious lifestyle and they may see their radical behavior s a way of atoning. Many radical activists are well-educated in the secular way and most have hard science or engineering background. You can speculate as to why this would be true. Foreign students studying in Western universities often study science and engineering. It might just be that they are a subset of that. But it could also be that science tends to have specific rules, which appeals to someone who sees the world in yes/no form. They may think that this sort of thinking should also apply to human events, society and politics.

One question that has interested observers for years is why members of U.S. Muslim community seem so much less subject to radicalization than those in Europe. Some recent events might call this premise into question, but we can still address some of the differing factors.

One reason is the type of immigrant is very different. U.S. Muslim immigrants have tended to be professional and educated and enjoy a higher median household income than the average non-Muslim American. The Muslim community in America also contains a large number of Iranians who fled the Ayatollahs. They are less inclined to view radicalism with much enthusiasm given their intimate experience with it. In contrast, immigrants to Europe tended to be lower skill and lower income workers. When the first waves came in the 1960s, many intended to return home and did not integrate into the local societies. This group was leavened by more radical elements, who couldn’t safely practice their brand of Islam in their native countries. It created a volatile mix.

There is also the different nature of the host societies. The United States and Canada are countries of immigration. Immigrants can fairly easily adopt an American identity and find a place in the American mosaic. European countries were and still are to some extent more nation/ethic-states. Nobody has any trouble assuming a person can become American by choice and most Americans trace their own ancestry to an immigrant who did just that. It is harder to think of someone just choosing to become German, Italian or Danish, since there are lots of other things that go along with that designation. Mr. Hussein thinks that is changing, but it still hasn’t changed. Although he was born in the UK, he is still often considered an “immigrant” in Europe.

Another factor is the sheer size of the U.S. and Canada. Immigrants spread out over North America, while in more constrained European countries they tend to pool into homogenous communities.

There is also a generational phenomenon. The risky time is the second generation. The immigrant generation knows what their native country is like. While they might not be perfectly at home in their new country, they don’t harbor as many illusions about what they exchanged for what they left behind. The second generation has to search for identity in more ways. They may feel that they are in, but not of, their new home country but they also don’t have much experience with the old one. They may seek to find or create “roots” and so may be susceptible to radical ideas purporting to do that for them. This may be exacerbated by parents, especially fathers, who really don’t address their concerns.

While I have no close experience of this with Muslim immigrants, I remember the phenomenon with European immigrant fathers in Wisconsin and some of their kids around my age. I bet the general conversation is similar. “What are you complaining about? You’ve got it easy. When I was growing up back in ____ we …” The difference was there was no radical ideology to appeal my Polish/Irish/Italian playmates back in the 1960s. As we discussed above, everybody has grievances, but without the ideology to pull them along, nothing may come of them but grumbling.

We didn’t really talk about the “so what do we do?” question.  Read about this on the Quilliam Foundation webpage. I am not an expert on these things and never will be, but I found this a very interesting talk and thought I would write it down to share with others.

February 13, 2010


Truck and snowbanks after the blizzard of February 2010 

I had a terrible toothache yesterday. I tried to get in to see the dentist, but the blizzard closed her down too.  So I used a lot of “Orajet” and took some pain-killer pills left over from when Alex had his wisdom teeth pulled. This sort of worked, but only if I hung my head over the back of my chair and left my mouth open. I have no idea why that worked, but it relieved the acute pain.

Today the pain is gone – mostly. I couldn’t explain why it started and I cannot explain why it went away. Misery is a mystery to me. I still plan to go to the dentist on Monday to preempt any recurrence. My teeth are rotten. I treated them poorly when I was young and now they are getting their revenge. It is not hereditary. The kids have excellent teeth and have never had even one cavity among them. Modern toothpaste and fluoride in the water has banished cavities. 

Life does get better, but you just don’t think about it. There was a TV commercial when I a kid.  It featured a kid who came back from the dentist bragging, “Look mom, no cavities.”  That kind of claim sold toothpaste in those days because not having cavities was so rare. Today it is different.  You don’t think about cavities when you don’t have any. It becomes normal.  

You don’t think of too much else when you have a bad toothache, but you forget about it as soon as it goes away. It is a blessing to forget pain but also an invitation to complacency. I was tempted to just let it go after the pain dissipated and that seems to be the pattern for life in general.We ignore what is not bothering us.

The picture above is the truck among the snow banks, snowing how high the snow has gotten. 

January 31, 2010

(Re)learning Languages

I got my “welcome to post” notification from Brasilia.   It is still more than a year in the future and it seems sort of ironic as I watch the snow falling outside my window but the future has a way of becoming the present faster than you think.  

So much advance notice is unusual.  I had my boots on the ground in Iraq about a month after I first even thought about volunteering for the job, but usually we get around a year.   Two years is unusual unless you are assigned to hard language training. 

Portuguese is an odd language when it comes to our training.  It is a “world language” and it is a fairly easy language to learn, but it is not as common as other “easy” world languages like Spanish or French.  Since it is not a  not a “hard language” like Russian, Arabic or Chinese, the FS sometimes doesn’t build in enough time to learn or relearn it as it does for officers assigned to posts with hard languages.   This system can work for French or Spanish, since there are lots of people in posts with those languages, Portuguese maybe not so much.   I don’t know if I explained that well, but it makes sense to me.   Suffice to say that for this PAO assignment they really wanted someone with good Portuguese, so this time they built in enough time to make sure of it and I am the beneficiary.

This is very exciting.  I learned Portuguese at FSI a quarter century ago and I got to be fluent when I was in Brazil for a couple years.   In those days you had to use the language all the time, since English was not that common in Porto Alegre.  But fluent is not necessarily the same as good.  You can speak very fast and fluently but not get the grammar or the words exactly right and I never felt really confident.   Diplomats should be really good at the languages of the countries where they are assigned and this additional training - with some consistent work - will put on the polish.   I hope so.

I don’t expect to speak like a native, but I want to get very good.  We have numbers from 1 to 5.  I want to get to 4 before I leave for Brazil, but the numbers don’t mean much.  I think of it in terms of foreign actors.  I want to get to the equivalent of Ricardo Montalban, but I am afraid I had only reached the sophistication of Sergeant Shultz on the old Hogan’s Heroes in my previous time.  I am not starting from zero this time.  I have been reading the WSJ in Portuguese.  I don’t get all the details, but I can understand most of the articles.  I also bought a dozen of Brazilian movies.  W/o the subtitles I would be out of luck, but even in the short time I have been doing it; the language is starting to come back.

Technological advances make it a lot easier to learn languages; at least it has become a lot easier to get the materials.  I can read Brazilian newspapers online and listen to radio and TV.  And of course Brazilian-Portuguese movies are easy to find.  There is almost no comparison to how it was twenty-five years ago.   I remember being happy to get those old newspapers and having to copy audio tapes.

Look below at what I just did   I used Word to translate the paragraph above into Portuguese and then back translated into English.  It did a decent job.  I would have to make a few minor corrections.   The strangest thing is that it translated the word Portuguese into English.   It also left out some of the subtlety, such as “I want.”  The Portuguese translation is better than the back translation to English, it has the “I want” (quero) for example.  This is understandable, since it is like making a copy of a copy.  But the translation certainly still makes sense and is a thousand times better than I could do on my own - the wonders of modern technology.  

Desta vez, quero aprender a escrever português.   Temos de aprender a falar e ler-se nos nossos cursos de língua, mas nós não aprender a escrever, pelo menos não como escrever bem.    Aguardo com expectativa a obtenção de muita ajuda a este respeito de Bill Gates.   Microsoft Word é muito bom na fixação de palavras que estão escritas quase corretamente.   Ele faz isso em inglês, parto do princípio de que é possível fazê-lo também em português.

Back translation

This time, I learn to write English.   We must learn to speak and read in our language courses, but we do not learn how to write, at least not how to write well.    I look forward to getting a lot of help from Bill Gates.   Microsoft Word is very good at fixing of words that are written almost correctly.   It does this in English, I assume that it is possible also in English.

It is really interesting the way that the machine can translate in seconds.  But somehow I am staring to understand how John Henry felt when he saw that steam drill rolling up.

January 27, 2010

Compared to What?

They say that misery loves company, but that is just an uncharitable way to put it. Comparisons are useful because they provide insight into problems and possible solutions. For example, you should be a lot more willing to change your habits if you see that you are doing poorly while everybody else prospers but if you are part of the larger trend learning from the experience of others might be less immediately useful. The Economist shows graphically how rich countries have fared in the recent recession.


Americans suffered in the “great recession” and it is cold comfort that Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, the UK and the whole Euro-zone suffered more. But it should make us stop to consider the root causes of a downturn that affected a passel of countries with such a wide variety of institutions and economic programs.

The precursor the problems of the 1930s was the rapid rise of the U.S. as a creditor nation along with the circular flow of funds from Germany in the form of reparations to the allies, to the U.S. in the form of loan repayments back to Germany as loans, all the while the U.S. market was not absorbing significant imports. The great economist, John Maynard Keynes foresaw some of these problems in his “” (1919). In the 1970s, we had the problem of recycling petro-dollars after the quadrupling of oil prices in the early 1970s and further hikes around 1980. That liquidity went into loans to developing countries which soon became a problem. Recently, we had the rise of China, which has followed a neo-mercantilism strategy of selling outside while maintaining trade barriers and an artificially low currency. The dollars that pooled up in the Middle Kingdom were/are recycled into debt in the U.S. and elsewhere, helping keep interest rates low, but also helping to create a debt overhang.

 The Panic of 1907, which I include only for the sake of completeness, because it spurred the creation of the Federal Reserve and because I just finished reading the book in the link, was also precipitated by rapid growth and investment in the U.S. It is unusual in that it was largely “solved” by the intervention of one individual, J Pierpont Morgan. This would be the last time that one individual was ever able to take on that role.

The Great Depression ended only with the onset of World War II, which is a fairly high price to pay to end an economic downturn. Amity Shlaes has written a good book called “The Forgotten Man” that details some of the policy fits and starts that did not alleviate the depression and may have deepened it. The end of the recession of 1982 is still way to close to be dispassionately assessed. We forget how bad that one was. Unemployment reached 10.8% but it soon eased and we had a quarter century of decent economic growth punctuated by two short recessions.

We don’t know what will bring us back to prosperity this time, but I have confidence that we will recover. We always do.If you look back at history in the last century, it seems we have a painful downturn every twenty-five years or so. The times of trouble last for around ten years (except in the 1907 case). Let’s hope this one will be shorter. But since nobody has been able to “predict” even the past accurately, I don’t have a lot of confidence in anybody’s ability to predict the economic future.

January 24, 2010

Happy Birthday Espen (2010)

I wrote about Espen’s birthday last year.  He is unenthusiastic about me putting too much about him or recent pictures of him on the blog.  He came home for the weekend and we had a cake, but Mariza and Alex were unable to come, so it wasn’t a party.   Espen wanted to go over to Fuddruckers for his birthday dinner and we had a good talk, but I don’t want to post all that on the blog.  Suffice to say that I miss him, but I am glad he is close and proud of him. Happy birthday, Espen.  We love you.

January 12, 2010

Man Does not Live by Bread Alone 

Past year’s market collapses seemed to confirm all the clichés about capitalism. Subsequent panic-based responses by government with its big bumps in spending and creating of new entitlements confirmed many of the clichés about government.   In April 2009, only 53% of American adults thought capitalism was better than socialism and a full 20% actually preferred socialism (the rest don’t know), according to Rasmussen.  We have since recovered some of our optimism.
I got some insights about this at the AEI program “Recovering the Case for Capitalism” featuring Yuval Levin.   I like to attend lectures at AEI when I can.   You have to get there on time, since there is usually a good sized crowd and they start punctually.    Most of the lectures are free. The Bradley Lectures cost $5, which doesn’t even cover the price of snacks and utilities.    The Bradley Lectures were sponsored by the family who owned Allen-Bradley in Milwaukee, BTW.
Levin started with Adam Smith.  We often get the caricature of what Smith wrote or mendacious misinterpretations like the Gordon Gecko “greed is good” statement.   Smith actually just made a moderate observation that people were not really good or bad but they were motivated by self-interest.  Most people also have a desire for approval, which can be moved to empathy and “good.”   Smith never advocated getting rid of government.   A good government doesn’t generally push particular outcomes, but it creates institutions that direct people’s self-interest and vanity to proper objects.
The market will discipline participants by encouraging people to do things other people find useful or desirable, since everybody has to approach the market terms of what he can provide, not what he will be able to get or even demand.    But the rules of the market are not self creating.  Some people will try to employ coercion.  Rules are necessary to maintain security and open completion, so that negotiations are free and pricing is not coercive. This does not ensure that outcomes are equal and not every transaction serves the interests of everybody, but overall the market produces the best achievable outcome.
Nobody seriously questions capitalism’s ability to produce material goods.   A century ago, some people thought a socially planned economy could produce more, but experience had dispelled that idea.   Nevertheless, few people love capitalism.    
The market tends to be unkind to established interests and established businesses have an interest to collude with government to limit competition.   Our modern welfare system is largely a creation of this kind of corporate-government collusion.

Capitalism also doesn’t properly stoke the egos of all participants. You are judged by what you do and what you contribute – lately.   The market disperses decision making and it is evolutionary, so in constant state of change, so it doesn’t appeal to academic intellectuals who like intelligently designed theoretical master systems. Most systems work better in theory than the free market, since there really is not a comprehensive theory of capitalism.
Capitalism is process, but it is incomplete. This is not a bad thing, considering the world’s experience with the more comprehensive systems. Capitalism is not a totalitarian. It leaves the details of your life and beliefs up to you. In this respect, it is more a tool than a comprehensive system and it requires the input of values from outside. Traditions, family, religion and other anthropological aspects form the “soul” of our system. Capitalism makes freedom possible, but it is not in itself freedom.   Humans need more. The free market makes it possible for them to seek it but it doesn’t force choices.  
I guess it is true that man does not live by bread alone.

The picture above is a painting at AEI featuring Gerald Ford, Helmut  Schmidt,  Valéry Giscard d'Estaing & James Callaghan.

December 30, 2009

Loving Suburbs

View of City of Sao Paulo, Brazil in May 2009 

Cities can be very crowded and the countryside usually is a bit lonely and lacking cultural services. The ostensible arbiters of taste hate the suburbs.  They critically acclaim crappy movies like “American Beauty” or “Revolutionary Row” that fit into cognoscenti stereotypes of life in the suburbs.   Maybe these wise guys won’t understand, but suburbanites are the happier with their lives than those people who live in small towns or big cities, according to Pew Research.

South Austin Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin September 2009 

You can see some of the variety of options in the pictures.  It goes from the very crowded city of Sao Paulo, Brazil to a leafy and low density City of Milwaukee Street.  Frankfurt, Germany has become a very green city, even though it is in the center of a dense urban zone.  Cities can also be the crowded density of India or the grimy but vital Chicago street. And there are still places in the U.S. were almost nobody lives.  You can see on the picture from my sister's back yard in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek.

Indian street scenes from Milwaukee Public Museum exhibit 

I work in the city, live in the suburbs and spend a lot of time on my farms in rural areas.   Each has its attraction and I would not want to have to choose among them and I don’t have to, so in many ways it is a false choice.  Let me address it anyway.

Street scene in Chicago in September 2009 

The key advantage of the city is that you can walk to the places you need to go, although this advantage is lost on many urban dwellers, since they don’t walk much anyway.  Suburbs are a little too much car culture for me.  Of course, I am a bit spoiled in Washington, which is one of the world’s most pleasant and walkable cities. Washington really isn’t a city.  At least around the Capitol, it is more like a nice park with magnificent monuments and museums.  Who wouldn’t like that?   In many cities these days you cannot really walk around much. 

Chrissy's yard in Oak Creek Wisconsin, but against wetland near the Oak Creek bike trail 

Diversity used to be an advantage of cities, but not anymore.  Today that is an advantage of the near-in in suburbs.  Fairfax County, where I live, is more diverse than Washington DC.   My homeowners’ association has people from all over the world interacting and getting along, which is true diversity.  People in cities tend to have more defined and sometimes antagonistic group identities.   Group identify is not diversity; it is just a kind of standoff.  The suburbs are now doing a better job of breaking down archaic group-think.  I suppose that sort of homogenization is one of the things that offends some people, but I prefer to interact with people, not “representatives.”   Rural areas tend to be less diverse, in my experience, because fewer people are moving in.

Street in Frankfurt AM, Germany in September 2008 

The advantage of the rural areas is space and I love to hike in the big natural areas and I really love MY forests, but absent those things, rural life holds few attractions for me.  The countryside is a place to get away to … and then get away from.  It is not a place I would like to live permanently.  We lived in Londonderry in New Hampshire, which was an interesting exurb.  It has the demographic characteristics of a suburb, but the density of a rural area along with a little bit of a small town. We lived in a kind of cluster development, which I found very pleasant.  I like to see my neighbors, but be able to leave them behind when I want to be alone.  This may be the blueprint for the community of the future.  You can have fairly dense development amid green fields connected to urban amenities.  

The old suburbs, where everybody has a rambler or ranch style house set on a half acre lot are soooo 1950s. The gritty urban environment is too unpleasant and the countryside is too vast.  Put them together, and you have something nice.  I guess that is why I am happy where I am now in Fairfax. Of course, I will be keeping my eyes open for something better.   That is the American way.

Speaking of that, Pew has an article about the middle class (available here) and I read the Economist special report on the growing global middle class (here).   The middle class is also much maligned by the cool ones.  They used to call us bourgeois.   But when you think about it, most of the good values come from the middle class. The poor are too screwed and screwed up to think about the better things in life and the rich are too spoiled and effete to care. 

A good series of articles about suburbs is at this link.  

This middle class guy in the suburbs is feeling okay. A lot depends on not on the location or the life station but on the person.   No matter what how much you make or where you go, you have to live with yourself.  If you don’t like the company, you are out of luck.

Collecting Stuff

Norwegian constitution building in Eidsvold 

I don’t acquire as much collectible stuff as some people. I was thinking about how I have almost nothing left from my posts in Brazil, Norway or Poland. Then I started to think that I don’t have much from anyplace else in general. 

Wooden bowls made by Leif Somerseth from birch burls 

It is not that I just don’t keep things. I keep things that I regularly use.  Chrissy gives me a hard time that I rarely buy new clothes.  I really see the need to replace something until it wears out. Pictures of me from years ago show this. Once when traveling to Germany, the border guard questioned my passport photo.  Since I got that passport, I had grown older, grown a beard and cut my hair much shorter. He looked up again.  “Okay, same eyes and same necktie,” he laughed.  

Boleslawiec bowls and cups  

I don’t think I have anything left over from Brazil. That was a long time and several moves ago.  We have a few things from Norway.  We have a cheese cutter, a print of the building where the Norwegian Constitution was signed and a wooden bowl made by my colleague Leif Somerseth, who made them from burls on some birch trees at his mountain cabin. (The wooden bowl is pictured above. I tossed in my two pieces of the Berlin Wall and that is where they have resided ever since.)  We were in Poland twice can more recently, so we have a little more from there.  I have a framed antique map of Poland, a reproduction sword, some prints and some wood carvings. 

Boleslawiec bowl

But the most useful thing we have is a set of Boleslawiec ceramics. We should have bought more of it. They were practically giving this stuff away when we first got to Poland.  You could get a whole set for around $10.  Now a single plate costs that much or more.  Unfortunately, it is a wasting resource, i.e. pieces are breaking and one day they will all be gone.  I don’t think we should just save or preserve them.  It was made to be used and use it we do. In many ways, the experience with the thing is more important than the thing itself.

I never understood those guys who collect things unopened in their original packaging.   IMO, the value comes from its use and using it adds the personal value. The things I still have from Poland or Norway are not things I just bought. They are things people gave to me or things that came from some experience. Their value doesn’t come from the thing itself, but from associations and experience surrounding it. Things you keep should have a back story, one of your own, not just a vicarious one or some ersatz tale created by a salesman or marketing department.

You probably don’t need too much stuff in general and keeping in mind the real back story helps slow the mindless accumulation.  

December 26, 2009

What We Did in 2009

Matel kids December 2009Espen at George Mason

Espen went off to school this year. It is sad for Chrissy and me not to have him around all the time, although we are happy that he is not far away at George Mason University.    He comes home a lot, but we sometimes don’t see much of him anyway, since we are generally awake during the day while he is sort of nocturnal.  

Experiments in sleeping 

He is trying a sleep experiment over the Christmas break.  His idea is to go to bed a couple hours later and sleep later every day until he moved completely around the clock and can wake up fully rested early in the morning in time to go back to school. It should work. It is much easier to go to bed later than to wake up earlier and I read that this moving around the clock is one way they use to cure insomnia. He has fallen off the discipline recently, however, since he has been going out with his friends.

Studying computers & interning at Lockheed

Espen is studying computer engineering.  He has to take a lot of hard classes, but there is strong job growth for those who make it through.  He had a paid internship at Lockheed-Martin working on their computer systems last summer and will probably get the job back next year.    That will probably be as important to his future prospects as what he learns in school.  They also got him a security clearance, which is very valuable for jobs around here with government and government contractors. 

Alex starts at JMU via NOVA

Alex will be going to James Madison University in January and starting as a junior. His is a real turn-around story. He was an unenthusiastic student and wasn’t ready for college when he graduated HS. It was hard for Chrissy and me not to push him in, but I remembered my own early college experience.  I wasn’t emotionally ready to go and I didn’t study and managed to achieve a 1.67 GPA in my freshman year. Alex found a decent job at Home Depot, which both helped him with his basic discipline and made him see the value of formal education. He started to go to Northern Virginia Community College and eased into higher education part time, soon studying hard and getting good grades.  

Valuable experience at Home Depot

It might have been better for him to wait until fall semester to start at JMU. He has been doing very well at Home Depot, working hard and getting some of the respect and opportunity that comes from doing a good job. I think it would be good for learn some more useful skills. He has been scheduling contractors and working with appliances and fixtures.  This experience is worth a lot in the real world, but I understand that he is impatient to get on with the next steps in his life. I will miss him.  We have been attending Smithsonian lectures together. Unfortunately, I think that has made him even more eager to get to JMU. He is usually by far the youngest person in the audience and he feels life is passing too fast.

Following in my historical footsteps

Alex likes history and that is what he probably will study at JMU. Studying history is not directly applicable to any particular career but it is a great general background for life. My history MA has been as useful as my MBA, although it doesn't tend to impress hiring managers as much. I think there is a big difference between rigorously studying history and just coasting along.  Alex really tries to understand.

Mariza working at Travelers'

Mariza is still working at Travelers’ Insurance in Baltimore.  She is an insurance adjuster for environmental claim, which means asbestos, mold, oil spills & sewage - all the fun stuff. Most the clients are firms and it is usually third party liability. A lot of these things are subject to interpretation.   Of course most of the claims are legitimate, but she also has to deal with hypochondriacs who probably really believe that they were made sick by various things and predatory lawyers who prey on insurance companies, firms and putative victims alike.

New apartment not far away

She moved to a new apartment last summer, not far from her old one. It is a cheaper and she doesn’t have to share with roommates. Mariza was the de-facto property manager in his former apartment.  It was hard for her to get him sometimes lackadaisical and deadbeat roommates to cough up the cash for rent. The landlord did the old “joint and several” lease, whereby every individual was responsible for the whole rent every month. Mariza’s roommates had a higher tolerance for risking eviction and/or bad credit and that is how she got stuck trying to herd the cats and get them to pay up.

Baltimore has some nice neighborhoods

Baltimore neighborhood

Baltimore is a very nice city, if a bit uneven in its attractiveness.   There are some very distinctive sections that are almost like towns within the city. Mariza used to live on Bolton Hill, which was an area of nice old building, some being renovated. She lives in Mount Vernon now, dominated by an interesting monument to George Washington. It also has some of the spillover of students from Johns Hopkins University. Nearby, however, are some very gritty and dangerous looking places.  Espen and I drove through one area after dropping Mariza off. We noticed some really little kids just hanging around and it reminded Espen of a Dave Chappelle skit you can watch it at this link if you are not offended by colorful language.

Chrissy doing HR at Department of Labor

Chrissy is doing well at the Department of Labor. She got an award this year and will probably get her promotion next year.   The Civil Service is not like the Foreign Service. Our ranks follow us personally not matter what job we do. The FS system has its disadvantages, but the rank-in-person allows us to take a wide variety of jobs. The all important arbiter in the GS system is the position description. Chrissy spends a lot of her time analyzing and assessing job descriptions. It is, unfortunately, almost impossible to reward well-performing individuals. Managers have to rewrite their job descriptions or move them to new positions. They are not supposed to do that just to reward employees and that is the problem Chrissy often faces. She has to keep them to the rules. 

Mine safety is serious business

Her section deals wCoal miner statueith mines and mine safety and Chrissy gets to travel around to do job fairs and recruitment.    Given the nature of mining, these fairs tend not to be in the large and sophisticated metro areas.  They have a lot to do in West Virginia and rural Pennsylvania, for example.  The mine inspector program has a diversity problem that upsets some of the leadership.   Given the location of most mines and nature of the industry, people with significant mining experience tend to be white and male.   Also given the life-and-death nature of mine safety, you cannot fake or fudge this experience as you can in many other jobs.    

On top of all that, inspecting mines is a physically difficult and demanding task.  All this means that “achieving diversity” is a daunting task, which is why they do job fairs in places like El Paso and Puerto Rico.

Federal hiring process is confusing 

It is hard to get jobs in the Federal government, hard because of the arcane and Byzantine system they use for most recruitment. They system is designed to be perfectly fair and perfectly transparent, but because it tries to do these thing perfectly in theory it usually means that it is unfair and opaque in practice. It is a frustrating challenge for Chrissy a lot of the time.  But that is a story that she can tell, not me.

Public diplomacy moves to social media

My job had its ups and downs this year, but nothing spectacular. I wrote about some of the public diplomacy we helped do for President Obama’s appearances in Cairo and Ghana. IIP has really become a new media center and my colleagues are developing programs very nicely. I am getting a little concerned, in fact, that the new media is getting a little ahead of our capacity to use it effectively in public diplomacy. In the last couple of weeks, I have had the chance to work with FSI to develop training in social media for decision-makers. We are hoping to make this a policy level course, not just a how-to but a why-do. It is too easy to get beguiled by what we think we can do w/o asking what we are trying to accomplish and what tools are most appropriate. I have appropriated the poetic phrase that we must not let our new media reach exceed our public diplomacy grasp.

Our reach exceeds our grasp

I worry that the ubiquity and easiness of new media will convince us Washington that we can reach overseas and influence far-away audiences with a one-size-fits-all strategy.  We really need the on-the-ground presence and expertise. There is no such thing as a world brand or a strategy that works all over the place.  The strength of our FS is that we can be decentralized and near the “customers,” responding to local cultures and nuances. But this kind of work looks plodding compared to the excitement of the new media. It is tempting to go direct.  We tried to bypass our posts in the 1990s.  In many ways, the debacle was like the new media craze. We unilaterally dismantled a lot of our networks in the late 1990s and paid the price later. I hope we don’t do that again and I will do my best to prevent it.

Back overseas for me ... in 2011

I suppose I do have a dog in that fight. I agreed to go back overseas, back to Brazil.  I will be public affairs officer there with lots of up-close, hands-on opportunities.  I won’t be going until summer of 2011, so there is a lot of time to prepare.  I haven’t keep up much with Brazil, so I have some catching up to do but I am looking forward to it.  My favorite issues relate to economics, environment & Energy and those are the crucial ones in Brazil. I will also be glad to have some line duties again. The Wall Street Journal has a Portuguese version. I have been reading it for the past couple days and can still do it reasonably well. I don’t think it will be too hard to take it up again.

All things considered, not bad

It has been a good year for us, all things considered. Both boys took the next big steps in their lives, but I didn’t see any major turning points and we end this year as we might have expected at the start. Of course, you often don’t see the big changes as they happen.  They are clearly evident only later and when you look back you cannot believe you didn’t know at the time.  Maybe there is something like that. We go into the new year grateful for the blessing of the present and optimistic about the future.

December 16, 2009

Things (don't) Fall Apart

Sunset outside my office 

People are more likely to pay attention to threats of loss than they are to possible gains. That is why the news is full of stories of loss and destruction, now and even worse predicted in the future. Of course, it is also just the nature of news. Good things often evolve over a long time. Bad things are usually more dramatic. But even during our “hard times” life is good compared to other times and places.

Nostalgia is not what it used to be

Nostalgia is a great thing. Our minds get clouded by time and eventually even bad things start to look okay. Survivor bias is also at work. The things from the “good old days” that manage to survive today were often of better value in the first place.

We remember that everything was cheap in the old days, but we forget that we made a lot less money. One of the ways to equalize this is to look at how long it takes to earn the money to buy things you want. I read an article that made that comparison.

Most things get cheaper with better quality

For example, in 1958 a color TV cost 136.34 hours of work at the average wage. Today a similar TV costs only 19.08 hours. Of course, today’s television is a lot better in terms of picture and reliability. Back in 1958 nobody could have afforded to buy the kind of quality you can get now by working a little more than 19 hours.

A person living in middle class prosperity back in 1958 would be considered poor today in terms of the quality and quantity of what he could buy.

Malaria cases way down

Another piece of good news I found on the inside pages of the WSJ was that fears of global warming and disease spreading notwithstanding, malaria is declining, according to the World Health Organization.  It even looks like H1H1 is not as bad as we thought.

Predictions of dooms past seem funny today, but they scared people back in the day

I am old enough to have survived predicted ends of the world several times. We survived the nuclear Armageddon in the 1960s. In the 1970s we overcame global cooling. The population bomb didn’t destroy us in the 1980s and we didn’t notice the near complete depletion of resources that the experts told us was coming. While we didn’t quite enjoy the end of history and the collapse of communism as much as we thought in the 1990s, the predicted vast refugee crisis didn’t materialize, Y2K didn’t destroy our information society and Internet in general didn’t shut down for lack of connectivity. Oh yeah, acid rain didn't kill all our forests and lakes. Terrorism is indeed a problem in this decade, but we seem to have adapted reasonably well and compared to the apocalyptic predictions, we feel lucky to remain alive, healthy and so well-off.

When our kids look back fifty years from now, how funny will some of the things we worry about today seem to them? I know - ours is the worst hard time. Yeah, yeah, that's what we said back then too. They may talk about the good old days and how things were so much better for us. But like us, they will know that they have it better than their parents.

BTW - one of my favorite poems is the Second Coming by William Butler Yeats - written in 1919, when things really were a lot worse. 


    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


December 15, 2009

Oh Christmas Tree

Christmas treeChrissy got the idea to make a kind of glittering Christmas tree with mirrors and glitter to reflect the light.  She made the glittery snowflakes herself.

The tree is a Frasier fir.  Alex picked it out at Home Depot.  I brought a tree up from the farm when we first got it, but loblolly pines don't make good Christmas trees.  They drop the needles very fast and they are not very bushy.  They grow fast, which makes them good timber trees, but that means that they have long growth branches.  Christmas trees are usually trimmed to make them fuller.  It tried that, but it didn't work with my trees.  It is easier just to go to Home Depot.


December 13, 2009

Leaving Things Undone Accomplishes More

Runoff water in back of house 

Up until this year the landscapers around our housing complex have been busy with their noisy leaf blowers and stinky mowers, this year not so much.  In fact, they more or less left the strip in back of our house alone and let the leaves pile up.  This is very good and you can see the evidence of that in the pictures.  

We got a lot of rain this season and the ground is saturated. This has always meant erosion the water runs rapidly off the roofs of the houses and down the narrow channel in back. The shadows of the houses and trees make it hard to grow grass and grass has trouble standing up to the fast water flow. (In the pictures you see the lilyturf and ivy I planted a couple years ago to at least hold the ground in back of our house. That does well in this environment, but in back of the other houses there is mostly just dirt.)  W/o the leaves on the ground, the water running off is full of silt, but the leaves both protect the ground and absorb some of the water.

Storm water is a big and growing problem in Fairfax County because of all the hard surfaces. It erodes the stream beds and messes up the Chesapeake Bay.  Sometimes our excessive commitment to tidiness exacerbates the problem.  Most homeowners are unenthusiastic about water standing near their houses and they quickly sweep up leaves.  This "virtue" is hard on the water systems.

See the utility box in the picture below. Before I put in that ground cover, there was a big rut almost a foot deep running along both sides of that thing. The plants have raised the ground level, by trapping silt. They will completely cover the ground by the end of next year.  If the whole back was covered in plants most storm water would soak in and very little would run off at all.

Runnoff water in back of house 

The lesson I take is that you are often better off letting things alone.   There have been lots of proposals to try to make the grass grow (impossible in the shade), put in drains (expensive, bad for the environment because it accelerates runoff), put in rocks (ditto) or mulch the whole thing (not bad, but mulch tends to wash away a lot easier than leaves), but the best thing to do may be almost nothing.

The best thing to do would be to put in some kind of ground cover, actually make the whole thing into a long rain garden.  (I wrote about this kind of thing before) In time, it would establish a strong root system that would both trap sediment and help water soak in. It would be a little work at first but then very low maintenance.  It took me a day to put in that in the pictures ground cover and I got it all free just by taking what Chrissy thinned out from the front of the house, but I can't and wouldn't be allowed to put it in back of the other sixteen houses along this way. So the next best thing to do is nothing, or maybe just resist any attempts to "fix" the problem at home owner association meetings, unless we are talking about rain gardens.  Maybe I should develop a proposal for a rain garden. I volunteered to help start a landscape committee a couple months ago, but still have no interest or authorization from the board. I suppose I should bring it up again.

So absent that, sometimes doing nothing, or at least not much is the best thing.  All I know is that I have been watching this water flow for a ten years, trying with limited success to stop the dirt from running off.  Now the lackadaisical response to the fallen leaves have done the job for me.  

December 07, 2009

False Economy

We will be spending less on TARP than we thought.   It is estimated that TARP will end up costing the taxpayers $200 billion less than was first thought, as financial institutions have recovered faster than anticipated and are paying the money back faster.    TARP turned out to be a sound investment.  Let’s keep it that way by not throwing away the dividends we didn’t really get.

Unfortunately many in our great nation have fallen for a fallacy about money and they are being encouraged in their error by dishonest politicians trying to expand the dependency of people on government largess.  

Trick accounting bankrupts people; don't let government do it

The fallacy involved is thinking that money you saved by not spending it is necessarily money you have in hand.   It is a common fallacy and is a contributing factor to making individuals and families poor.  It is the man who buys a car he cannot afford because he got a good deal.   Instead of understanding that he to borrow $30,000, instead he counts that he has “saved” $10,000 because it “would have cost” more.   His initial error is compounded when - flush with his $10,000 “windfall savings” - he continues to spend money he doesn’t have. 

 This kind of systematic error is part of prospect theory and behavioral economics. Cass Sunstein , President Obama’s regulation advisor, has written an excellent book on these nudges.  There is a lot of thinking going on about this.  One would hope that we will not be so easily fooled this time.

C&J learned this lesson when as a young couple they planned a vacation they couldn’t afford.  We were smart enough to understand it was too much money, but then fell into the phantom money saved trap by going on a cheaper vacation that we still couldn’t afford, secure in the false knowledge that we were being virtuous by saving money.  

A penny saved is not a penny earned if you just blow it

It is even worse with borrowed money and since we are running the biggest deficits in human history, ALL the money we are talking about is borrowed money.    Saving $200 billion just means we have to borrow $200 billion less.  It doesn’t mean we have found $200 billion to spend.

We even have heard some really stupid calls to give the money “back” to the people.   What does this even mean?    The government would borrow the money.   Isn’t this how we got into the financial mess in the first place?  Too many people were borrowing money and giving to themselves w/o remembering or w/o caring that borrowed money is not free money.

Let’s not let get fooled again

Maybe $200 billion doesn’t sound like much when you already have a $1.4 TRILLION deficit, but it is real money and it is not FOUND money.  Politicians may indeed decide to BORROW and spend more, but let’s not be deceived about what they are doing or let them bribe us with our own money.  

A politician who uses phrases like "TARP funds have been freed up" or "we can spend the $200 billion we 'saved'” is lying to us and using an easily identified judgment flaw to try to trick us.  Surely we are smarter than that.   Didn’t the last couple years teach us anything about living on the credit card?

December 06, 2009

Self-Help for the Autodidact

Snowy branches in Vienna VA on Dec 5, 2009 

I started listening to audio-books back in 1985. My audio-book consumption started about the time the format became widely useful. I moved from cassettes through CDs and to I-pods and listened to thousands of books I would not have read. Audio-books make long drives productive and often even enjoyable.  

There are advantages and disadvantages to any medium. A big disadvantage to the audio format is that it is hard to go back and forth, so if you miss something it tends to stay missed.  You cannot really study, as you can with a book. Audio also reinforces or enables one of my intellectual weaknesses.  I have a decent memory for data but not for sources.  I tend to mix knowledge promiscuously.   It is especially bad on I-pods.  I sometimes just launch a book w/o even listening to the title or author.  I could never write a research book because I could never footnote.   

On the other hand, I tend to listen to more parts of a book.   With a standard book I often skim through or skip parts I don’t like.  I don’t bother doing that with an audio-book.   Sometimes I buy the audio version of a book I have read or buy the book that goes with an audio version.  That gives the best of both worlds, but it is only worth doing for something really worth knowing.

One of the books that influenced me the most was “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”I know some people are sensitive about admitting the read self-help books.Not me.I needed the help and that was a good book for it.All of it is common sense but not commonly known or followed.I read the book when it first came out in 1989 and then I got the audio version.I don’t think it would have made such an impression on my w/o the audio version.

For a couple of years I was a regular customer of Blackstone Audio Books.  They were unabridged rental books.  I drove around Southern Poland listening to the books.  I did a series of lectures in Bielsko, which was around a two hour drive from Krakow.  I made the drive once a week. I remember listening to an audio-book call "Novus Ordo Seclorum" about the Constitutional debates.  James Madison & Alexander Hamilton were prominently featured. It was funny that when I went to visit James Madison's house I kept on having memories of Poland.  I also thought of driving in Poland while listening to another audio-book "Hamilton" by Ron Chernov.  These things happened ten years after.  My memory was cross referencing.

Lately I have been buying courses from “the Teaching Company.”  They are college lectures, each about 45 minutes long.   This is ideal for the Metro trip.  But you don’t even have to buy lectures sometimes.  Lots of universities are putting courses on line for free.  I just downloaded Donald Kagan’s history of ancient Greece.   It is mostly review, so I can just let it play as I walk along noisy streets.  The only problem with the free college lectures is that they tend to be actual live lectures.  They are not delivered with the same alacrity of a narrator concentrating on making a recording.

The narrator style and voice make a big difference. There are some narrators I recognize. For example, I listened to a couple of books by Simon Winchester.  He writes a kind of science-based history. I liked “Krakatoa” so I got another of his books about the San Francisco earthquake of 1905.  I was pleased to have the same narrator.  They guy had a nice British accent and good voice quality.  I had a less happy experience with Thomas Cahill.  Actually it was good three out of four times.  He had some excellent books, such as “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” “Desire of the Everlasting Hills” (re early Christianity) Sailing the Wine Dark Seas” (re ancient Greeks) and “Gift of the Jews.”  The last of the group had a female narrator.   Her pitch was wrong.   It was very hard to hear and understand her with traffic or metro noise in the background.  Narrators need lower and stronger voices.   The problem was that “Gift of the Jews” was a good book, better than “Sailing the Wine Dark Seas,” but the narrator got in the way.

An unwelcome development from my point of view is the increase in video. You cannot use video while driving and it generally requires full attention, which I often do not want to give. Many of the courses from the Teaching Company are available only in video format. 

Audio-books have given me the equivalent of separate college educations.  I am sure I spent more total time listening to audio-books than I spent in college and I bet I have spent more money on them over the years.  It was worth it.

December 01, 2009

Everything Has a Price

People say that like it is a bad thing.   In fact, the ability to put a price on most things is the basis of most of our prosperity.   It also reduces or even eliminates many conflicts and just makes everything work smoother. A lot of blood has been shed over “priceless” things, but any problem you can buy your way out of is not longer a problem; it is just an expense.

Remains of Roman marketplace in Athens

People have a strange way of disparaging thing they want the most and talk obliquely about them.   For example, when somebody says, “you cannot put a price on that” he usually means that the price offered is too low.  When he says, “Nobody should have to pay for that” he usually means that he wants somebody else to pay for it for him.  

Something for Nothing

Everybody likes to get something for nothing (or at least for not too much.)  We wince when we think about the venality of some of our interactions, but it is just part of human nature.   Actually, it is part of nature in general.   Animals implicitly calculate the amount of effort expended for a particular payoff.   Lions go after the zebras or wildebeests that are easiest to catch and they chase their prey only so far.  After that, it is not worth the effort.   And the king of beasts is happiest when he can find a fresh carcass that he doesn’t have to chase at all, i.e. get something for nothing. That’s nature.

What is it Worth? 

The most important part of a price is the information it contains.  The price tells you whether it is worth the effort.   It also tells you how much effort others would put in making or getting this thing.  It allows you to compare and make choices about disparate things and forms a judgment on the relative effectiveness of various producers.  All this is Econ 101, but it bears repeating since we often forgot why prices are good.

BTW - I have been watching a good show called "Pawn Stars." I recommend watching that when thinking about the "true price" of anything.

Price’s role in conflict resolution is something we talk about less often but it is one of its most important functions.   Price can accomplish so much because it contains all that stuff mentioned in the paragraph above.   W/o price, these are things you would have to fight about.   To illustrate the role of price in conflict resolution, imagine a situation where two or more people want exactly the same thing and have determined it is priceless.   Those are the conditions where people come to blow and nations go to war.

Think of the rare heirloom from grandpa that all the grandchildren want and think is theirs by prior right.   They can all come up with endless credible arguments as to why it should be theirs.   Put a reasonable price on the thing and the conflict usually drains away, as most of the heirs decide they really didn’t want it that much and/or something else is more valuable to them.

Something Beyond Price, or Just a Price Range

Of course, there are some things we really would not put a price on, but fewer than we like to admit.   I am telling the truth when I tell people that I don’t want to sell my forest land, but my statement is valid only within an implicit price range.   I am not exactly sure what that range is.  I know  a price I would accept  is currently significantly more than I am likely to be offered, which I why I can make my “not selling” statements with such moral certainty.   But I think if someone offered me $1 million an acre, I would  take it.

There is joke (I think it is from Groucho Marx) that illustrates the price dilemma:  This guy asks a woman if she would sleep with him for $1 million.  After a little thought, she says she would.   He says, “How about $10?”  To which she indignantly replies, “Sir, what do you think I am?”   The guy says, “We have established what you are; now we are haggling over the price.” 

You Can't Sell That

It is precisely our human “price flexibility” that makes it necessary to have some laws about things that cannot be sold.  No matter what the price, you cannot self yourself into slavery, for example.  Society does this not only because slavery is odious or even to protect the person selling, but rather defends the whole concept of freedom and takes it out of the negotiation/price world.   I think most people support this kind of limit on choice, but we need to be careful not to go far in proclaiming too many things off limits.  Things w/o a price often tend to get abused. 

I recently read a series of articles about the art world.   Art is one of those places where you have a lot of price confusion.  Much of the price is based on fashion and capricious opinion. Artists put a lot of their personality into their works and usually pompously over-value it.   And many people get positively indignant about prices that are too high, too low or anything else.   But price may be more important in the art world than in many other places.    Simply stated: price preserves both art and artists.

Price Preserves Art

One article talked about Chinese art.  Now that some Chinese have piles of money and Western currencies to burn, Chinese art has risen in value.  Some complain that it was undervalued in the past and that Western collectors were able to buy it up at a fraction of what it was worth.   This is a fairly meaningless statement, BTW, because it is worth what somebody will pay for it.   Today it is worth more.  That’s it.  But there is another permutation. 

During the bad old days of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, traditional Chinese art was often worse than worthless within China.   The Communists made a special effort to denigrate and destroy what they considered symbols of decadence and oppression.    Much of the Chinese art now being “repatriated” would have been lost of destroyed had it not been “plundered” by Western collectors at a time when the people on the ground didn’t value it.

Think of the terrible case of the Tailban destroying those giant Buddahs, because they were an offense to their fundamental interpretation of Islam.  If the British had "plundered" them, they would still exist.

Camels in Egypt 

Unappreciated Ancient Civilizations 

The same goes for a lot of the art of ancient Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia.   I know this provokes strong emotions, accusations of insensitivity and even expressions of outrage, but if you look at the historical record, it was British, French and German archeologists who essentially brought the ancient world back to the places where it had been and had been forgotten.   The current inhabitants didn’t know much and cared less about the world of antiquity and usually saw archeological sites merely as places to dig up valuables or convenient places to steal bricks or rocks for new construction.   

There is a legitimate dispute whether those ancient artifacts now housed in museums in Berlin, Paris, London or New York were plundered or saved.    I think it is clear that had those things not been preserved in those museums, most would have ended up lost, part of somebody’s retaining wall or – at best – in some rich guy’s private collection.

Anyway, it is a good thing that these things had a price and that somebody was willing to pay it. The Rosetta stone could have easily become pavement on the road to Cairo, which illustrates another benefit of price.  It tends to put things into the hands of those who want or can use them the most.  The Rosetta stone was laying around for more than two thousand years and nobody bothered to try a translation until it got into the hands of someone who cared.

November 28, 2009

My Audience & Editorial Policy

Road closed sign 


I got an interesting comment on a post I wrote a year ago.  Goes to show how things live on once posted to the Internet.   The commenter said that I was delusional, full of myself and a con artist.   I admit that I was a little taken aback.  I can understand the delusional and full or myself accusations, but con artist just doesn’t make any sense.  The guy didn’t like what I wrote about nature and how I mange my forest lands.  You can read the original post and his comment at this link.  I admit that I chose a provocative title and I guess it provoked ... eventually.   I invited this guy to write 500 words rebutting me and I promised to post it. I doubt anything will come of it.

People sometimes send comments directly to me, which I don’t publish.  I publish almost anything else anybody sends in, but I don’t get too many complaints or comments in general.  

My Audience & Editorial Policy

The “delusional” comment made me think about my “editorial policy”.  I don’t really have one.  I write the blog mostly for my friends and relatives.  I know I have acquired some “online” friends and I am grateful for their continued support.  The statistics tell me that we get around 600 visitors on a good day, but most are just from search engines hitting on some of the pictures.  I figure only that only a couple of dozen people regularly read what I write.  During my time in Iraq I know that some families of the PRT & USMC colleagues read the blog for general information about the situation their loved ones faced in Anbar.  I am glad that I could provide that service.  I suppose most of them have wandered off now that I am out of Iraq.   Given the personalized, idiosyncratic nature of my interests and all things considered, I don’t have a “general” audience.

But let’s get to the question of editorial policy.  There is a valid question about how comprehensive, balanced or fair any writer should be.  Some people worry about this, but it is not something I struggle with.  I am honest and try to be as accurate as I can.   But I feel absolutely no obligation to be fair, balanced or comprehensive.   Mine is only a miniscule contribution to a very large whole, one piece of a very large puzzle.  Presumably those looking for a variety of views will gather mine along with a lot of others and make up their own minds.   

I think that is a good policy for a blogger who writes for nothing and doesn’t promote his blog.

I believe in pluralism.  We need to have a lot of ideas put forward and tested against each other.  Our goals should NOT be to achieve consensus or hold each other accountable, beyond the basic imperatives to be honest, remain reasonable and stay reasonably civil. We should also not try to clip our ideas to fit the sensibilities of others.  That is the good thing about pluralism.  You don’t have to be inclusive. Those who are offended can go someplace else where they feel appreciated, not merely tolerated.  That is all I can offer.  

Do Not Block the Way to Inquiry

We need to express our idea AND be willing to accept criticism.   Everybody is entitled to his/her opinion but nobody is bound to respect them.   Too much respect won’t help us find useful truth. Conflicts, corrections, experimentation and restatements are how we come closer to truth. We never get to possess THE truth, BTW, but we will get closer to useful knowledge.  (THE truth has no meaning outside religion.) Building knowledge is an iterative process.  We try something, learn something, adjust and try again.  This goes for individuals, organizations and societies.   “Do not block the way to inquiry,” is what the philosopher Charles Saunders Pierce said and he was right.

November 26, 2009

November 2009 Misc

Thanksgiving Turkey

The kids are back for Thanksgiving and it is nice to have them home.  We had the usual turkey dinner, probably for the last time.  I don’t mean this is our last time together (hope not) but we decided that nobody really likes turkey that much.  Next year we will have something else.  My favorite parts of the meal are the potatoes and stuffing with some corn on top. 

We see wild turkeys down at the farm.  I read that they are elusive.  They don’t see very elusive, just dumb.  Sometimes they just wander onto the road.   The return of the wild turkey is one of those unlikely ecological success stories.   They were rare just a generation ago.  Some experts said they could never come back in large numbers because they required larger ranges than they could have in a settled modern countryside.  Turns out that nature is much more adaptive than that and that turkeys can live and prosper in close contact with settled civilization.  


22nd St on way to State Department 

Taking a Different Way

My walk down 23rd St. from Foggy Bottom Metro to the State Department is less pleasant than the trip I used to make along the Smithsonian.  The sidewalks are a little narrow and you have to jostle with lots of other pedestrians.  There also seems a surplus of smokers getting in their last drag on the way to work.  It stinks up the sidewalk, even in the open air.

But it is easy to avoid this.  All I have to do is walk one block down.  It is quiet and uncrowded.  It adds less than five minutes to the trip.  Sometimes solutions are easy.  

But it still isn’t as nice as Smithsonian walk.  One of the little things nice about walking along the Mall is the tactile and auditory pleasure of walking on a firm gravel path.

Nutty as a Fruitcake

I don’t know why so many people make fun of Christmas fruitcakes.  I like them and I am happy to see them on the store shelves this time of year.  They are packed with nuts and packed with calories, so I have to be careful not to eat too much, however.

Japanese maple  

Maple Leaf

The Japanese maple in the front yard turns differently each fall.    The leaves tend to hang on well into the cold weather, but the colors are different.  I suppose it depends on the weather and when the first hard frost comes.  A couple years ago we got an early frost that killed the leaves before they were ready to let go.  The colors weren’t very nice, but some of the leaves persisted until they were pushed off by the new growth in the spring. This year was cool and rainy, but we haven’t had a hard frost yet.   I think that is why the tree is such a bright red this year.

November 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Ma

My mother was born on this day in 1923.  I never got to know my mother after I was an adult.  She died when I was seventeen.  So my memories are seen through the eyes of a child or at best a teenager.  The one thing that I remember very clearly was that I was always sure that she loved me. Everything else is less important after that and I know that she shaped a lot of my character.

Virginia HaaseOur house was the center of family activity while my mother was there.  She had three sisters (Mabel, Florence & Lorraine) and two brothers (Harold & Hermann) and we had much of the extended family, minus Harold, who I don’t remember ever meeting.  The family didn't get along with his wife, Sophie.  I don't know why.  All the other aunts and cousins would come over to play cards. Usually the cousin would come too, so while I had only one sister, I feel like I had lots of siblings. I really don’t know what card games they played.  I just recall the constant chatter of a kind of mixed German-English.  “What’s spielt is spielt” and “now who’s the high hund?”   

As I wrote above, I didn’t get to know my mother as much as I would have liked to and I am astonished at how much I don’t remember or maybe never knew. Kids are rarely interested in their parents’ life stories until they get older, maybe because they just cannot believe their parents were ever young enough to have anything to say. Besides, kids in my generation spent most of their time outside and away from the house.  Parents and children have much more intense relationships these days, if for no other reason than that they are together when parents drive the kids everywhere and arrange various teams, trainings and activities.  We didn't have a car and we didn't belong to any organized activities. I spent most of my days hanging around outside with my friends who lived nearby and I didn’t ask much.

I know she was born Virginia Johanna Haase (Mariza has her middle name). Her father was Emil and her mother was Anna (Grosskreutz).  She grew up on the South Side of Milwaukee and married my father after the war. Of her childhood, I know little. Her father was an engineer who remained employed throughout the Great Depression, which was evidently a rare achievement. She was an unenthusiastic student in HS and dropped out in the tenth grade, but she always encouraged education for my sister and me.  She worked at Allen Bradley during WWII but not long enough to get Social Security benefits.  After she married my father, she no longer did any paying work, besides occasionally free-lance catering with her sisters.  My mother made really good German potato salad, which was always in demand at family gatherings.

Virginia Haase1Ma was phenomenally good natured and I remember her always being cheerful.  My father told me that he was lucky to get my mother to marry him, since she was extremely popular because of her open personality.  She later became a woman of substance, as you can see in the bottom picture.  My father was fond of big women, so I guess they had a good thing going.  

My father enjoyed beer, but Ma drank only a little.  She had one bottle of Gordon's Gin in the downstairs refrigerator. She had a drink at Christmas and that bottle was down there as long as I remember, only gradually emptying.  It was still half full when she died.

Sad to say that my most vivid memories are from the end of my mother's life.  I was riding my bike up to the Kettle Moraine State forest when my mother went into the hospital for the last time.  It was a big trip that I had planned for some time.  My parents kept my mother’s urgent condition from me so as not to ruin it.  When I called from the pay phone at the lake, my father told me that ma was sleeping.  I thought that was odd, but didn’t think that much about it. When I got home she had gone to the hospital.  I never saw her again.

We talked on the phone, but my mother didn’t want us to visit her in the hospital during the last days. I feel a little guilty about that, but it was a good decision. She wanted us to remember her from better times and I do indeed remember her healthy and happy instead of what I imagine it must have been after the chemotherapy and ravages of cancer.

My father got a call from the hospital about dawn on the day before she died. I heard him talking on the phone and infered what was happening, but didn’t come out of my room when he went to the hospital.  We didn’t handle the whole thing very well, but in retrospect I am not sure how it would have worked out any better if we did things differently. I lived in dread the whole day, but she didn’t die that day. I know it is illogical but I convinced myself that she would be out of the woods if she only survived the day.  

But miracle recoveries happen only on television & in the movies.  

They cut down the last of the big elm trees soon after Ma died. I thought it was symbolic and I paid special attention. She loved those trees and felt bad as they succumbed, one-by-one, to the Dutch elm disease.  The tree by the alley was the last survivor near the house, and Ma was happy to have at least one left.  It was in its yellow fall colors as I watched it fall to the ground.  It was a pleasant fall day with wispy clouds.

Virginia MatelI don’t want to end on this sorrowful note because that is not the end of the story. Among many other things, my mother left me a special legacy. Ma followed my various interests and encouraged them. All I needed to do was mention an interest in something, and soon a book appeared about it.

I have to thank my mother for all the books on dinosaurs, ecology and history. Even more important, she gave me the gift of reading itself. A well organized or impressive child I was not, but my mother had confidence in me anyway in a way that only a loving mother can. My first grade teacher put me into the slow reading group and I lived up to the low expectations. My mother complained to the school, essentially arguing that I was not as dumb as I seemed and my problem was not that the reading challenge was too great, but that it was not great enough to hold my interest. She convinced my teacher to put me into a higher reading group. Although I couldn’t meet the lower standards, I could exceed the higher ones with Ma’s help. This kind of paradox is not uncommon.  I wonder how many kids w/o mothers as good as mine were/are trapped by the gentle cruelty of low expectations. Ma saved me from all that. She just expected me to succeed. I did, by my standards at least.

Thanks Ma. I wish you could have met the grandchildren.  They would have loved you.  

Please check out what I wrote for my father's birthday at this link

November 11, 2009

Grateful Remembrance

Most of the fathers in my neighborhood were veterans of World War II or Korea. I remember them mostly as middle aged guys with short haircuts, strong forearms and thick necks. They were like everybody else in our working-class neighborhood because they were the neighborhood. 

Non-veterans were rare.  We kids just assumedVeteran's Day at Navy Memorial we would go into the military when we reached manhood.  But I grew up just at a turning point.  They stopped drafting young men the year before I turned 18.  The new volunteer military meant that fewer and fewer Americans had any experience with the military.  Many young people today don’t have any close friends or relatives with military experience.  They take their impressions from Hollywood, which exhibits a systemic negative bias toward the military these days. 

That is too bad.  Today’s military is extraordinarily impressive, but many of those who haven’t seen it up close lately are stuck in the old stereotypes. You hear the prejudice when people say that the military is full of poor people w/o other choices. In fact, the opposite is true.  75% of today’s young people are not qualified for military service because they are too fat, too weak, druggies, crooks or dropouts and studies show that the average soldiers or Marines are better in terms of education, health and general attitude than the average civilian Americans of their age.

Until not long ago when I thought of veterans, I still saw those old WWII guys I knew as a kid. There service was twenty years in the past by the time I knew them.  It was distant, almost legendary. Their sacrifices and those of their comrades were equally remote. The Vietnam vets were only a little older than I was, but that war got compartmentalized, with student protesters and hippies taking the starring roles leaving the military as supporting characters, portrayed as victims, villains or psychos.   (BTW – I think that is one reason why movies like “The Men Who Stare at Goats” or “Brothers” infuriate me so much.  I fear that Hollywood is doing to the heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan what they did to those of Vietnam.)  In both cases, they were isolated from my reality.

But on this Veterans’ Day I realize that my views of veterans have undergone a significant change.  It is not only because of my Iraq experience.  Some of it is generational.   I am now older than most veterans and many of the older veterans are nearly my contemporaries.   I am now seeing veterans not as fathers, but as sons.   That has made it more poignant and I have seen it closer.

The death that affected me most was that of PFC Aaron Ward. He was only nineteen and had been in Iraq less than two months when he was shot and killed on May 6, 2008 as he stretched his legs outside his vehicle in Hit (that is the city name).  I knew the place but I didn’t know him or anything about him until I attended the memorial service. His friends described him as a friendly guy who liked to lift weights and joke with friends. Like everyone in Iraq, he was a volunteer who had chosen to serve his country knowing that he would be deployed to a war zone.  He seems a great guy and at the same time an average guy who did the things nineteen year old guys do.  I thought of Espen and Alex and I thought of Ward’s parents. And so this Veteran’s Day and every Veterans Day until the day I die I will pause to remember Aaron Ward.

Brave men and women put their own lives on hold and their own lives at risk to protect ours.  We mourn the fallen, but we should think of our military as heroes, not victims. Most come back healthy and alive.  They bring with them the skills, discipline, maturity and experience from their service to our country defending our freedom. They serve in the military for some years. Then they serve as good citizens for the rest of their lives.  Like those veterans I remember from my Milwaukee childhood, first they defend the country and then they come back to build it and keep it healthy. They deserves the honor and respect we give them on Veterans’ Day and every day.

BTW - Please see my note from last Veterans' Day at this link. 

October 28, 2009

Time Travels

Clock in Hershey PAI used to daydream about how much better life would be if could go back in time with the knowledge I have now and make changes.  Used to.  My daydreaming was cut short by the anxiety about what I would lose. I couldn’t go back any farther than January 1991, for example.  Otherwise Espen wouldn’t be born.  Nothing could make up for that loss.  But even stipulating that would not be a factor, it still is problematic. 

The dangers & unintended consequences of using foreknowledge to change the future have been a part of literature since there has been literature.   It captures the human imagination, usually with the ironic twist that the very attempt to change the future is the catalyst that brings about the predicted outcome.

The farther back you go, the more small changes would have big and unexpected consequences.  There is no such thing as destiny.  Things did not have to develop the way they did in the past and the farther back you go the more leverage you would have, but you could never guarantee a better outcome.

It is probably a good thing that we fallible and conflicted humans cannot travel in time. But we can benefit from imagining the possibilities. Analyzing alternative possibilities in the past can allow us to make better decisions about the future. Thinking about what might have been is not a fruitless pastime for dreamers as long as you keep it in its place.

I found imaginary time travel a more useful tool after I stopped daydreaming about the real past and started to think about the present and near future in the past tense. It is easier to think backward than forward. I believe I have avoided some regrets this way. I decided to be less career oriented and devote less time to work way back in 1998. I got more time with the family and – unexpectedly – better at my job.  Proper work-life balance makes you more effective all around.   A few years ago I used a similar analysis to decide to buy the forest land. It turned out to be a great decision from the personal fulfillment point of view and not a bad one from the investment angle, at least compared with stocks in recent years.   

Bridge at Maxwell AFB 

Now I am trying to analyze a retirement decision. This is not the first time I have thought about this.  I planned to stay in only seven years when I joined the FS, but they always gave me something fun to do before I could organize myself to move on. I have been eligible to retire since my birthday in 2005. Of course, I couldn’t retire and just not work. I could retire with the FS pension and do something else; there are some enterprises I might try before I get too old.  But the present intrudes in the future.  I still have two boys in college and there is always a risk in giving up familiar work for the promise of something new. I hated looking for a job. I don't suppose the process is much improved since I did it back in 1984. My resume has improved, but my perceived potential has declined. 

How will this decision seem looking back five or ten years?  I will probably do as I have done in the past: make it contingent on my next job.  The FS has always given me good jobs before I could organize to leave. Opportunism is a strategy, or to say it more elegantly, sometimes a series of tactical decisions becomes a strategic decision. Anyway, what I decide to do now ... or not will change the “future-past” but my method of prospective hindsight is not working very well this time.

Will continuity or change be the better choice?  Who know?  Nobody knows.  That is precisely the problem with the future, no matter how you look at it. 

October 25, 2009

The Changing Face of Hate

Martin Luther King Fountain in Montgomery 

It might be a positive sign that there are more hate groups.  This is counter intuitive, but according what I learned at at the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of active, affiliated “haters” has actually decreased while the number of groups has gone up.  That indicates a fragmentation of the hate culture.  Maybe some people are ostensibly members of several groups and not committed to any. In the 1920s, the KKK had an estimated 4 million members and was organized enough to influence politics at the state level.  Today there are fewer than 10,000 members, mostly unorganized losers. 

I didn’t know that the Klan of the 1920s recruited most of its members by its anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant stance.  In other words, they hated people like my Polish-Catholic grandparents. That probably explains why the Klan was not strong in Wisconsin.

The speaker said that 6-10,000 hate crimes are reported each year.  Most of these crimes are now aimed at Latinos and immigrants.  Ironically, some of the perpetrators are urban blacks who fear that new immigrants are taking their jobs.  This is in many ways a repeat of the anti-immigrant ideas of generations ago and is evidently the hardy perennial of problems.

We have to be very careful in the “hate crime” designation.  It is a very broad category that can range from name-calling and vandalism to actual murder.  Even in cases of actual violence, the hate motivation is slippery.  Murder is always a crime of hate, whether or not those involved are ethnically similar.  And as in any broad distribution, the very serious instances get the most attention but are very rare.    In a classic case of vividness bias; we more easily recall extreme events and our imaginations turn to frightful images when we may have merely a more comprehensive definition or reporting.

Pictures on the wall at Southern Poverty Law Center 

It was much more dangerous in the past to stand up for civil rights in America than it is today and the Institute documented the history of the struggle, especially during the 1950s and 1960s.  There was a memorial listing the names of the forty people killed during those decades.   Alabama was in many ways the center of the struggle and the struggle was much more black and white and not only in terms of race.  When Martin Luther King led boycotts and marches, he was asking only for dignity that most of us agree that all humans deserve.  He was success precisely for this reason.   He appealed to the humanity, virtue and fundamental goodness of his opponents.  Some willing to use firehouses, dogs and worse against protesters, but most suffered pangs of morality.  Almost everybody could agree about what was right and wrong.

Non-violent methods work less well against jihadists or dictators willing or even eager to kill hundreds or thousands of innocent people to make their points and maintain themselves in power.  In Rwanda, Bosnia, Congo or the unfortunately many other places, murder was/is done on a vast scale and individual voices are silenced before they can be heard, sometimes even when they are heard - and murders are seen in the media - as in the recent case of the Iranian elections the regime rolls on. That is the fundamental dilemma of pacifism.  It requires a fundamentally decent society in order to work. 

It has become a lot more complicated since then, which is why I think we often hearken back to those days when right and wrong were clearly defined.  Forty five years after the Civil Right legislation, it is much harder to know which side is right on debates on affirmative action, racial preferences or even – especially – immigration.  The people as the Southern Poverty institutes talked more about immigration than anything else.  Maybe it was just because of the nature of our questions, but I suspect that the direction has indeed turned.

IMO, immigration is much more nuanced and problematic as a civil rights issue.  Good people can disagree about fundamental values.  Of course, individual immigrants are entitled to civil rights and human dignity.  But the act of immigration is not a right and an immigrant who enters the country illegally has committed a crime, no matter what we consider the motivations. A country is also entitled to design its immigration laws as it sees fit. 

I am generally in favor of immigration, since it strengthens the diversity of our country, but there are plenty of problems I do not want to import.  I don’t want immigration that encourages things like the Russian mafia, human trafficking or drugs.  Most people would agree with me on the broad direction, but some of the details of procedures and laws would work against this.  And clever reading of rules can provide “rights” to some pretty bad people in situations that good people might not have envisioned.  I would hate to see the definition of hate expanded to encompass vigorous debate about immigration.

The discussion of immigration inevitably turned to race.  Most new immigrants are non-white, but race is not a necessary dominant factor.  The focus on race indicates a lack of historical understanding or perspective. There are plenty of reasons to advocate strict immigration rules that have nothing to do with race. I remember when our rejection rate in Poland was over half and as I mentioned above the KKK disliked Polish-Catholics.  It just now happens that no European countries now have the growing populations that export people, so that is no longer an issue. The problem with immigration is that immigrants bring different values and often create economic dislocation. Most people want SOME change; not many people want comprehensive change.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to keep change manageable or even not wanting much of it at all.  America is a great country.  It makes sense to be careful when changing a good thing, since usually more things can go wrong than go right.

Frankly I don’t want my country to become more like most countries I have visited in many ways. That is not saying we should just freeze in place.  A culture that doesn't change, dies.  I like the America of 2009 better than the America of 1969 in most ways. I just want us to get the best, not the worst of what the world offers.  We don't want to just open the doors and let whoever or whatever come.  It is our right to choose. That is why I want rights to remain attached to individuals, not activities, not groups.  If you protect the people, other legitimate things follow.  It doesn’t work the other way around.

September 24, 2009

Chicago to Milwaukee

Fog in Chicago from the toll way 

In Chicago I stopped off to visit Bob McCarthy, the friend from Iraq, who is working with Marine reserve units in Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois.  Bob made my stay in Iraq a lot more comfortable and rewarding.  We had lunch at a local Lebanese restaurant in the interesting transitional neighborhood near the Marine station.  There are Hispanic immigrants mixed with more recent arrivals from the Middle East, leavened with Hassidic Jews and some recent arrivals from Eastern Europe.  I think the waitress was Russian.  Only in America.

You can see in the picture below the twin moons in Chicago.  Bald is beautiful. Bob actually could grow hair if he wanted.  Interesting shirt.  Where do you even buy something like that?

John Matel and Bob McCarthy in Chicago 

Chicago is a lot like Milwaukee, only bigger, dirtier and more crowded.   It took a long time to get out of town because of the traffic jam and a lot of construction.  I don’t think this is anything unusual for Chicago.  You have to pay toll on Chicago area highways.  It cost me more than $5 to get through.  You would think that toll roads would be better maintained than the free variety, but you would be wrong.  I guess Chicago politics needs its patronage sources.   If you look at the picture I have included, you notice the sign “Half Day Road.”  It is very descriptive, since that is about as long as it takes to get out of Chicago.   I got clean across Ohio in the time it took to creep through a few dozen miles to get out of Chicago.

Half day Road in Chicago 

I finally got to Milwaukee in early evening.  I look forward to seeing family and doing the Milwaukee things.   That means walking around the old neighborhood, running on the trails in Grant and Warnimont and eating.  I have to go to Rocky Rococo, George Webb and Cousins Subs and I need my 1960s Schlitz beer and Rippin’ Good mint cookies.

A general shortage of mint chocolate has developed.  I have been having trouble finding ordinary mint chocolate and it has always been impossible to get the Rippin’ Good mint cookies outside Wisconsin.  The mint girl scout cookies are not really an adequate substitute.  

I don’t really like the Schlitz beer that much. I drink it out of homage to the old man.  This is supposed to be the original 1960s recipe.  The old man told me that Schlitz was good until the early 1970s, when they sped up the brewing process – replaced the braumeisters with chemists, according to the Old Man - and made it inconsistent. The old man changed to Pabst and soon Schlitz went out of business, acquired by Stroh’s.   The building where for almost a century they brewed the “beer that made Milwaukee famous” is now upscale condos.

September 15, 2009

New Geography

I found a really interesting webpage today called Newgeography.   It covers many of the things I am interested in, such as land use, agriculture, urbanism etc.   I spent the evening reading the articles.

September 11, 2009


Flags on building in Roslyn VA on 9/11/2009 

People remember where they were on 9/11 (more on that below) but it is harder to remember how you felt and what you thought. At first it was just surprise and then anger.  I don’t remember exactly when we found out Osama bin Laden was behind it.  There was a lot of speculation before that.  It was considered racist to jump to the conclusion that it had been Middle Eastern terrorists, but I think most people jumped in that direction anyway. Go with the probabilities.

I wrote notes to myself that evening, so I have some documentary sources beyond fallible memory.  I wondered if this was going to be a big break with civilization, that would build to something catastrophic like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand let to World War. I understood that militarily all the countries of the Middle East combined could be defeated by a single American carrier group, but I also knew that would not be the type of conflict we faced.   Everybody thought the terrorists would hit again and there was talk about a new normal where it became routine to have terror attacks.

When I look back over the years since 9/11/2001, I am relieved. It was not nearly as bad as we feared.   We did a good job of countering the bad guys.   I know we feel a little guilty now because we treated some of bad guys harshly and nobody can say what would have happened had we been less aggressive, I have to say that we achieved a good result. I would err on the side of caution and if that means some terrorist are uncomfortable, that is just the way it is. In eight years they have been unable to hit us again.  It is not for lack of trying.  Terrorism is a disease that will never go away entirely, but it can be controlled with proper treatment.

When I think back to the crowds and how we felt on 9/11/2001, I bet anyone in the crowd would have happily held anyone responsible or even associated the attacks underwater for as long as it took to make them talk or drown them.  If fact, I bet a majority would have still held them under AFTER they talked.   Considered judgment from a position of safety is usually different from the decisions you make when you are in the fray, when your life or those of your loved ones seem in the balance, and I don’t think we really have the moral right to be too strict when judging methods unless we also can recreate the state of mind.  It is like telling someone that he used too big a caliber in stopping the attacking beast since a smaller one PROBABLY would have worked.   

But it is human nature to second guess and to want to hold someone accountable for producing a result that was not as good as it is possible to imagine.  I don’t hold with that.  IMO people should feel afraid to attack the United States; those who kill Americans should anticipate a lethal response.   And they should get it.    The 9/11 attacks came when the U.S. was ostensibly at peace.   We had just finished saving millions of Muslim lives in Kosovo. We had invaded no Middle Eastern countries.  In fact, we had liberated one (Kuwait) from a particularly brutal tyrant.  Al Qaeda had no reason to attack us, at least no reason a civilized human being would accept.  As I write, I feel the anger return even after years have passed, so let me move along before I post something too bloody minded.  

What I did on September 11

 I was in the middle of a seminar on websites at FSI (yes, even back then) when someone came into the room and said that there had been a terror attack in NYC.   We thought it was something like a suitcase in an airport, but we went out to the common area where CNN was on.   We saw the towers burning and then they just collapsed.   Somebody said that they could not have collapsed and it must just be the smoke hiding them, but it was a collapse.  By then the Pentagon had also been hit so they decided to evacuate FSI, since it also was a Federal facility.  They sent us home. I didn’t have a local home, since I was assigned to Warsaw and was on TDY in Washington from a conference.  My hotel was the Holiday Inn in Roslyn near the Potomac, so I started to walk in that direction.

People were all over the streets, mostly going the opposite direction.   Everyone was asking questions, but nobody knew any answers.   I was surprised how friendly and helpful people were. There was no shoving or fighting even though the crowds and traffic were massive. There was also no panic, which is surprising when I think about it.   When somebody would start to talk about a frightful thing, others would calm him down and say that we all just had to be calm.  It is a couple of miles from FSI to the Potomac, so I passed lots of people walking and standing on porches. Despite the tragedy, or maybe because of it, I felt a peaceful easy feeling of solidarity with my fellow Americans, even as we could hear and see all the emergency vehicles screaming toward the Pentagon.

The Holiday Inn was full of people from posts overseas, since that is where we all were staying. Some worried about paying for the unexpectedly long stay.  The Holiday Inn folks assured us that we could stay as long as we needed to.  Soon State Department guaranteed that our travel orders would be amended to account for any differences.  Those assurances were important. We all called our families to make sure they were okay and to tell them that we were fine. Actually, we tried to call.  The lines were jammed. I don’t remember when I finally got through.  Email worked, however.  I figured the my family, living in Poland, were among the safest people in the world anyway.

I walked over to the Key Bridge. You could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon. It was actually pretty against the clear blue sky. I thanked God for the brave Americans working to protect us, all those firefighters and police in New York, and those ordinary Americans who stood up to the terrorists on Flight 93 and probably saved much destruction and death in downtown Washington. 

I was stuck in DC until September 17.  If you see that Michael Moore movie where he makes a big deal about the bin Laden family getting out “early” on September 21,  know that he is full of crap (about that and everything else, BTW).  Flights to Europe resumed on or before September 17 because I was on one of them.  I had to go via Atlanta and Rome to Warsaw, but it wasn’t too hard. The planes were almost empty.  I got upgraded to business class and the seat next to me was empty. 

I got back home and back to work, sadder, a little less trusting and a lot more aware of being American in a world that seemed more dangerous.  

September 06, 2009

Presidents/Politicians CANNOT Fix the Economy

Render onto Caesar ... but don't expect government to perform miracles.  You can't always get what you want, even if everybody votes for it.  No government has been able to repeal the principles of physics, the march of time or the law of supply and demand.

Roman forum taken in February 2002 when Alex and I visited

It doesn’t matter if it is President Obama, Bush, Carter or Reagan.   I am sick of hearing the question on the Sunday morning news programs, “How is President ___ going to fix the economy.”   It just doesn’t make sense to think that any political decisions can fine tune or even quickly move something as massive and diverse as the economy.   What politics can do is create conditions that ALLOW the people to create and maintain prosperity and this is always a very long term proposition, and when we are talking about long term, it might mean decades or even generations. 

Beyond the obvious fact that presidents simply lack the power to command most of the factors in the economy, and it is a good thing, BTW, think about the time it takes to do almost anything.  To make it simple, let’s just go with an example of something government actually does control.   The roads we drive on and over which our commerce flows were laid out decades or centuries ago.  The decisions on whether to expand or maintain them, or not, were made by thousands of local jurisdictions over many years.  Quick changes are just not possible.  If you need a road in a particular place where you don’t currently have one, the president’s decision makes no difference.  If President Obama had the power to order a road built and he gave that order today, how long before you could drive on it.  Besides buying the land, laying out the plans, bringing the resources, you would have to contend with the NIMBY opposition and scores of lawyers. At best, there can be a road in five or ten years. So why do you think he can "fix" the economy with things not even in government's legitimate control?

Yesterday I wrote a post mentioning a new process for hardening wood.   This small process could create new markets for sustainably grown softwoods and maybe go a great distance in curbing deforestation in tropical forests.   This small technology improvement might have a bigger positive effect on environmental protection, specifically CO2,  than all the government rules and posturing of the past year, which still have accomplished nothing. But most people have not heard of it.  If/when it starts to work, many people will falsely associate the improvements with that climate bill that disappointingly has so far gone nowhere in the Congress.  How many other things like this are running the economy? It reminds me of that old saying in medicine, "God cures; the doctor collects the fee." 

America is much more than its government and no government can keep up with the innovations and imaginations of the people.  I am not a no-government guy.  I work for government.  I love government.  Government has an indispensable role in creating conditions for prosperity. There can be no free market w/o the rule of law.  Government creates infrastructure and sets the tone for society.  Government's must have a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence and right to wage war.  Governments can produce fine monuments.  But everything belongs in its place and there are lots of things government cannot do.

What government cannot do is manage the particulars of economics or business.  Unfortunately, it is much more fun and politically profitable for politicians to wade into management and take credit for what is happening around them largely beyond their control, than it is to do the hard work needed to create the conditions for prosperity that will only pay off years in the future.   The incentive system is just all wrong.  

I think we have a profound pro-government bias built into our study of history and into our very understanding of how things work.  It is hard to get out of the intellectual trap of thinking that political leaders actually lead in all aspects of life because it is such an ancient formula.   A leader in a small tribe makes decisions that truly do affect the daily lives of their people.  The kings in the fairy tales do too.   In the old days political leaders were also economic leaders to a much greater extent than they are today.   The state was usually the big investor that handed out patents and monopolies necessary for anybody to do business.    This changed as economies got more and more complicated and the free market made it possible for most people to do business without day to day permission from the authorities, but our thinking is way behind the times. 

Today there are so many people making so many decisions that leaders can no longer understand, let alone command, the economy, but we are remain comfortable thinking that someone is responsible, both for good and bad effects. We like heroes and villains, and we imagine them if we cannot find them in real life.

Trajan's column in Rome.  Very impressive, but consider what it actually depicts

IMO, we should take inspiration from the Biblical verse – we should render onto Caesar (the government) that which is Caesar’s; render unto God that which is God and let the people themselves sand the free market take care of everything else.   

Everything has its proper role.

President's cannot fix the economy.  We wisely have not given them this power, which they clearly cannot handle and would lead to tyranny if they seriously tried. They can only create conditions that allow the people to make prosperity.  But they do have the power to mess things up if they over reach.  It is easier to wreck than to build, easier to promise than to deliver and easier to create the appearance of success in the short term that to create a sustainable prosperity. That is why we should be very careful what we ask of politicians, since they might try to give it to us or at least might try to make it look like they have.

August 31, 2009

Happy Birthday, Daddy

Anton & Anastasia Matel, my grandparentsMy father was born on this date in 1921. I don’t really know much about him and some of what I think I know is probably wrong.   We didn’t have much contact with his side of the family.  Both his parents died before I was born.  He and his fraternal brother Joe were the youngest.  They were born twenty-two years after their oldest sister, Helen.   

On the left are my grandparents.

I was named after my father, so I am technically John Matel, Jr. John Matel Senior was born in Duluth, Minnesota.  His father, Anton,  had come over from Poland a few years before.  I don’t know when.   His mother, Anastasia, was of Polish ancestry too, but she was born in Buffalo, NY.    My father never told me much more than that, although I understand that her family was from Galicia in the Carpathian Mountains.  

I found out later that my grandfather’s family was from what is now eastern Poland: Suwalki and Mazowieckie.   I learned this from a cousin called Henrick Matel who found me in Poland.   His father was my grandfather’s brother.   His father & another brother went to France to work in coal mines there.   My grandfather made a wiser choice and went to America.   Henrick didn’t know much else.   His father had been killed in a train accident when he was only eleven.  Henrick unwisely returned to Poland after WWII, believing the communist promises that things would be good there. Young men make bad choices. 

Henrick lamented that the Polish side of the family were a bunch of drunks. Things didn’t change much in America.   Now you know as much about my father’s prehistory as I do and I suspect a little more than he did.

John Matel Sr and friends in 1940My father talked about growing up in the depression.  He kept some of the frugal habits from those times.  He used bacon grease as butter, for example and would get really upset if we threw out any food.   His childhood home was small and crowded. It was on 4th Street.  I went up there to see it.   Of course, by then it was different.   It was in a yuppified neighborhood and a small home for a single couple.   My father’s home housed eight.   Their toilet was in the basement, which has a dirt floor back then.   He told a funny story about his youth.   The family went to see “Frankenstein” and it scared my future father.   His brothers set up a dummy in the basement and the made it sit up when little Johnny went down to use the toilet.  He said he no longer needed to use the toilet.

He got a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was stationed near Superior, WI.  He planted trees and cut trails.   It gave him a lasting appreciation for forestry, which I think he passed to me.  How else can you explain a city boy so attracted to the woods?   Some of it is myth,  or just a feeling, but whenever I look at the groves of trees planted by the CCC I think of him.   They are mature forests now, but in the Dust Bowl years they were pioneers.

After getting out of the CCC, my father got a job at Medusa Cement, where he stayed his whole working life, except for the time he was in the Army Air Corps.    He was drafted into the Army soon after Pearl Harbor.   He would never tell me much about that part of his life.   I know he got seven battle stars, so was a participant in all the big action of the war in Europe.    Of course, he didn’t really have to be there for all of them.   Anywhere the planes went, he officially went.   He landed at Normandy a few days after D-day.   According to what he told me, the only time he actually got near the Germans was during the battle of the bulge, closer than he wanted.   He got a Purple Heart. 

Joe, Ted and John MatelThey had a point system for discharge from the military.  My father had a lot of points because of those battle stars & Purple Heart mentioned above, so he was among the first U.S. soldiers discharged.   He always expressed a special fondness for Chicago, where he was discharged.   Since he was among the first to come home after the victory in Europe, people were eager to welcome him and buy him drinks.

I am embarrassed to say that I don’t know exactly when he married my mother, but it was soon after the war. They told me that it took nine years before I was born. I was born in 1955, so counting back we get 1946. 

On the left are my uncle Joe (blond), Ted (tall) and my father. 

Our house in Milwaukee was full of artifact of my father’s work.  He and my mother’s father built the boiler, constructed the steps in the back and built the retaining wall, for example.   All these things worked, but they were odd.  The boiler threw most of the heat out through the sides.  That meant that the basement was very warm – the rest of the house not so much.  The steps were all uneven.  The wall leaned and the drainage holes were lined with beer cans cut out on both ends.   The evident surplus of beer cans explained much of the other things.

During my childhood, my father mostly worked.   That’s what I recall.  It was the time when they were building the Interstate freeways and there was a big demand for cement.    He regularly worked twelve hour shifts and was tired when he came home.   He drank a lot of beer, at first Schlitz, later Pabst and then Budweiser, but he never missed a day of work because of it, or for any other reason.  I don’t remember him ever taking a sick day.   Maybe he just denied sickness because he hated doctors.   He went to the doctor only once from the time he got his discharge physical out of the army in 1945 until the time he died more than fifty years later.   On that occasion, he had a cyst removed from his stomach.  The doctor forgot to sew it up.   After that, he said that the medical profession had their chance and he was not going to give them another.   When the doctors finally got their second look at him, the day he died, they couldn’t believe my sister when she told them that he didn’t take any medication besides Budweiser. 

John Matel and Virginia Haase wedding

I really didn’t get to know my father until my mother died in 1972.   He was grieving too, but he tried to make it easier for my sister and me.   He tried to cook, but wasn’t very good at it.   But my father was nothing if not stubborn. He ate what he cooked and made us eat it too.  I remember watching some bread bake in the toaster oven.   The old man asked if I thought it was ready.   Just at that point it burst into flames. 

My father dropped out of HS in the tenth grade, but he made sure I went to college.   He also got me a job at the cement company, where I got to work those twelve hour overtime shifts and make the big bucks.   At one point, they assigned me to unloading hopper cars.   I worked from noon to midnight, which was great.  I could sleep late and then meet my friends at the bars at midnight.   At the job, I got to lift very heavy tools and smack things with sledge hammers (something young men like) but in between the hard work I got time to just hang around by the river and wait for the cars to empty (something else young men like). Then I got to ride the cars to the end of the dock, applying the brakes and jumping off just before the rammed into the car in front.   I mentioned to my father that I thought this was fun.   The next day, he made sure the boss gave me the midnight till noon shift, which didn’t suit me at all.  He told me that the worst thing a young man could get was a job he liked that didn’t have a future and he was going to make sure that I would not get it.    He wanted me to stay in school and I did.  Thanks Dad.

John Matel Sr at Medusa CementI worked hopper cars during Christmas break and it was less fun, BTW.   I remember working in the evenings and looking at the temperature on the Allen Bradley clock tower.   It always seemed to be 5 below zero.   I would work as fast as I could out there by the tracks, get the cement moving and then rush into my father’s office and sit in front of the heater.   My co-worker, LC Duckworth, used to sleep in front of his own propane heater very close.   I couldn’t stand it because it let out these terrible fumes.   He had no complaints until he started his pants on fire.  We put him out w/o any lasting damage, but he never sat near that heater again..   LC was the strongest man I knew, but his ability to sleep almost any time was his unique skill.  I learned it from him.    

My father retired when he was only fifty-six. He already had thirty-six years in, since he got credit for his time in army.   I can understand why he wanted to quit.   The job was noisy, dusty and hard.  But the plus side is that he had lots of friends.   His job involved loading trucks and he knew all the drivers.  It was fun to watch.  It was a different man I met when I went with my father to work, a happy man with lots of social connections.   Retirement was a bit of a mistake, IMO. But I suppose he thought it was worth it.  At first, I think it was.   He had time to read and relax.   It deteriorated after that.

We drifted apart as parents and children often do, when we moved away.  In the FS, you are FAR away.  My father had a blind spot when it came to this career, BTW.  It was the only time I had to really disagree with him.   When I told him that I planned to take the FS test, he told me not to waste my time.   He said that such careers were “only for rich kids” and that I could never get a job like that.  Had I taken his advice, it would have been true.  I can't blame him.  It was just farther than he could see.  I think that is a big problem for the “disadvantaged”.  They hold themselves back with low expectations.

John Matel Sr with kidsI didn’t make it back in time when he died. My sister called me and I got on the next flight form Krakow. But the next flight was the next day and then I got stranded in Cincinnati. When I called to tell my sister I would be late, my cousin Luke answered and told me that my sister was at the hospital and my father had died. I figure he died as I flew over Canada.  I remember looking down at the savage beauty, the forest and the frozen lakes and thinking it was over. I don’t know if I REALLY thought that or if I have just created this memory ex-post-facto. The mind works like that.

My father never made much money, but after my mother died he spent even less. He never went anywhere, didn’t waste money on clothes and ate mostly bean soup, cabbage soup and kielbasa.  He used to talk about his stash of “cold cash.”   We didn’t think much of it. But when my sister was cleaning out the freezer, she found around $20,000.00 in $100 dollar bills, wrapped in foil like hamburger. The old man hated banks and didn’t want to have any money that would earn interest that he would have to pay taxes.  When dealing with old depression era people, it was a good idea to look around and don’t hire stranger to clean up those nooks and crannies.

According to what my sister told me, my father fell down and couldn’t get up. When asked how he was, his last words were, “I can't complain.” He used that phrase a lot and it was not surprising he would fall back on it, but it seems an appropriate thing to say at the end. Happy birthday, Daddy.   I still miss you. I hope my kids will be as lucky as I was. I can't complain.

August 29, 2009

Twenty-Seven Years

Our wedding party in 1982 - Above is our wedding party.  Chrissy and I are the ones in the middle.  Chrissy's sister Lisa and friend Jill Snugerud.  The little girl is Jill Johnson, Chrissy's niece.   On my side is my friends John Erickson and Tariq Panwar.   

Today is our anniversary.   I am not going to share emotional things on the blog, but rather just the memory.  Chrissy & I have built a life and a family.  It began twenty-seven years ago.   I could not have guessed how lucky we would be.   

Things were not looking so good in 1982.  I had just found out that I couldn’t get into the Air Force because of a misdiagnosed ulcer when I was fifteen.  In theory, I was still chronically sick, ironic since I was one of the fittest people I knew back then.  I had not taken the FS test that would end up getting me the job I have now. It would be two years before I got my MBA.  Unemployment was over 10%.   I was working for “flexi-force” sometimes. Chrissy had a part time job at First Wisconsin bank, which was a small ray of lights, but we had no assets, no prospects and a negative net worth.

We couldn’t afford much for the wedding.  Chrissy wore her mother’s dress.  I wore my best (only) suit.   Chrissy’s mother and grandmother did most of the planning.   Chrissy was very generous – and wise – to  let it be.   (All those silly ideas that the bride should get all the indulgences she wants just creates lots of Chrissy and her father at the wedding in 1982heartache and makes even nice women into those bridezillas they show on TV.)  

We got married in Holmen Lutheran Church with Pastor Evavold doing the ceremony.  A local singer called Walton Ofstedahl sang for the ceremony. He was an old farmer with a really good voice.   The thing that made it special, however, was how much he loved to sing.  We had the reception at the Moe Coulee game farm. Chrissy’s father knew the guy who owed it.  Actually, that was a great place to have a reception.  It was not just a wilderness.  They had a nice cabin with a pretty pond and picnic area and you could watch the animals wandering around.  Chrissy’s relatives and her family’s friends and neighbors brought things - including the red jello - and helped make the reception very satisfying.  It was sort of thing you might expect Garrison Keillor to talk about on the news from Lake Woebegone.  Of course, before we headed off, Chrissy and I had to pitch in to put away chairs and tables and that also made the experience memorable.

Our honeymoon was at Chrissy’s parent’s farm in Holmen, Wisconsin. They cleared out for a couple days and left the place to us.  These days you might call it "agro-tourism." We just liked it because it was free.  I remember the cows mooing waking me up in the pre-dawn twilight.  The Johnsons had switched from dairy to beef cows a couple years before, so we didn’t have to milk them and there were no other urgent chores.  Today we would say they were "free range" cows, but back then it was just that cows hung around in the fields and ate grass during the summer. You really didn't have to do much except move them around to different fields in rotation.  That's about all I knew (or know) about that.

Since the cows eat grass and there seemed to be a lot of grass, I guessed that once in the proper pasture they would just look bucolic and take care of themselves, but they evidently like their special hay for breakfast.  Chrissy informed me that they don't actually eat grass, or at least that is not their preferred food.  They like alfalfa.  Cows are more complicated than I thought. Anyway, they complain loudly when they don't get what they want, so at dawn we had to toss a few bales of whatever Chrissy's father prepared for them over the fence. The first morning I learned that hay bales don’t fly as far as you think they would when you throw them off the truck.  One landed on the barbwire fence and broke it.  Cows aren’t ferocious or eager to escape and they didn’t try to stampede out through the newly created opening, but we had to fix the fence before they aimlessly wandered off.

It is true that anyplace is great when you are with someone you love and things started to improve for us soon after.  We were lucky starting off  behind the eight ball.  You can take more satisfaction in how far you have come, but more importantly you have a lot less fear of failure after you have experienced it. I know that I could live off peanut butter, sauerkraut and potatoes (I still really like those things) if I had to and hard times really aren't so bad if you have a good partner, family and friends.  Besides, it is good to get that failure vaccination when you are young and resilient.

Twenty-seven years is half my total life.   We can probably do at least twenty-seven more.

August 24, 2009

Sustainable Health &Fitness

John Matel and his bike on August 24, 2009Alex was making fun of my workout.   He said that I didn’t work out that long, I went too fast and my form was not good. He is right.   But I explained to him that he was missing the point.  My workout is SUSTAINABLE. I have been consistently working out w/o significant breaks since I was in 7th grade that is more than forty years.  So I figure have the right to pontificate about these things.

My weight workout consists of only eleven exercises three times a week.  I use the machines at Gold’s Gym and I can do the whole thing in less than ten minutes if nobody gets in my way. Of course, somebody usually does get in the way. Some people have the obnoxious habit or resting while sitting on the machines, but that is a subject for another post. 

The exercises are balanced to let one set of muscles rest while the others work.  I don’t know what the exercises are really called, so I will just name them what I think they are.  In order they are curls on the isolation pad, complete pull down to knees, sitting bench press, sitting rowing, flies, wing pull downs, inclined bench press, pull downs, bench press, dumbbell curls, military press.  Moderation in all things is important, so I don’t push the weights up too high.  My highest weight is the bench press where I use 240lbs. I have learned NOT to push too hard or add too much. 

I think warm up and stretching are overrated. I get warm up enough riding my bike over to the gym.   I also think hydration is overrated.  I never bother to drink during workouts, even when I run or ride my bike and am out for hours.  There is time enough to drink before and after. I drink from bubblers if I find one, but otherwise I go with Coke Zero.   I sometimes put ice in the glass. I also like to eat watermelon or pineapple when I am thirsty.  And I think water is overrated.   I spent a year in Iraq hydrating with Coca-Cola, BTW.  I don’t say everybody should follow my idiosyncratic habits, but it works for me.

I have been running regularly since 1973.  I started out of necessity. I used to like to be in the woods, but the woods near Stevens Point, Wisconsin (where I was an undergraduate) were so full of mosquitoes that I had to move at a trot to avoid being eaten alive. But it wasn’t really running for workout until 1978.  That was about the time they invented decent running shoes. I had some “waffle stompers” and used to run along the lake trails in Madison or through Warnimont and Grant Parks along Lake Michigan. 

My system for running is actually time, not distance based. You have to run at least twenty minutes to get a decent workout.   When I go to a new place, I run out for twenty minutes.   Usually I walk back, which is good exercise in itself.    Now I have several variations of the run. My favorite local runs are around the Mall in DC.   But I have run in some great places. In Norway, there was a run through a place called Bygdoy. It was a mix of forest and nice farm fields with crops and good looking cattle.  The King of Norway owned the farm.   He evidently didn’t need to make a profit, so it was beautifully maintained in a traditional form.   In Poland, I used to run in Las Wolski, among some of the most magnificent beech forests I have ever seen.  As I have written on several occasions, running is more than exercise, but it IS good exercise. 

I think it is nearly impossible to be truly fit w/o running, but I bet I log more total aerobic hours on my bike.   I ride for transportation and I almost never ride just for pleasure.   But it is a pleasure to ride.   My ride to work is seventeen miles, or it was to SA 44. It is around 15 minutes less to my new office, but I still have to ride to the old SA 44 Metro stop.  I just have to finish the ride after work. I am allowed bring my bike on the Metro after 7pm, but it is way too crowded by the time it gets to Foggy Bottom.  Oh yeah, I have compromised on the riding both ways.

BTW – You see the picture of my bike and me at the top.  Notice that I don’t have those silly lycra tight shorts.  Below are storm clouds gathering over the Potomac, seen from my office window.

Storm clouds over the Potomac on August 21, 2009 

I ride to work in the morning, when it is relatively cool, but I take the Metro home.  I think this actually means I ride MORE total miles because I do it almost every day and it extends the biking season.  I don’t like to ride in the dark or the twilight.  I work until 6pm or later and it takes around 1:20 to get home, so that means that if I need to ride home my biking season doesn’t start until April and is over in early September. The one-way trip buys at least another month on both sides of the season. I also admit that I am lazy about the ride home.  I used to do both ways, but I more often found good reasons not to use the bike.  I also used to get caught in afternoon thunder showers a lot.  Now I know if it is not raining when I take off in the morning, I am probably okay.  Besides, it is mostly up hill on the way home and often against the wind.  The Metro is a good choice.

I could ramble forever, so let me get to the bottom line. Every good exercise program must include both strength and aerobic training.   To be sustainable, it must be integrated into daily life and cannot be so hard that you will avoid doing it. That means that you sometimes have to compromise.  Sometimes it is good enough.   It is great to pursue excellence, but most of those people fall off the edge before they reach middle age.  It is also good to have something you can do cheaply and by yourself. It is hard to find any activity that is less expensive than running or walking.   You have to buy a new pair of shoes maybe once a year.   Biking is also cheap. I bought my bike in 1997 for around $700.   I have replaced a few tires and tubes and I had to replace a sprocket once. I expect to have the thing for several more years, so I figure it costs less than $100 a year.  If I figure in the gas and Metro fare saved, I bet I actually made money. 

The caption on one of my old running poster says it all about exercise in general, “the victory is not always to the swiftest or the contest to the strongest.  The winner is the one who keeps running.” 

August 17, 2009

Odds & Ends and a New Office

My New Office

My new office 

We made the move.  I am in my new office now.  It is smaller than my former office but much better because it has windows that have decent views.   Although construction of the new American Institute of Peace blocks my direct view, over my shoulder is the Memorial Bridge and the Potomac, as you can see in the picture above. 

The building is in a less convenient location than old SA 44, but I figure I will adapt. It has what I need, i.e. natural sunlight, showers & a refrigerator for my Coke Zero.

Below is the construction crane across the street.  Notice the airplane.  This is on the flight path, but we don't get much noise. 

Construction on U.S. Inst of Peace 

I have a few odds and ends postings. 

Ponderosa  Pine Smell

NPR had a good article about ponderosa pine.   Listen to it at this link.   I wrote an article a while back about the smell of ponderosa pines, among other things.  I didn’t know it was such an issue.  Everybody agrees that the smell is distinctive.

Chrissy and I are going out the Arizona in November and we can spend some time in the pines in the mountains there.

Primitive Climate Change

The Economist has an article about how early human agriculture set off the first round of human influenced  global warming.   Good thing too.   W/o that shot of CO2 and methane back around 7000 years ago we may have slipped back into the ice age.   I read about this a while back, how early agriculture may have diverted the return to ice age conditions, but there is evidently now even more evidence for it.   

Our early ancestors were small in numbers and primitive in technology, but they could be very active.  Because agriculture was so much less efficient back then, they had to slash and burn a lot of land to support their small bands and all that slashing and burning put lot of greenhouse gas in the air.  Soon after, they took up rice patty farming in some parts of the world, which is a big producer of methane, a more potent gas than CO2. 

June 15, 2009

Dealing with Domestic Extremists

I have noticed that sometimes when people who don’t like each other sit down together to talk about their differences, they like each other even less.   This is also a conclusion by Cass Sunstein, although he is a little more equivocal in his statement of the situation.   I recently finished his bestselling book called Nudge, so I respect his opinion, especially when it tracks with mine. 

Sunstein’s research finds that when extremists are in groups with each other, their opinions become even more extreme and moderates are drawn to more extreme positions.   He finds that when extremists are in groups with people from the other side, their opinions also become more extreme.    People come with their ideas ready and simply mine information to support them.  

Seems a pretty bleak situation, but it makes sense.   Dialogue doesn’t always or even usually lead to reconciliation.   Look at the various groups that have been engaged in dialogue for many years w/o result.    It is like Woody Allen going to the psychotherapist.   There is a lot of talk but no change.  And yet, change does happen.   People come together.   Why?  How?

I think we underestimate the value of avoidance and denial.    In negotiations, you never want to get down to only ONE sticking point because once you get there it is just a wrestling match to see who can win.   You are better off with a broad range of interests that can be traded and modified.    The goal is to avoid the really hard decision until so much else has been accomplished that it doesn’t matter as much.  Maybe it is possible to avoid it entirely.   

This logic goes against the naive intuition expressed more or less in the statement, “If we cannot agree on the important points, what is the point of doing anything else.”   Experience, however, indicates that this is often the only way to make progress.   People become more reasonably when they have more at stake and when they are engaged over a broader, if shallower, front.

Getting to a happy result is actually hampered by too much care and respect and it can be hard to get to the broader definition w/o seeming to trivialize the “big issue.”   (Sure we disagree about religion, but can’t we agree that we both like Coca-Cola?)  Of course, one reason it is hard not to seem to be trivializing the big issue is because we are indeed trying to trivialize the big issue or at least shunt it to the margins where it won’t cause so much trouble.   You really don’t have to bring it out.

A couple decades ago, human relations were damaged by the idea of catharsis - that you had to expose and express your feelings of fear, anger or hate.   Recent studies have indicated that those who express these sorts of negative emotions just feel them stronger.   In other words, the more you express your anger the angrier you get as a person.    You are better off derailing it to the extent possible.   The same goes for a lot of problems.

I saw a documentary about the late Bart the bear.  Bart was the grizzly bear you saw in movies.  He was usually roaring.   They said that in real life he just opened his mouth.   They dubbed in the sound later, because if he really roared in anger he REALLY got angry and that is not a good thing when you are talking about a grizzly bear.   We are not so far removed from this kind of feeling ourselves.

When someone engages in actual violence and breaks the law, we have to come down on them hard and not ask about the “root cause.”   Some people just have to be removed.  But everything short of that maybe we should just lighten up.   Confront extremism with tolerance and humor, but with as little respect as possible.    Try to shunt it aside, obfuscate and dilute.   Toleration and avoidance is NOT acceptance.  The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.   The best way to neutralize extremism is not to defeat it head on but to make it irrelevant. 

June 01, 2009

The Intelligence of Crows - Odds & Ends from May 2009

Animals that Thrive with People

My observation has been that crows are the smartest birds.    This link is an interesting talk about crows and how fast they learn and adapt. 

Crows get along well because of people.  They like to live near where people live.  We try to get rid of them, but can't.    They proliferate.  The same goes for seagulls, coyotes, geese, deer, pigeons and lots of others.   We also have the invasive plant species such as multiflora rose, dandelions, paradise trees and Japanese honeysuckle. 

paradise tree growing on Johnsonmatel farm in Brodnax VA

Below is Japanese honeysuckle growing up my pine trees.  Above is paradise tree.  We have been battling them since we got the farm. 

Japanese honeysuckle on JohnsonMatel farm in Freeman VA

Plastic Poles

Plastic light pole near Carlin Spring Rd in Arlington VA

I noticed that the light post was made of plastic.   You cannot tell until you get close.  They used to be concrete or metal.  I suppose plastic has advantages.   It doesn’t rust; it is easily molded and is light weight, so it is easy to move and work with.    

I vaguely object to the use of plastic, although I really cannot think of too many good reasons. Maybe they are made of recycled garbage bags and coke bottles. 

 Big Trees

I just like the nice big oak tree.  You can tell it has grown out in the open.   They planted oak trees in Arlington in fifty or sixty years ago.  It was a good, forward looking policy.

Big oak tree in Arlington VA

John Ford

TCM is having a John Ford film festival.   I am very fond of John Ford films.     They can be corny but also inspiring.   I like the use of traditional music and the way he paints scenes. 


My favorite John Ford movies are “The Searchers,”  “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” & “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”  One of the things I like about his movies is perhaps what some others find tiresome.  He goes with similar themes and the same teams of actors.   John Wayne, Ward Bond, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson as well as a passel of others whose faces I recognize but names I don’t know.   It feels like meeting with old friends.    He also films in iconic places, such as Monument Valley.  

Daisies on the Johnsonmatel farm in Brodnax VA

Above are some daisies on the farm.  Below is a heavy rain storm outside my work.

Rain in Washington

May 05, 2009

We Shall Not Soon See Their Like Again

Chrissy’s father died today.  He was ninety-three and had a full life.  

Arnold Johnson in wwII A lot happens during a life that spans almost a century.  It is hard to imagine life on a farm in the hills of western Wisconsin in 1915.   The work was still done mostly by muscle – human and horse - and the world after dusk was lit only by fire.  Electricity wouldn’t come out to the farm until the rural electrification program during the depression.

Arnold Johnson served in Patton’s army in World War II.  He was injured in battle and spent time in a hospital in Britain. After the war he returned to the farm that had been in his father’s family since they immigrated from Norway in the middle of the 19th Century.  He married Pearl Olson and they built a life together. Seven children followed.  Chrissy was number six, born when Arnold was already forty-five.

Pearl and Arnold enjoyed the kind of life you cannot have anymore.  They grew up in the green valleys (coulees formed by glacial melt waters in an area not glaciated) of western Wisconsin among generations of friends and family.  People didn’t move as much back then.  They didn’t have the kinds of opportunities we have now, but there were compensations.  They were held in place long enough to create multigenerational communities.

Johnson Farm in Holmen Wi in 1974

I was always impressed by how many people they knew and how many people knew them.   Into his eighties Arnold would do “meals on wheels” to help the “old” members of the community.   He helped mow their lawns and make their lives easier.  Community was important.

Johnson family photo

You should not mourn for the life well led and Arnold Johnson led a good life.   He did his duty to defend his country in its time of need.  He raised cows and crops that helped feed our people and lived his long life in a green, peaceful and pleasant corner of the world.   He and Pearl raised a family of seven children.  Their hard work provided enough to launch all of them into successful adulthood.   There are now fifteen grandchildren and fourteen great-grandchildren so far.   And when he died in old age, he was loved and missed by many. 

We should all wish to accomplish so much. Arnold Johnson with tank

After they are gone, we always regret not paying closer attention to what the old folks tried to tell us.  We lament that we didn't listen as well as we should have or get to know them as well as we could have. I talked to Arnold about the history of his farm and about his experience in the war, but not enough. There are things I would like to know that are now unknowable.  Young people don’t usually ask.  It is difficult for them to appreciate the experience of the older generation until they have reached an age where they have experienced some of the same sorts of life changes. By then it is too late.  Memories fade or are lost entirely.

Arnold was the last of his generation in our family. The “greatest generation” - the one that survived the Great Depression, fought World War II and rebuilt the country after those challenges – is passing away.   We shall not soon see their like again.  Now we are the old folks. 

We may never again visit Holmen or the old farm.  That part of our lives is finished.   The kids have vague memories of Wisconsin and the memory will disappear entirely in the next generation.  Young people have a hard time understanding that old people were not always old.  They also won’t listen until it is too late.  That is just the way it goes.  Old men forget and yet all shall be forgot.

Arnold & Pearl with CJ, Alex & Espen 

April 16, 2009

Wet Protestors

Reasonable people make poor protestors.   It is just not a game they can win.   It is a lot like the one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.  Why?

Tea party tax protests in Washington DC on April 15, 2009 

I passed by a tax protest today.   They called it a “tea party”  after the famous tax protest in Boston.   On this cold and rainy day, maybe a thousand people showed up.   This is certainly enough to make a successful protest, but it wasn’t. They didn't have the usual protestor characteristics.

Let’s compare this to other protests.   I see a lot of them because of my business and living in Washington, so I consider myself a bit of an aficionado.  

Most protestors are well-behaved, but most protests have their share of semi-violent actors.    This means that the police have to show up in large numbers, shut down streets etc, which advertises the event, draws media attention and magnifies even a small protest.  I have seen protests of only a few dozen people magnified by the police and media attention into major events.    

Anti-globalist organizations are very good at this.   Small cores of activists break windows or vandalize property, drawing in the police.    They achieve their goal just by getting the police to show up.   Their best outcome, however, is for the police to hurt somebody, so radical protestors work hard to be provocative. That is how they get on the news and influence policy.  It is very hard to avoid becoming pawns in their game if your goal is to protect safety and property. Unreasonable people win this one.

The first protest I ever addressed was in Brazil when five guys showed up to protest our policy in Nicaragua.  I wouldn't let them in the Consulate, so they went outside to shout and carry on.  They stood at the corner in front of a fruit stand and a bus stop.  When they started to shout, the crowd buying fruit & waiting for the bus looked in their general direction.  At that time the journalist snapped a picture and the story said, "Hundreds Protest U.S. Policy."  I complained to the editor, but it didn't do any good.

The tax protestors were reasonable and the police knew it.  They didn’t shut down any streets.  There were not massive numbers of cops and I didn’t see any media.   If a tree falls in the woods.

Another thing a protest obviously needs is protestors, the more the better.  Think about who is likely to protest regularly.  People with jobs and responsibilities cannot take the time off, so they are generally out of the mix. Protests anywhere near a college campus benefit from a large number of young people w/o much to do and protests can be fun.   

The habitual protest must also be a generalist.  If you are interested in a few things and really take the time to understand them, you will be an “expert” but not a protestor simply because opportunities to protest in your specialty will be uncommon.   That is why a more-or-less professional class of protestors has developed.   They are generally anti-whatever and they form the core of most protests.   They are the ones who know the chants and they are the ones with all the cool props and costumes.   They know how to draw attention and how to provoke the police.  They also know how to get out of the way so that more casual protestors can get hurt.  It makes a much better story if a local “non-professional” gets pushed by the cops. 

As you can probably tell, I am not greatly enthusiastic about protests.   The right of peaceful assembly is an important right in a democracy, but there is not virtue in using it too much.    It is a tool and as with all tools it can be used for good or bad purposes.   Unfortunately, those wanting to create disruptions are much better able to use this particular tool than reasonable people.

Protestors highjack normal civil discourse.   They can intimidate and can magnify small concerns out of context, as I discuss above.  It annoys me when journalists cover protests almost to the exclusion of whatever the protestors are complaining about.  Television is especially guilty of this, because of its need for compelling pictures.   When you see those pictures, it is good to remember that you are watching a type of theatre.  You are almost never seeing the spontaneous will of the people.  It is almost always a powerful interest groups carrying out politics by other means.

Anyway, I don’t know what will come of the tax protest.  I am convinced that I will be paying higher taxes in the future and there is not much that can stop it.   Almost half of Americans hardly pay any Federal income tax at all and the lower 20% actually gets significantly more back in direct payments than they pay in taxes.   Taxes are supposed to pay for our common expenses (the ones helping us establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity).  The rich should pay more, but everybody should pay something.

April 06, 2009

International Generosity

A lot depends on how your draw the graph and the measures you use.  Statistics are often used in ways that bring the U.S. down.  For example, when we talk about CO2 emissions or military spending, the measure is usually the straight big number.   On the other hand, when we talk about things like foreign aid or investment, we usually find a measure as a % of GDP.   In the apples-to-apples comparison, the U.S. is the world’s #1 foreign aid donor and the #2 producer of CO2.  Per unit of GDP, we are a medium producer of CO2 and a low donor of official foreign aid, although we do significantly better when the total aid (private plus public) is included.

airplane flying with moon in background in Vienna Va on March 5, 2009

Consider this graph from the Economist.  The graph gives you one impression and the numbers tell another story.   As $26 billion, the U.S. accounted for almost 22% of the entire official foreign aid given world wide.   In fact the increase of U.S. aid from 2007 to 2008 was bigger than the total foreign aid given by some countries.  Sometimes size matters.

If you made a graph of actual outlays, the U.S. would be almost twice as big as the second place donor (Germany).

So I guess it depends on what sort of point you want to make.  If you are trying to make a moral point – that U.S. official aid is stingy because the U.S. could afford more, the graph in the illustration works.  If you are actually wondering how much poor people are receiving, you might want to look also at the raw numbers too, because if you had the choice between getting 90% of my salary or 1% of Bill Gates’, you should go with Bill.

The irony is that declining economic fortunes may improve the outlays as a % of GDP.   If you manage to lose half your money, you become twice as generous by this reckoning, perhaps another reason to reconsider the measurement.  

Beyond the measuring problems, there are questions about the overall effectiveness of official foreign aid.  If official foreign aid was the key to development, Tanzania would be really rich and Singapore would still be a basket case.  The WSJ ran an article today re how aid helps keep Latin America poor.  You sometimes get perverse effects from generosity.

You have to consider behavior.  Unconditionally pouring money into corrupt societies just sustains klepocracies.  U.S. foreign aid has become more effective in recent years when we started to demand reforms in return for the cash.  The Millennium Challenge Program was the best thing that ever happened to foreign aid, IMO.   But overall, the best thing the rich world can do for the poor world is to make trade easier and more transparent.   It has something to do with the old saying about giving a man a fish.

April 04, 2009

Loose Ends from March

Sometimes I come across interesting things, but there is just not enough to write a whole post re.  Here are some of them.


Self-driving Monster Tractors

Below is a giant tractor I saw on a farm on the Northern Neck.    It can drive itself.    It is equipped with a GPS, so once it learns the field it doesn’t require a driver to drive.  GPS is a fantastic technology that has gone from unbelievable science fiction to practical commonplace within a few years.   Soon I wonder if trucks and trains couldn’t drive themselves.   They would just need some kind of collision sensing systems and some of those are already available.

Big tractor that can drive itself


Green Buildings

Below is a LEED building.  It is theoretically built to good environmental standards, a “green building,” but  LEED is the elitists brand for “greenness.”     I think in the long run Green Globes will be the way to go.  I admit that I am a little annoyed with LEED.  They don’t recognize tree farm wood as ecologically sustainable and if they don’t like my forest I don’t like them.   They also tend to favor European sourced wood over North Americans supplies.  I think we should be more interested in actual environmental achievement than in the political correctness.  The narrow definition of sustainable timber also raises the cost of building.   Read more about the comparison here.  American Tree Farm System tend to be smaller land owners.  We are not so politically savvy, but we do a good job with our trees.

LEED building in Washington DC in March 2009 



Polish glassmakers were among the first settlers at Jamestown and Polish heroes like Pulaski and Kosciusko participated in our war of independence.   Kazimierz Pulaski wrote to George Washington, "I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.”  At the recommendation of Ben Franklin, Washington took him on.   Pulaski is called the father of the American cavalry.   He died of wounds he got at the battle of Savannah in 1779.  Below is his statue on Freedom Plaza near the Whitehouse.

Pulaski on Freedom Plaza in March 2009


Willard Hotel

The Willard used to be the classiest hotel in Washington.  Lincoln stayed here.   When Grant came east, he checked into the hotel.  Grant was an unassuming man and nobody really noticed when he came in, until the clerk read the name on the register. 

Willard Hotel in Washington DC.  Lincoln stayed here



This is a local small town in Maryland.  I don’t know how it is actually pronounced.  I just think it is a very funny name.

Pomonkey a small town in Maryland


Erodible Soils

Soils in tidewater Virginia are a mixed bag because they have often washed down from other places.   They are also not very stable and erosion is a constant challenge.    This picture shows some of the soil stratification.   It picture is not an example of erosion per se.    The farmer who owns the land uses this soil to make berms to protect other soils.

Erodible soils on the Northern Neck of Virginia

April 03, 2009

You Never Thank Me

One of the greatest virtues is the ability to feel genuine gratitude and the reverse is one of the most pernicious faults.   Of course, gratitude and generosity are complicated human emotions, intimately tied up with status, responsibility, guilt … in short almost everything.  

New York Av Presbyterian Church in Washington DC on March 3, 2009 

There are valid reasons not be grateful.  Generosity is often a status seeking activity.   The giver is asserting his dominance over the receiver and often trying to influence his behavior.    That is why generosity on a large scale is tricky.   Those too often on the recipient side, may come to resent and even hate their benefactors.    I read that this is even true for other primates; lower status group members are alternatively obsequious and demanding. 

Tree with lots of burls in Franklin Square in Washington DC on March 4, 2009Constantly being the one-way object of generosity is shameful if not put into the proper context of reciprocity.  In order not to be shamed, the recipient needs to believe that he will be returning some form of compensation now or in the future or that he is entitled to the largess through a legitimate social relationship.   Good families are like that and so are good friends.    Parent/child relationships are very uneven, but there is significant reciprocity and expectations of continued relationships.  

Friendships can break up when one becomes unwilling or unable to reciprocate. For example, drinking buddies usually do not keep careful score about who buys the beer, but they will notice if one of the group always keeps his hands in his pockets when his turn comes.  In long-established relationships, friends will cut each other considerable slack, but eventually the non-buyer will begin to be the object of some ridicule and will probably drift away.  Of course, if he owns a pickup truck and helps everybody move it might be a different story. Reciprocity need not be exact and it need not be immediate, but the expectation is there.  It goes the way too.  Everybody loves the big spender – at first.  But soon real friends drop away, replaced by free-loaders. 

This generosity thing is harder than it seems.

Old fashioned walk signs are becoming less common.

Generosity in the expectation of behavior is one of the hardest to understand, since both sides are often confused by the expectations.   Let’s leave aside the obvious mating rituals and take an example where the donor thinks he is being altruistic.  If I give money to a drunk, I might expect that he will try to become sober.   If I give to a mother, I expect she will help her kids and generally when I help anybody out, I expect that they will show their gratitude by helping someone else in the future, a kind of pay it forward scenario.   In all those cases, I feel perfectly justified in my expectations, but my experience in all those situations tells me that I may be the only one in the transaction who feels that way.  The recipients think you are trying to run their lives and that you think you are better than they are … and they are right.  You are implicitly telling them that you know better.   

In these cases, the recipients bear a bigger share of the blame.  They should feel grateful and at least attempt to live up to the good expectations.  But the donors need to be flexible too.  The fact that the recipients have not yet taken the needed action up till now says something.

The best “charity” is the kind that makes the recipient a valued member of society and allows him to pull his own weight.   That is the charity of mutual respect.   But it is hard to do.  In the short run, it seems insensitive and even in the long run you may not get credit for your generosity, which is what many people really want.  But it works.

I admit that I don’t always do this. There are a few bums around some places I go who I just kind of like. I don’t expect them ever to improve.  I give them money. I suppose there is a bit of reciprocity, since we sometimes talk a few minutes and they tell me their stories. I don’t usually believe most of the details, but we share the face-saving myth and we are all happier.   But this sort of generosity is not really very generous. You need reciprocity.

I had that experience on a larger scale in Iraq.    We were shoveling money out the door in terms of projects and generosity.  There was some justification for that at first, but the first thing I did when I got to the job was to make us stingier.   Projects w/o local commitment were misused and not sustainable and people are not committed to anything unless they have put something of their own into it.   What about the poor?  If they don’t have money, they have time.  They can give something.  There has to be a contribution.  At first we got complaints when we demanded reciprocity; some thought we were not being generous, but shortly after that we got respect.  We also got better quality projects and happier people working on those projects, so that we were able to respect the recipients, i.e. they earned respect.  It became much more a shared enterprise.    

Shared enterprise is a characteristic of reciprocity relationships that is usually lacking with straight up charity.  It means that we have taken enough interest in each other’s aspirations to do the due diligence required to engage in a mutually beneficial relationship and that we trust each other to honor committments. This is a whole lot better than just cutting a check.

I think these things are true. Nobody really values anything that comes w/o significant effort; nobody can really respect anybody else until he respects himself and only a person who respects himself can feel grateful to others.  Thoughlessly giving money is morally lazy and thoughtlessly taking it is a moral hazard.  A fair business relationship may well be more generous than freely giving away money.

It is sometimes better to receive than to give if doing that helps build the bonds of reciprocity and respect.  Then everybody can feel genuine gratitude for what they receive and what they give.

March 30, 2009

The Bike Trail to Work

I rode my bike into work for the first time in the season.   There was a very brisk wind from the NW, which was great, since I travel  SW and the tailwind pushed me along.   If only it could be that easy every day.   I lost a couple of week because of early daylight savings time.  I don't like to ride when it is still dark.  Only now is it getting light when I have to ride.

Cherry trees near the Tidal Basin in Washington DC on March 30, 2009

It is 17 miles from my house to work by the routes I take.   I usually enjoy the ride.   It is like a mini-journey with several distinct segments.   First I leave to complex and cross the freeway.   Then I climb a hill along narrow Shreve Road.   It is a typical suburban street.   About two miles from home, I catch the W&OD bike trail.   It follows the old railroad right of way, so it is not very hilly.  There is a big bridge across Leesburg Pike, but then you go down a segment punctuated each block by city streets.  This is not so good, because you really cannot safely get up speed.   After crossing Lee Highway, you come to the next segment.  

This is the part you can fly.   It is gently downhill, well-paved bike trail next to Route 66.  It goes under the streets, so you don’t have to stop for a couple miles.   It is a pretty ride with Four-Mile Run on the right side.   Beavers dammed the creek a few years ago until local authorities persuaded them to leave.  There are lots of flowering trees, especially crape myrtle and oak and poplar forests.  The trail goes through some crowded neighborhoods, but you cannot tell.  

Bike/running/walking trails on old railroads are good.  They form long narrow parks that provide passages and a lot of accessible green space.   It is a matter of geometry.   A square park is compact with little surface area to intersect with neighborhoods.   In some places, the W&OD park is only about 100 yards wide, but the green impacts lots of space and the acreage goes a lot farther. 

You pass under Wilson Boulevard along the creek.   It doesn't take much rain to make the creek rise and flood because there is so much hard pavement and rooftops in the watershed.   One time I was riding home during a thunderstorm and almost got swept away by the creek.  I saw that the path was flooded, but I figured it was shallow enough to muscle through.   I got a head of speed and hit water higher than my waste. I had to get off the bike and pull it out.   After that, I was a little more circumspect around the creek.    It is very unstable.  

Forsythia bushes near Jefferson Memorial on March 30, 2009

Right after Wilson Boulevard you come up a little hill and go down some city streets to Carlin Spring Road, then down some more little streets past Glebe Road into Arlington neighborhoods.   They are very pleasant.   I have to track north, a little out of the way to catch Clarendon Boulevard.   I used to be able to go down Pershing and through Fort Meyer, but since 9/11 you can't pass through the fort.   Clarendon has a bike trial on the street.  You feel a little safer, but not much, since you still share the road with cars and trucks, many of which consider bikes a nuisance that don't belong on the roads.   I cut across Hwy 50 at Rhodes Av and head toward the Iwo Jima memorial, then downhill along Arlington Cemetery and across Memorial Bridge into Washington.  

Marine Memorial in Arlington VA on a brisk and blustery morning,  March 30, 2009

Usually I then go past the Lincoln Memorial, along the reflecting pond to the Washington Memorial and then along the Smithsonian Mall  to work. Today, however, I cut south along the Potomac to the Jefferson Memorial to see the cherry blossoms.  They are a little behind this year.  Its been cooler than usual, but a couple of warm days will get them back on track.  

Anyway, it is a nice ride with good variety.   I know I have provided too many details, but I feel very much attached to my bike trails.  I have been riding variations of this trail on this bike (I have put thousands of miles on this bike)  since 1997 and some of the closer in sections since 1985, when I lived in Clarendon.   One of the things I like best about living in Washington is that an ordinary ride to work can be such an adventure.

March 27, 2009

Working for the Go’mint

People are breaking down the doors trying to get jobs for the Federal government.   In these inconsistent economic times, the promise of steady work and a good pension trump dreams of riches. 

US Captiol on March 22, 2009

My original plan when I joined the FS was to stay in for about seven years and then start a different career.   It didn’t work out that way.  When my seventh anniversary came, I was in Norway in a great job.   Then I was in Krakow.   Who would ever want to leave a job in Krakow?  Then Warsaw, Fletcher School, it was always something good.  The only time I was really unhappy with the job was brief time when I was doing shift work in the Operations Center 1997-8, but I was only there for nine months and they sent me to Poland for three of those months to work on NATO expansion issues, so I never got around to sending my resume around.  

You have to look at the totality of life that goes with a career, not just the job alone.   As an FSO, I get to travel, meet interesting people, work with a variety of ideas and serve my country.   I am not being facetious when I say that I had the opportunity to go to Iraq and the privilege to live with Marines.  Few jobs offer that sort of adventure to a man north of fifty years old.

US Treasury building in Washington on March26, 2009

State Department has long been a popular place to work and the FS never has any trouble recruiting good people.   BTW – it is a good time to be looking for a job as an FSO.   They are hiring a lot this year.  This year, however, people government jobs are popular across the board.   I have mixed feelings about that.  It depends on why you want to work for the USG.  There is a special responsibly when you work for your Uncle Sam.   Government jobs should be callings, not refuges. 

I am glad that we have so many good people who want to work in the USG.  I welcome them in the FS - follow this link.  But we don’t want too much of a good thing.   America has been an exceptional country ever since our revolution and even before.  There are other models.  France has followed a different, more directed, strategy since its revolution, for example.  France is a great and beautiful country, but I prefer America.  

In France, the best students dream of getting secure jobs in the government. Young Americans have always had visions of being entrepreneurs or running businesses. I am delighted to have enthusiastic and smart young people eager to work with us and they are coming at just the right time.  We will face a wave of retirements in the next five years.  We will need them in the FS to accomplish our mission. But I hope they are doing it for the right reasons (because they want to do good service not just for security) and I hope that soon young Americans will recover their confidence in the economy and themselves.  I hope that some of them will still want to work with us, but maybe not so many.

March 26, 2009

Survival of the Fittest

I have been reading a book called Survival of the Sickest, about how seemingly deadly genetic factors can be explained.  For example, genes for a potentially deadly genetic condition called hemochromatosis helped protect people from the Black Death in the middle ages.  

Below is a mural at the 21st Street entrance at State Department,

Mural at 21st Street Entrance of the US Deptartment of State.

A that really matters for the genes is whether or not you can reproduce, so adaptations that help you do that will be maintained even if they have downsides.  This is especially true of traits that appear in later life.   Throughout most of human history, people rarely lived beyond around thirty-five years old, so anything that happened after that age just didn’t matter. Usually you just had to make it into your early teens in those days to send your genes into the next generation. That explains why a lot of deadly conditions are manifest in later life.  (BTW – It is not survival of the fittest with regard to being strong and good.  Evolutionary fitness just means you succeed in reproducing.  In this respect, the Ocomom has us all beat.)

The book also goes into the interaction between genes and environment and choices.  In that respect, I read a very interesting article today in NYT called “Mugged by our Genes.”  It seems a lot of genetic factors are manifest more in later life.   This doesn’t make much sense at first, since your body and brain are finished developing by the time you are twenty-one.    What is important here is choice.  Many personality traits are genetically influenced and we make choices based on these traits.   A person with a risk taking personality may have chosen a lifestyle that exposes him to more dangers, so is more likely to be injured etc. 

Science sure has changed since I was in school.  Back then if you talked about genetics having a role in society you were shut down by your professor and labeled a racist, sexist etc.  It was a generally accepted idea that people were influenced only by their environments.  As I recall, when the famous and now honored geneticist Edward O Wilson came to speak at my university in the 1970s, somebody tossed a sandwich in his general direction (who knows what that meant, but it wasn’t a sign of acceptance.)  

Wilson, BTW, studies insects and he observed that Marx was right that socialism works; he just has the wrong species (good for ants, not humans).  

Today we understand that both genes and environment play roles and it is the combination of influences that makes us human.   They influence each other to an extent that it is often impossible to separate the causality.  Another interesting book I read called Nature via Nurture explained how some genes are activated by particular environments.   The author talked about a particular gene the produce a propensity for violence that is activated by the experience of violence in childhood.  If the kid doesn’t have the gene, violence in his youth doesn’t doom him to be a violent adult. And if he has the propensity but doesn’t experience violence as a child he will not turn violent.   But in the case when the gene and violence are present, the problems come.  (I read the book three year ago so I didn’t explain this perfectly. Look at the book if you are interested in the longer version. Here is an article re.)

Anyway, we have a significant ethical dilemma and it gets worse the more we can understand and predict behavior.  A person may be violent through no fault of his own, but he still IS violent.  It is unethical to restrict someone for crimes they have not yet committed.  It is also unethical to allow someone to be hurt or killed when we have a moral certainty that it will happen. 

March 09, 2009

U Street & Black Heroes

U Street was a cultural center in the past and is so again.  It was where Duke Ellington played.  For a while it was the biggest and most prosperous black community area in the U.S.   It fell on hard times in the 1960s, but recently has bounced back. 

U Street True Reform building on March 7, 2009

My friend Victor bought a townhouse in that neighborhood about fifteen years ago.  He got a really good deal on the place, but the neighborhood wasn’t nice back then.  We went to dinner at his house one time and somebody set a car on fire a couple of houses down from his.  Victor assured us that this had never happened before and it evidently was an abandoned car.   The fire was set more out of boredom than malice.  Still, it is not something you see every day and it is an unpleasant smell.  Things are much better now. A big plus is the Green Line Metro stop.   Development follows the Metro in the suburbs and redevelopment comes to neighborhoods near city Metro stops.  

Building on U Street on March 7, 2009

At the Metro stop is the African American Civil War Monument.  It looks a little out of place.  Most civil war monuments are in the midst of fields and forests.   This one is a little cramped in the city, surrounded by streets and pavement.   There was not very much to see at the monument itself.  I walked around a couple of times, but there was a sign for a museum a couple blocks away, so I walked up there.

African American Civil War monument on February 7, 2009

The museum was worth the trip because of Hari, one of the curators.   He had an obvious love for the history and a knowledge that went along with that.   He told me that around 10% of the Union Army was made up of African Americans.   They were often employed in reconnaissance and what today we would call counter insurgency.   They protected the camps and the supply lines.  It is a crucial and very dangerous task, but one that by its nature is largely done away from the main body in relative obscurity.   You can read more re the museum at   It is worth going to see.  It covers a neglected part of our American history.  We should remember bravery and honor sacrifice.

Hari told me about a John Wells Jefferson, who was a colonel in the 8th Wisconsin Infantry, raised Wisconsin in 1861 and served primarily in the Mississippi Valley.  Jefferson was a descendent of Sally Hemmings and probably Thomas Jefferson (DNA evidence has recently indicated that Sally Hemming's children were at least related to Jefferson).  John W. Jefferson was part African American, but passed as white, according to what Hari told me.  The connection is with Chrissy's ancestor, who was with a Wisconsin regiment during the Civil War. I don't know if he was in the 8th Wisconsin.  He wrote a series of letters home.  The originals are in Norwegian (the family had immigrated from Norway to Wisconsin only a couple years before). I saw translations but I don't remember the details.  I will have to find the letters and see what I can find out.

President Obama's favorite restaurant, Ben's Chili Bowl on March 7, 2009

I also saw Ben’s Chili Bowl.  It has been more popular since Barack Obama went in there for a bowl of Chili.  I like chili, but there was a big crowd so I didn’t go in.  I wasn’t that hungry.  Anyway, I have to be careful with chili.  I don’t get along with the commonly used chili spice - cumin. I cannot really taste it, but it gives me awful heartburn and is better avoided.

Statue of Winfield Scott Hancock near Archives in Washington DC on March 7, 2009 

Above is the equestian statue of Winfield Scott Hancock, one of the heroes of Gettysburg.

March 06, 2009

The Mall

Not many people know the National Mall area better than I do.  During the winter, I get off the Metro at Smithsonian and walk across the Mall every workday.   When I commute by bike in the summer, I ride along the Mall.   When I run during lunch breaks, I run on the Mall and if I when I have time I walk from SA 44 along across the Mall to Main State.  

Today I got off at Federal Triangle.  It was a longer walk to work, but it is a nice walk.  I like the mornings because I have the place mostly to myself.  I also like the afternoons when it is crowded with people.  It is nice most of the time.

I have posted dozens of Mall pictures on this blog, so please look through the files if you want to see more.  Below are the branches of an elm tree.  Notice the buds are swelling.  Spring is on the way.  

Early spring buds on elm tree on National Mall on March 6, 2009 

There are always complaints that the Mall is getting a little scruffy.    This is nothing new and it is part of the charm.   Our National Mall is … OUR national Mall.  On warm afternoons it fills with citizens enjoying their capital’s front yard.   People play football or Frisbee on the grass.  They walk between the Smithsonian buildings.  There are various exhibitions set up along the Mall paths during the warm seasons.  Thousands of us crowd the Mall on the 4th of July.  Millions of Americans watched the President’s inauguration.  People think of it as their own and it is.  Of course, all this is hard on the grass and it makes the place a little scruffy.

Below - I am reading lots of complaints that the crowds at the Obama inauguration killed the grass on the Mall.  It is damaged, but not dead.  I have seen it worse.   It will be back, as usual.

Greening grass on the National Mall on March 6, 2009

Scruffy is a point of pride for me and beauty.  Each of the bare spots is an indication of use.   The Smithsonian staff does a great job of keeping the grass reasonably healthy.   They rotate the fields to give grass a chance to recover.   And the fields are diverse; they have their share of clover and other “weeds”.   The Mall is not home to that chemically produced living Astroturf we too often see in our verdant manicured suburban lawns.

Recovering grass on National Mall on March 6, 2009

Above - this is how the rotate and manage the grass.  There is always a section closed off.  The grass there gets a rest.   Then they move the fence to protect a different place.  The grass on the Mall gets trampled every year, more during years with big events or inaugurations.   It grows back.   

This link has information about proposed restoration and improvements on the Mall.  It also shows the proposed location for the Martin Luther King Monument and other changes.

BTW - the bees are back.   A couple of years ago we were worried that honeybees were disappearing for mysterious reasons.  The reasons are not really mysterious.  Read about it at this link. The bees are back in town    


March 05, 2009

Gender Wage Gap

The Economist magazine features an article about how much less women make.  In the EU, men make still 17.4% more than women and this is after 50 years of strenuous social-democratic effort to equalize outcomes. There is always a lot of gnashing of teeth on this subject.  The gap persists all around the world – America’s gap is above the EU average and about the same as Germany or UK - and everybody infers discrimination.   I don’t know if that explains the difference.   

Gender gap chart from Economist magazineFirms will move their operations to other cities, across state lines and even to foreign countries to save some money on labor costs.  The cost of labor is usually the highest cost of doing business.  Imagine if you can get the same amount of work for 10, 20 or even 30% less. 

We have to assume that firms that have more women must be more profitable if women are indeed paid less for the same work.

In Estonia, they pay women more than 30% less.  If firms in Estonia can get the same work done for 30% less, I wonder why they don't hire only women and I wonder why companies from all over Europe don’t move to Estonia and hire these wonderfully economical Estonian women so that they too can profit from the low labor costs. 

Could it really be that business owners all over the world are just too dumb to take advantage of this wage differential?  Or maybe they are just not interested in making money or they are not greedy enough to pick up a 17.4% profit opportunity that is dropped in front of them.  

Maybe the astonishing statistics are misleading. 

Choice makes a difference.  I read that men suffer 92% of the workplace fatalities.  That is a frightening statistic, but it has little to do with discrimination and a lot to do with choice of jobs & lifestyles.  Choice explains more things than we like to admit.  (The most dangerous occupation, BTW, is good old forestry.  Look on page 15 of that report linked just above.) 

Forestry machine at work near Portland Oregon October 2008Doing different things produces different outcomes.  This simple self-evident truth seems to offend some people these days.  Maybe it is too simple.  They prefer complexity.  It provides more places to hide, more excuses for screwing up, more opportunities to blame others.

Iraq, forestry and I ride my bike to work in Washington traffic.  Maybe I should rethink my choices … naaah. Besides, office work is the safest of all occupations and that is what I do most.  It evens out in the long run and in the long run we are all dead anyway. 

Above is a tree cutting machine at work in the woods near Portland Oregon.  I saw it when I was there for the foresty convention in October 2008.  The machines make it safer for the workers.  Few things are more dangerous than cutting in thick timber with a chain saw.  The branches of the trees are laced together a long way up.  The big danger comes from snagged branches falling down and landing on the poor guys down below.  Even small branches fall hard when they fall 100 feet. They call them "widow makers."

February 28, 2009

Diversions Feb 28

Below is a view of the buildings looking toward Dunn Loring Metro. It is not much to see, but growing.  The building the the front is a big post office.  You get very good service there.

Merrifield looking north toward Dunn Loring Metro

Below is public storage.  We have a lot of those things around here.   People have too much stuff.  If you can't fit your stuff in your own house, you have too much stuff.  Of course some storage is for people who are moving, but not that much.

public storage building on Gallows Rd Merrifield on February 23

trampled vegetation near Smithsonian on February 22, 2009

Above - the crowds at the Obama inauguration trampled much of the vegetation around the Mall.  I suppose it will recover.  Most of the plants were dormant during the winter anyway.

Open area at intersection of Gallows and Lee HWY on February 22, 2009

Above - the road widening/renewal project has flattened much of the territory, making it look almost like a new development area.  Newer, taller buildings will eventually rise from the rubble.

Below is the fast food court at Gallows Rd and Arlington Bvd.  It features Pizza Uno, Wendy's, Sweetwater, Panda Express and some others.  It would be okay except for the impervious pavement for the parking.

Fast food court in Merrifield on February 22, 2009

Below is the construction on Gallows north of my house.  It is making progress.

New building on Gallow Road on February 22, 2009

February 23, 2009


I got a Facebook page mostly because of my job.  Really.  The only way to understand web 2.0 is to be part of it.  That is why I started to blog a couple years ago.  I spent a lot of time last week and much of last weekend figuring out Facebook.  Facebook offers a lot of the advantages of a blog or webpage, but it also features a lot of things that are both intriguing and annoying.   

George Meade Monument on Pennsylvania Av in Washington DC taken on February 22, 2009
Above is the George Meade Monument on Pennsylvania Ave in Washington.  Meade commanded Union forces at Gettysburg.  A surprising number of people think it was Grant.  I guess one guy with a full beard and a Union uniform looks like another.  Many of the officers on both sides of the Civil War knew each other because they formed the West Point social network.

You can keep contact with a lot of people with this social networking system.  The big question is does Facebook broaden your contact network or merely dilute it?   What we have here is the classic failure to communicate across the interface between human technology and our Pleistocene brains.   It is like when a giant water pipe is connected to a narrow straw.    Only so much can go through and that volume is determined by the smallest part of the system.  
Technology can connect me with many thousands of people, but I still have to know them with my brain developed for life on an environment like the Serengeti Plains, where almost nobody ever encountered more than 150 different people in the course of a lifetime and interacted regularly with only a couple dozen at most.   Even after the advent of civilization, people just didn’t get around much.  Most people lived like Hobbits; they rarely traveled farther than what they could make in round trip between dawn and dusk.   The social capacity of the human brain is the weak link.
I am in danger of collecting too many Facebook friends.   I am quickly realizing that I don’t have the energy or inclination to keep up actively with hundreds of people that I could find, so most of my group will be passive.  A thousand friends do not mean a thousand daily interactions.  This ability to find new friends is the most annoying and intriguing aspect of Facebook.  

Below are the stirrings of spring.  In a couple of weeks, the spring season will be here.  Washington is beautiful in the springtime.  

Early spring flowers near Gallows Rd in Merrifield VA on February 19, 2009
The intriguing part is the connections.   We always hear about people being connected and the interconnectivity among opinion leaders etc is the basis for public relations - the power of connections.  If we don’t have the resources to influence or even reach mass audiences, we can reach the right social nodes, we can leverage the message.  I believed this but never saw it.  On Facebook you can see how this could work very graphically.   Some people are connectors who bridge lots of diverse groups; others are members of only a few.   
The guys with the most friends may not be the one with the most connections.  Maybe he has a thousand friends, but they all live in the same town and have similar jobs. You might have a very large but essentially incestuous group.  Of course, on Facebook you are not sure if the connecting guys are really influential or if they just are non-participating members of lots of groups.    Membership is easy to attain - and fake - online.  I wonder how much a person can be connected to more than about a dozen groups, considering again our Pleistocene brains.  I also wonder about a guy who would spend enough time online working on those connections.  He would almost certainly not be very much involved in the real world and probably wouldn’t know much either if he spends all his time connecting.  The term “hollow man” leaps to mind.   Of course he is likely to have a lot of corpulence over that hollow center. 
Facebook can also teach us something about the network effect, which is when something’s value is increased by getting more users.   Usually if more people share something, they each gets smaller part than if anyone had the whole thing to himself.  In a network, they all gain.  The pie gets bigger the more people step up to the table.  Telephones are the classic example. One person with a phone had nobody to talk with.  Two are not much better, but each additional entrant makes it more and more useful – eventually indispensable. Facebook encourages the network effect when you search for friends and almost requires it when you want to do something online (such as a quiz).    Happily and probably not coincidentally this is also great advertising for Facebook.
The biggest problem with Facebook is its openness.  And I don’t mean that some people tell way too much about themselves, although that is a problem too.  The real problem is that all your friends can see each other.  Most of us like to keep some of our social life in separate spheres.  There was a Seinfeld episode where George Costanza feared that if his fiancé entered his social life, relationship George would kill independent George.  He called it worlds colliding.  It was funny, but it makes some sense.  Some relationships are appropriate for some things and not others.
Locutus of BorgMy general complaint against electronic communications is that they are beguiling.  Facebook is like that.  I spent several hours searching for friends and updating my page until I noticed that my legs were falling asleep and it was getting dark outside.  The virtual world provides too much active contact, or at least pseudo social contact.  We are all becoming like the Borg.  I think it is important to be alone sometimes. 
Or maybe individual thinking is going out of style, to be replaced by the hive consciousness.  We can all become like ants, bees or termites, beholden to the central consciousness. Those bugs do it with pheromones; we prefer electronic pulses.
Facebook is a lot like beer.  For most people, beer lubricates social interactions and they can enjoy it in moderation.  But some people abuse it sometimes and it makes them sick.  Others abuse it all the time and it makes them boozers and losers.  
BTW – I am still accepting new friends, as long as none of us are too demanding or clinging.   Don’t expect me to remember your birthday or the name of your dog and we will be okay.    My primitive brain is just not up to the task and frankly I just don’t care enough. 

February 22, 2009

Roundabout the Traffic Circles

I am not the only one who likes traffic circles or roundabouts.   One of my blog readers told me about the roundabout in his town of Monroe, Washington.    He told me that his town was the first to get a roundabout in Washington State and it took them a year to get approval from the Department of Transportation.  Now the state loves them and Washington State even has a roundabout page.    

Below is the roundabout in Monroe, Washington

Roundabout in Monroe, Washington in February 2009

Before the roundabout, traffic was snarled and tempers frayed.    After some confusion and trepidation among drivers unfamiliar with roundabout etiquette, this imported innovation evidently works like a charm. 

Below - Americans are not taught to use traffic circles.  These signs show graphically how it works.  BTW - the way it was explained to me in Europe was very easy.  Everybody yields to the traffic already in the circle.  Merge when there is an opening.

Traffic signs near roundabout in Monroe, Washington in February 2009

I saw my first roundabout when I went to the UK when I was in college.   I still remember marveling at the seamless flow of traffic.   You need a Goldilocks solution: drivers that are too aggressive or too timid can ruin the system, but traffic flows beautifully when they are just right.    I wondered why we didn’t have them in the U.S.    I figured that American drivers were just too ornery.     I am glad to find out that I was wrong.

Traffic circle in Arlington VA on February 22, 2009 

Above is a traffic circle in Arlington, VA.  The intrusive stop signs indicate that they kind of miss the point.  I think these traffic circles are meant merely to slow traffic and maybe as decorations.

Stanton Park looking toward Maryland Av on February 22, 2009

Above in Stanton Park with a statue of Nathaniel Greene, one of Washington's most reliable generals and a hero of the campaigns in the Carolinas.  Twelve streets feed into this square, so it acts sort of like a traffic circle.   If you have a traffic circle, it is nice if you can have a monument in the middle.  It gives the place a little more class.

Capitol Hill scene on February 22, 2009 

Above is Maryland Ave on Capitol Hill.  It is a nice neighborhood.  This is a good example of an urban renaissance.  Washington was not as nice 20 years ago.  It was run by a crooked mayor and full of crime and disorder and some parts had not recovered from the riots way back in 1967.  It goes to show how different things can be when they are run differently.  It would have been easy to give up; good we didn't.

Capitol Hill neighborhood looking west on February 22, 2009 

Above is the same place looking the other way (you can recognize the trees).  It is not as dark as the picture shows.  I just got a bad exposure.  But if you look a couple of blocks you can see why it was such a shame 20 years ago that this was not a great neighborhood.

February 19, 2009

Time Well Spent

I depend on the Metro to get around.  That means I have to walk a lot and I think that is just fine.   You get to know a place a lot better when you literally put your feet on the ground.  Today, for example, I had a conference at FSI and had to walk from Ballston Metro.   It takes just over a half hour and it is a nice walk through Arlington.   I have included some pictures from my various walks.

This one is not from Arlington.  Below is the statue of Jame McPherson in Washington.  McPherson commanded the Army of Tennessee during the Civil War.  He was killed at the battle of Atlanta in 1864. 

James McPherson statue in Washington taken February 2009

Below is Ballston Mall near the Metro.

Ballson Mall on February 19, 2009

Below a pedestrian passage under Rt 50 on the way to FSI.  This is a relic of an earlier time and I am surprised it stays open.   It is very convenient however.  If it were built today, it would need lots of other features and the government would pay millions of dollars for contruction.

Pedestrian passage under RT 50 in Arlington, VA taken on February 19, 2009

Below - housing in Arlington, VA

Housing in Arlington VA near RT 50 taken on February 19, 2009 

Below - New construction near Ballston.  The first picture is from February 20.  The second is from November last year.

New construction near Ballston Metro


New construction at Ballston

Below - car stack near Ballston

Car stack near Ballston on February 19, 2009

Below is the Nature Conservancy across from Ballston Metro in Arlington.  The Nature Conservancy is the best of the environmental groups, IMO.   They actually buy, restore and manage ecologically sensitive places.  Instead of just protesting or demanding something be done, they do something.

Nature Conservancy near Ballston on February 19, 2009

February 11, 2009


Below - the Holocaust Museum is designed to make inside space seem like outside space.  You are not allowed to take pictures within the exhibits themselves.

Hall in Holocaust Museum taken February 11, 2009

The Holocaust Museum featured a well-done exhibit on Nazi propaganda.  I had seen many of the things in books, but I learned from walking through it. It is comforting to consign Nazis to the past, call them a discontinuity or an aberration, but that kind of thinking doesn’t help us understand.  In those days most of the world was run by some stripe of dictator.  Whether they called themselves communists, fascists, nationalists or something else, none of them believed that individuals could or should be allowed to make choices. They manipulated the masses with powerful and pervasive propaganda.  Regrettably, propaganda, braced by state coercive power, did the job.   

The old fashioned propaganda grates on our modern ears and eyes.  We have become largely immune to that presentation style.  Besides, Nazi propaganda was a vast web of deception inseparable from the coercive power of state and its time.  Posters, music and media were just the outward manifestations and today are just artifacts.  But remember the immense damage they did and take them seriously.

Nazism was based on big lies.   The one we often overlook is their claim of victimhood. Maybe the paradox of being simultaneously a victim and a perpetrator is too much for us to handle.  They claimed they were victims of Jews, the democratic great powers, plutocratic capitalists, traitorous socialists, just bad luck and the Treaty of Versailles.   

Outside of propaganda exhibit at Holocaust Museum in Washington DC taken on February 11, 2009

There was some truth.  The Treaty of Versailles ending WWI was unjust and unworkable.  John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1919 that it would result in economic collapse. Ten years later he was right. Germany in general and Hitler in particular played on latent feelings of guilt in the allied populations. Leaders who appeased Hitler in the 1930s did so both out of fecklessness and their own lack of confidence that they were right.  Hitler covered his aggression with the cloak of the victim.  It was a subtle but effective propaganda victory. The idea that they were just “getting back” what was theirs was strong and influenced decisions until 1939.  Truly effective propaganda sets the frame so that the players are not consciously aware of the manipulation. This is a lesson we can keep.  

Germany had valid complaints about the Versailles Treaty, but it was a non-sequiter to say that only they had a right to dictate the solution.   

The exhibition ends in the present with a picture of Iranian president Ahmadinejad. It is pretty hard to figure out what that guy is trying to say ... or maybe not.  Hitler was clear about his plans, but ordinary people couldn’t believe that he really meant it.  They rationalized and made excuses.  Propaganda has modernized since then, but some things don't change too much.

Some things are just beyond understanding but we still have to try because these things didn't end in 1945.   Exhibits like this are good for focusing thought.      

February 09, 2009

Internet Steals Memory

People in pre-literate societies had phenomenal memories.  Great epics like the Iliad & the Odyssey started off as oral stories.   While details were dropped or enhanced over time, storytellers could repeat from memory tales that cover hundreds of pages of modern print.  


Literacy is a foundation of civilization.  One of the reasons is that it enhances and replaces physical human memory.    It allows for accurate communication over distance and time and prevents the loss of knowledge and collective experience.  It also means that individuals no longer need to remember details when they can consult an easily available written source.  They no longer need to learn them at all when they can easily consult the collective memory. The analogy of memory to muscle is imperfect, but Hippocrates’ old dictum still applies, “That which is used develops; that which is not used wastes away.”   Everything else being equal, a man with a notebook and pencil is still better off than the man who has to rely only on his great memory, but we pay an atrophy price for leaning on the memory crutch.   

Computers and the Internet turbo-charge access to the collective memory. Much of the accumulated knowledge of humanity is available in seconds at the cost of a few key strokes.   That is why I love the Internet.   (I feel a tinge of regret that my treasured for reference sources have become mostly dusty decorations, and  I still appreciate the cultural and tactile pleasure of actually a book, but I fear that the last “people of the book” generation has already been born.)  Internet magnifies my memory, but it also changes it. 

My memory used to be better and I don’t chalk up the entire decline to the effects of age. Internet & computers are partly responsible.  That which is not used wastes away and if you know you don't have to use it, you often don't.  I don't have to exercise memory as I used to because I know l I really need to remember only parts.  If I can remember part of a name and part of a story, that is good enough.  Internet will do the rest.   A good example is the quotation from Hippocrates above. I remembered that the quote existed. I thought it was from Hippocrates. Google found it.  

My memory used to be imperfect but it was organized mostly in complete stories associated with names, places and often dates in ways that made sense.  My computer assisted memory is unorganized and random.   I rely on external organization power of software to put what I know in order. Search engines assemble it for me, and I have mixed feelings about that. Computer power enhances but devalues intellectual muscle in the same way power equipment enhances but devalues physical muscle. It is an equalizer.  

Being a strong man used to be a determining advantage working on a farm or building a house.   I can still remember a time when truck drivers had powerful forearms from wrestling the wheels of the big rigs or when you knew that a man was a farmer by shaking hands with him.  Today just about anybody can aspire to these jobs. Lack of physical strength is no longer a barrier.   

Will the same thing happen with intelligence?  It is happening already. I am a beneficiary. I could handle the higher level math required for my MBA only because calculators and computers largely eliminated the need for actual calculation. My statistics professor was sad that all her years of training doing regression equations by hand had been made redundant by cheap calculators that could be wielded by anybody with a couple minutes instruction.

All things considered, the price is worth paying. You are reading something right now that could not exist ten years ago, and not only because of the obvious internet as a medium. I write something for my blog almost every day. Many of the entries are recounting of my experiences, but some are mini-essays.  I can write, edit and post an entry in less than an hour.  This is only possible because of technology.   My digital camera provides the illustrations.  Everything I do would have taken me a lot more time and probably required added help. Microsoft Word replaces someone who would read and correct my grammar and spelling.   The digital camera replaces the photo developer. Easy upload takes the place of printers.  The Internet delivers it and provides takes the place of researchers who would have to dig through card catalogues and dusty stacks to give me what Google does in seconds.  Ain’t technology wonderful?

Most things are better remembered than they were lived.  My memory probably was never as good as I remember it being anyway.

February 05, 2009

Walking to Wilson

Below is the Monument to the Second Army Division.  It stands near the White House.  It was originally set up in memory of WWI dead, but later added battles from WWII and Korea.  I walked past this many times, but this is the first time I stopped to look closely.

Memorial to Second Army Division in Washington taken on February 4, 2009

I started at my normal office and then took the shuttle to HST and transferred to go to NFATC, where I talked to the group going to Iraq.   I wonder how much my advice is worth.  Things change so quickly in Iraq and our footprint is so different now.   But I told them what I knew.    I caught the shuttle back to HST in time just to miss the shuttle to SA44.   Just as well.  I wanted to go to the Wilson Center to see a speaker on worldwide water resources, so I walked over to the Ronald Reagan Building, where Wilson Center is located.  It seems to me that water resources and environment will be big issues in the next few years.   One of the things I like most about Washington is that there are so many opportunities to learn new things.  I will write some notes about what I learned when I get a little more information and context.

Below is an exhibit re Woodrow Wilson at the Wilson Center.  Wilson was our only president with a PhD.  He valued study and the development of ideas.  The Wilson Center for scholars is his living legacy.  Scholars there share their ideas with each other and the public (like me).  They also publish "The Wilson Quarterly".

Exhibit at Wilson Center

The Wilson Center is almost midway between State and SA 44, so after the lecture I walked back to my office.  It was cold and I had to stay late to finish the day's work, but I liked the lecture, the walk gave me time to think and I got some pictures.  

Atrium at Ronald Reagan Building

Above is the inside atrium of the Ronald Reagan Building.  Below workmen are putting up a profile of President Reagan. 

Reagan profile at Ronald Reagan building taken on February 4, 2009

Below is a statue of Simon Bolivar near the Mall and near the OAS.  

Simon Bolivar Statue in Washington taken on February 4, 2009.  

Below is Nathan Hale.  He scouted British positions for General Washington and was executed by the British after they captured him.  They didn't have the ACLU in those days.  His last words were "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country." 

Nathan Hale statue in Washington DC taken February 4, 2009

Below is salt on the street.  It seem like when it snows in Washington, it rains salt.  You can see how much this salt was not needed.  They are too quick with the salt around here and the effort is not a virtue. All that salt eventually finds its way into the Potomac and then pollutes the Chesapeake Bay.  The lecture I listened to on water made me notice this. The costs of doing these things is high, but environmental costs are hard to quantify, while people sliding on the streets are easy to see.  Too bad.  Many people claim to be concerned about the environment, but then they complain or sue when they are inconvenienced or slip on the pavement.   The Chesapeake is worth a few bent fenders, maybe even some broken bones or at least the risk of these mishaps.

Salt on Washington street taken on February 4, 2009 

February 04, 2009

Mean Streets Softening

Below are apartments in Washington SW.  They are an early example of slum clearance, rebuilding and low income housing.  According to the sign nearby, they were built during the 1930s.  I like the neigborhood; it is a great location with lots of nice trees and open space.  They are now being converted to condos, probably expensive ones.  So there will be these expensive places - newly affluent former low income housing, amidst the current low income housing. 

Low income housing in Washington SW, now being converted to condos.  Picture taken February 3, 2009

Everything gets its cable television marathon sooner or later.   AMC recently featured a “Death Wish” marathon with a couple “Dirty Harry” movies thrown in.  These movies were wildly popular.  They made Charles Bronson famous and inspired spin offs.  The movies really were not very good and the premises were ridiculous (like most action movies).  They were popular because they caught a cultural wave and connected with ordinary people's fears and anger.  They were made at a time when societal norms were breaking down and crime was spiking up.   It seemed like the cops could do nothing and that the crooks could get away with anything.  If the cops did manage to make an arrest, weak minded judges would let them out, citing the need to go after the “root causes” of crime.

Below is vandalism.  Somebody put a lot of effort into pulling these benches apart.  As I wrote in the earlier caption, this is a nice neighborhood, but some of the neighbors are not well behaved.

Vandalized benches in Washington SW, picture taken February 3, 2009

Crime rates started to come down around 1990.  Nobody can really explain it and there are certainly multiple causes, but an important factor was the prominence of the broken window theory.  If you look at the pictures above, you can see how a few acts of disorder can make a whole area feel unsafe.  

You can read the link if you want details.   Generally, the idea is that disorder causes crime.  If you want to cut big crime, you go after the little disorders.    The most important root cause of crime is crime itself and the disorder it engenders.    People who live disorderly lives usually end up poor and sometimes criminal but it is very hard to live an orderly life when you are surrounded by disorder and indifference.

Below is the progress of the construction.  I have taken pictures of this before at earlier stages.  I think it will be done by summer.

New construction in Washington SW taken on February 3, 2009

Attitude plays a big role in almost any human endeavor.   I think that sometimes we lose the conviction that we have a right to impose order and when that happens disorder ensues.    Being judgmental is unfashionable, but the ability to make reasonable distinctions is the mark of intelligence.   The broken windows theory wasn’t a panacea, but it provided a base on which we could again make reasonable judgments.    We could say with renewed conviction that some of the petty crime and antisocial behaviors were not okay.    The subsequent success of welfare reform, which works from some of the same assumptions, helped win the intellectual battle.   We still have some rear guard “root causes first” folks, although decision makers tend to listen to them indulgently and even talk their talk,  they usually reject their practical advice.   Our streets are safer and more pleasant and that is worth a lot.

Below - you can see the neighborhood has some attractions and good location.  This is Delaware AV SW looking northeast. The new cars indicate the coming prosperity.  The progress is regrettable in some ways.  The poor people who live in the public housing enjoy the good location.  They will be displaced by the improvements as their neighborhood moves farther upscale and high rent than they can afford.

Looking at the Capitol from Washington SW taken on February 3, 2009

I don’t think we will ever get back to the low crime rates of the 1950s.  Populations were not as mobile back then and it was easier to isolate, localize and control crime. * But there has been a lot of progress since the 1970s.   I walk all around Washington in places that I would have feared to tread twenty years ago.   The neighborhoods in the pictures is a good example.  Even nice neighborhoods like Capitol Hill just up from here used to be dangerous after sundown.   Today you can even go up to U Street at night.  It is lively and a little sleazy, but certainly not the fearful war zone I remember inadvertently wandering into twenty years ago.  Back in 1985 when I first visited Baltimore they warned you not to stray too far from the well protected tourist zones near the harbor and monuments.    Today I don’t worry too much about Mariza living there.

Below is a street scene in Baltimore near where Mariza lives.  The houses are nicer on the outside than inside for now.  Old buildings are hard to fix.  It is easy to put new brick on the facade, but the plumbing and wiring are nightmares. This picture is from November 2009. 

Bolton Hill neighborhood in Baltimore taken in November 2009

BTW – Profound changes often stem from prosaic causes. Crime rates spiked in the 1960s for lots of reasons.  We can blame all sorts of social breakdowns but cars and air conditioning also played  roles. Most crime is committed by young males.  If they don’t have cars, they are not very mobile.   If they rip off the local grocery store, everybody knows who they are.   The car not only makes getaways easier, it also allows them to go far enough from home where nobody knows them.   Air conditioning is a more subtle cause.   W/o air conditioning, people sit on their front porches or stoops on warm summer evenings.  Neighbors get to know each other and everybody is keeping an eye on the street.  Air conditioning isolates people within their homes with the windows closed, leaving the streets to strangers.  These things are the realities of our society today and those are two of the reasons why I don’t think crime rates will ever drop to their 1950s levels.   Of course, maybe modern surveillance technology will jump into the breach, but that is kind of scary.   

February 01, 2009

Building the Future

Below is the art in front of the Building Museum.

Representative art in front of the National Building Museum in Washington taken on January 30, 2009 

The world is better now than it was a century ago, but we have lost that sense of muscular optimism.  Pity.  You could read it in their literature and you could see it in their architecture.  I was reminded of that today when I went up to the National Building Museum.  It was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland and it has all that substantial grandeur common to buildings of that period.

Vast and imposing indoor space is the hallmark of American public buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  They are cathedrals of the Republic.

Inside National Building Museum in Washington DC taken January 30, 2009

I went to see the exhibit on green cities.  It was not that good for me, although I can see its general value.   The whole museum is set up more as a place to bring school kids to learn about these things.  I like the concept, though.  It is possible to design buildings and whole cities in ways that make them both more pleasant and more environmentally sustainable.   We are often confronted by the false choice of either destroying our world or living a Visigoth level of technology and consumption.  The correct answer is neither.  We can do better.

Interior of National Building Museum taken from the second floor on January 30, 2009

Implicit in the dilemma is the false premise that people and nature don’t mix and that the best we can do is mitigate or repair the damage we inevitably cause.  In fact, humans are an integral part of nature.  Some of our activities do indeed damage nature: others improve it.  The key goal is to make our existence sustainable for a long, as nothing lasts forever, and the premise of man v nature is not helpful.    

In the great scheme of nature, animal and plant life sets the stage for its own local destruction.  Pine trees grow so thick that they shade out their own offspring.  Grazing animals have to keep moving as they destroy the grass they need to eat.  Elephants rampage through the forests they depend on for food. Despite all the Rousseau “noble savage” fantasies, pre-industrial humans were/are that way too, i.e. very destructive.  Their populations were sustainable only because their numbers were small enough to minimize the damage.  This is the way it works in the animal world; this is how it worked with human populations.  People moved away when things got bad or they died off.  It was a Malthusian spiral never ending - that is the real circle of life - until our technology and knowledge broke us out of it. Of course, this created a different set of problems.

Below is the frieze on the National Buidling Museum.  The building was finished in 1887.  It used inexpensive materials, such as brick instead of cut stone.

Terra Cotta Frieze on the National Building Museum in Washington DC taken on January 30, 2009

We humans, alone among the animals so far, have the capacity to see the larger effects of our activities.  The game is not over. We may yet suffer the population crash that afflicts animal species when they overrun their habitat’s carrying capacity; but not today or tomorrow.   I still have that old fashioned optimism and I have seen the new fangled techniques of environmental restoration or renewal.  Things will be tough, but we will get better.

BTW – we look back on the past with some nostalgia because we know how the story came out.  It is harder to see forward than look back. We should recall past hard times.   The panic (as they called recessions in those days) of 1907 was horrible. Some people actually didn’t get enough to eat; obesity was not a problem of poverty a century ago.  The stock market lost more than 50% of its value.   In the absence of a central bank (the Federal Reserve was not established until 1913) JP Morgan stepped in to rescue the economy with a private sector bailout.  We recovered.  This panic was during the time of Theodore Roosevelt.  Most of us just remember his muscular optimism and know absolutely nothing about the panic of 1907.   That sense of historical amnesia is why our expectations are so high and why we always think we live in the worst of times.

Morgan later went in front of a congressional committee.  This is part of the exchange.

Untermyer: Is not commercial credit based primarily upon money or property?
Morgan: No, sir. The first thing is character.
Untermyer: Before money or property?
Morgan: Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it ... a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom.There is a good biography re Morgan by Ron Chenow.  I recommend it.   I also read his biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller (Titan).  They are all good books.

January 23, 2009

Cranes of the Southwest

Cranes of the Southwest

Crane on the frozen Anacostia January 21, 2009

We lived at the Oakwood temporary apartments near Waterfront Plaza in SW when I was studying Norwegian in 1988.  The area didn’t change much over the next two decades, until a few months ago. Now it is a forest of cranes and new construction is going up all over.  The crane above, BTW, is on the frozen river.

Cranes and new construction on Waterfront Mall near the Metro on January 21, 2009

A lot of the change is related to the new Metro. Development follows the Metro, even if it takes a few years, even in bad neighborhoods.   But the neighborhoods have also improved.   Back in 1988, this area was not so nice. That was the time of the crack epidemic.   During my year in Iraq, I never heard a shot fired in anger.  During my six months in SW in 1988, I heard several.   DC also had that horrible mayor back in 1988. I couldn’t understand how he could get elected and reelected, but his constituency evidently viewed honesty, law & order with less enthusiasm than I did. That Washington is just a bad memory and things are getting better.

Construction at the Arena Stage in SW Washington on January 21, 2009

SW has lots of advantages.  You could see that even in the bad old days. There are lots of parks. The waterfront is pleasant and features restaurants and shops selling the harvests of the Chesapeake and other seafood.   You are within walking distance of the Capitol and the Smithsonian museums, as well as the Library of Congress.   Now that the Green Line connects this neighborhood to the rest of the Washington Metro region, it has everything.  

Below used to be the Oakwood Apartments where we lived in 1988.  Now they are condos.

Former Oakwood Apts on 4th St SW in Washington on January 21, 2009

Places can bring back memories and this place reminds me of Alex and Mariza when they were little.  Alex was born while I was taking Norwegian and we brought him home to the Oakwood.   I remember walking with the kids over to the Waterfront Mall, the one that is now torn down and rising from the rubble.  It was a sad place back then and we didn’t go after dark, but it had a Roy Rogers, Pizza Hut & a Blimpie and it was within walking distance.   We used to walk the kids.   Alex was a happy baby and Mariza was cute.  

Below is just after dawn on the Mall.  I am taking pictures more or less from this same spot to look at the changes of seasons.

Capitol just after dawn looking east from Smithsonian taken on January 21, 2009

I was posted in Brazil when Chrissy got pregnant with Alex.  Mariza was born in Brazil, but Chrissy and Mariza were medivaced to Wisconsin for Alex’s birth.  They left in mid-January because after that time it would not be good for Chrissy to fly.  I had to finish my duties in Porto Alegre and stay until March, when they sent me to Washington for Norwegian training. I had to take annual leave and pay my own way up to Wisconsin (the FS was less into those family rights in those days). I was up there for Alex’s birth, but then had to go back to Washington to finish Norwegian.   Chrissy stayed with her parents and came down a few weeks later with the kids. Mariza was just over 2 years old.  A few weeks is a long time in the life of 2 years old and when I met them at the airport she was a little shy, but then she stood next to me and followed me around.  I remember those times fondly, but it was tough. I don’t think I could learn a language under those conditions today. 

Below shows the tough market.  A couple years ago you couldn't find a rental. 

Rental signs in Washington SW offering two months' free rent taken on January 21, 2009

I developed a system for language learning, not very original or subtle but effective.  I just memorized about ten minutes of useful generic sentences, things like comparisons (on the one hand … on the other hand) or intros (Considering the conditions five years ago …) etc.  When I would walk around or run, I would just repeat the whole story. Over & over.  Language is a physical skill.  You just have to keep saying it out loud until it is driven down into the subconscious. From the basic words and phrases, you can branch out with variations. People think you are crazy talking to yourself, but it works.  For weeks I talked to myself constantly. When I finally passed my Norwegian exam and went silent, I felt strange.  I remember running around Haines Point and noticing how lonely it was with nobody to talk to. 

January 07, 2009

Gloomy Days


Dunn Loring Metro stop, Vienna VA on a rainy day January 7, 2009 

It rained much of yesterday and today, making the walk from L’Enfant Plaza Metro to NDU less pleasant.  It is interesting to walk around SW, however.  It takes around twenty five minutes from the metro to walk to the Lincoln Hall at Ft. McNair.  SW is undergoing really big changes with lots of new construction.  The projects are moving along ahead of schedule, since the generally bad housing and building environment has freed up a lot of construction assets.

Construction near Waterfront Metro in Washington DC on January 7, 2009

SW is also improving since the new metros (such as Waterfront & Navy Yard) and the stadium have come on line.   I have never been to the stadium and probably will never go, but lots of people like sports so it improves values.  SW used to be a dangerous place to walk and there is still some crime, but less.  Washington generally has improved. 

Construction on 9th St SW in Washington DC near I 395 January 7, 2009

I am having the various routine medical exams, the ones I neglected when in Iraq.  So far, it looks good.   Blood pressure is 110/80; cholesterol is 135 (thanks to Lipitor); blood sugar is okay.   I had them check for Lyme disease, since I spend so much time in the woods.  I don’t have it.   I have the eye tests and dentists coming up, as well as that nasty test that you have to get after 50.   The dentist is the worst.  I didn’t take good care of my teeth when I was a kid and I have been paying for it ever since.  Otherwise, I don’t get sick.  My father only went to the doctor one time between when he got out of the Army in 1945 until the day he died.   I don’t go that far, but it is possible to get too much medical attention.   I think this will be about enough for a while. 

This is the gloomiest time of the year, but spring will come soon.   Besides the rain is good for the trees.   Below is a very big Japanese zelkova.  These trees look like American elms, but they are shorter, with a flaky bark.  They were used as a replacement for the elms, but now are less in favor,  as Amerian elms resistant to the Dutch elm disease are available.  The prefered variety is called the Princeton elm.  It has the traditional vase shape (some of the earlier generation of hybrids were gangly, runtish and unattractive) and grows around ninety feet tall, as a normal elm would.  You don't see those big ones very often anymore.  The next generation will have them back.  There are lots of elms planted near the Smithsonian, the White House and around the Mall.  They will be superb in around twenty-five years.

Japanese zelkova on G St SW near 9th St in Washington DC morning of January 7, 2009

Below are some young American elms at the American Indian Museum on 4th St SW.

American elm trees near American Indian Museum in Washington DC, November 25, 2008

January 05, 2009

New Tricks for Old Dogs

John Matel looking 

The New Year season is a time for reflection.  I have been thinking a lot about the new communication technologies and my job.  I know this is boring to some/most of the people reading this, and I know that I am being repetitive, but I still don’t have this sorted out in my own mind.
Decisions are easy when values and priorities are clear.  The hard part is figuring them out.  
I got along well with Internet in its early incarnations.  It fulfilled dreams of my youth.   They were nerdy dreams, I admit.  I dreamed of a comprehensive searchable data base that could answer all my questions if I posed them correctly.   We got it. I wanted easy access to the accumulated knowledge of mankind.  We got that too. I dreamed of instant communications networks to pass new ideas.  Got it. 
My dreams were myopic, just projections and amplifications of what I already knew.   But the world doesn’t stop and innovations spawn unexpected changes.  The Internet shot clean past my slow moving dreams. 

Internet revolutionized the pursuit of knowledge in mostly good ways.   You can find out almost anything you want to know and connectedness of the web is increasing scientific and practical knowledge immensely.    Knowledge and politics, however, don’t always intersect.  Metastasizing politics on the Internet has been less a good thing.  Let me clarify with an example. 
Blogs made it possible to write about your opinions and experience and easily publish it for others to read and comment.  This is just an old technique adapted to new technologies.   It is kind of the Federalist Papers on steroids; a quicker marketplace of ideas, this I like.   But it didn’t stay on that high plane very long.  The messages slid downhill and became shorter and more vitriolic.
The blogosphere and cyberspace in general experienced a kind of evolution, where selection favored the nastiest and the most extreme.  Rather than a universe of ideas, it debauched into a muliverse of pseudo-intellectual hostility.   Many of the online communities became intolerantly self-policing, driving out anybody with divergent views and in the process increasingly coarsening the rhetoric.  Too many online communities became autoerotic circles of hatred, where participants confirmed each other’s prejudices, sharpened their collective teeth, and pulled their groups farther out of the mainstream.  We often cannot persuade or be persuaded by others because we occupy completely different dimensions.  
There used to be a saying that you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. The new media has developed different fact-universes, each with its own specific sets.  This is a challenge and it gets worse. 
Now we have all the interactive systems, the Facebooks etc, Twitter as well as interactive gaming.   I just don’t know what to do with them.  I am not sure it is possible for government based public affairs (i.e. someone in my job) to use these technologies because they are so labor intensive and the messages so often intensely idiosyncratic. 
Consider the strengths and weaknesses of a government information operation.  My job is to explain the U.S. and U.S. policies to people in other countries.   In what we see in retrospect as the golden age (it didn’t seem that back then), we had certain advantages.   Most important was that government had a monopoly over some sorts of information, but there were other structural advantages.   The technologies favored the one speaker to many listeners paradigm, so a relatively small number of writers could reach a large number of readers/listeners/viewers.   Beyond that, our enemies were easy to identify and possible to count.  The Soviets produced a lot of deceitful propaganda, but we could usually find the return address if we looked hard enough. 
None of this is true anymore.  The government no longer has information dominance and is often not the first or the best source even of things about its own activities.   The information market has splintered into millions of pieces and our adversaries are harder to identify.   Essentially, we went from a situation with one big and dangerous bad guy (or a couple of them) to a world where there are thousands of little ones.   The dragon has been replaced by insects, each one inconsequential, but collectively heavier and more intractable.  And they are more quickly adaptive to changing circumstances.  You could always expect the Soviets to be slow and ponderous, not so our new adversaries.  
When it was one-to-many communications, we happy few at State or USIA had a chance to move the communication needle.   In the one-to-dozens communication environment, we just don’t have enough people and never will.   We can get the occasional “viral” hit, but not with any predictability.  
I think we still have a chance.  The Internet is starved for content.  We can produce content and/or pictures.  We can also build relationships that might leverage to larger populations.    We can succeed, but I am worried that we will not.  I am also worried that I cannot go along on this ride.   I have been in this business for a quarter century, but I am afraid I might have reached a river I cannot cross.   I have always believed that with the proper tools and permission, I could make a difference and sometimes I have succeeded.   I have not always had the means, but I always had the vision, at least I thought I did.  

My vision is now failing with the newest technologies.   I can understand how something like Twitter can be used to organize a demonstration, communicate sports scores or stock averages, or help maintain an existing social network, but I cannot figure out how we can pass the nuanced explanation of policy over these sorts of networks, nor can I see a way that government officials like me and my colleagues make ourselves trusted participants in enough social networks to make a significant impact.  I can understand the theoretical potential for online communities, but cannot stand the profound lameness of "worlds" like Second Life and I cannot figure out its wider impact.  It is a big world out there and our efforts may just be a p*ss in the ocean.  

This worries me.  I don’t know whether it cannot be done in general or if it is just ME that cannot do it.  I a have a responsibility to add value and I always promised myself that I would not hang around after I outlived my usefulness.    I don’t want to try to apply yesterday’s solutions to tomorrow’s problems.    It is funny how things come in circles.  I am having the equivalent of adolescent angst at my age. 
I guess I will figure it out, or more correctly I will find people who have figured it out to work with me.  I really don’t understand much of anything, but I have always had the good fortune to find people who do and I have been able to bring out their talents.   I add value the old fashioned way - through good people.  Maybe the old tricks still work for the old dog.  When I cannot do that anymore I will go quietly into that good night - someday, but probably not today.   I still have a lot of thinking to do.

January 01, 2009

Unity & Sweet Liberty

Capitol Washington DC July 2003 looking east 

We will never again be as united as we were in 1965.   It was a time of an unusual confluence of factors.   The older generations had the unifying experiences of the Great Depression, New Deal and World War II.   Think of what those things did.  Millions of young men and women came together in a common cause such as the CCC in the 1930s and the military in the 1940s.   Never before and never since have so many people shared such intimate similar life-changing experiences.   

US Marine Memorial Arlington VA July 2003 looking north

They and the younger generation were further tied together (homogenized) by the miracle of television.    The limited choice among TV channels ensured that large percentages of the population watched the same things at the same times.   (Not many baby boomers know words to the "Star Spangled Banner" but most can sing the theme song to "Gilligan's Island.")  America had also had successfully digested the waves of immigrations that hit our shores in the early 20th Century.  Immigration restrictions and the Great Depression had limited new immigration and so America has a smaller percentage of immigrants among its population than at any other time in its history.  Other "unity" things were also strong.  Church attendance was very high.  Most adult males had connections to the VFW.   Membership in industrial and trade unions has never been higher.  It seemed a golden age for the "ordinary guy."

American dominance of the world was unique.  We bounced out of the Depression after WWII at a time when most of the other world economies were in ruins.  At some points, the U.S. produced around half of ALL the world’s production.  Nothing like like that had ever been possible before and is unlikely to ever happen again anywhere.  It resulted from the perfect storm of industrialization, depression and war.  Communist domination of large parts of the world ensured that many places remained uncompetitive and backward for longer than necessary.   Speaking of communism, we cannot forget the Cold War.   The threat of nuclear annihilation focused the minds of those generations and facing a benighted, yet dangerous enemy together leads to shared identify.

When we look back at the two decades after WWII, we sometimes see stifling conformity and we unavoidably cast our glance forward to the divisive and challenging times to come.   But we still look l back to the lost feelings of comfort and community and imagine how we could recreate it along with today’s diversity and options for individual expression.  This is an impossible dream. 

Union Station Washington DC July 2003 

Above is Union Station in Washington DC.  Such self-concious permanence in public building is less common now.

First of all, the conditions that created the post-war unity were unique.   They cannot be recreated and nobody would advocate going through the suffering of depression, war and totalitarian threats to try to foster the preconditions.   Periods of growth following challenging ordeals are often pleasant, but you might not want to throw yourself into a pool of ice water just to feel the pleasure of warming up again.

Chrissy and the minute manBut most important is that we don’t want it.   Unity and diversity are both good things, but they are in tension.   As in those economics curves, there is a point where you can maximize both, but you do have to trade them off against each other.   We have chosen less unity than we used to want back in 1965.   This has implications.  

More choice creates more innovation and economic growth.   But making reasonable predictions about the future becomes harder.   It also complicates provision of insurance & welfare benefits, as diversity lessens trust.   In a homogenous community, people understand each other.   Homogeneous communities are also usually relatively small, so people can monitor and balance abuses.  They are reasonably certain that their social outlays are, if not well spent, at least decently targeted.  It is no coincidence that the most successful welfare states are/were in homogeneous Scandinavian countries and that they have begun to breakdown in the face of globalization and immigration of new and different people.   

Talking about a “caring” (i.e. one that takes care of you as an individual) government in a place as big and diverse as the U.S. is an oxymoron.    We gave that possibility up long ago and we should stop pretending that is what we want.  Our choices have made that impossible.   What we have demonstrated we want through the choices we have made is a government that ensures reasonable justice and the rule of law, provides for the common defense and provides options.     If you want to put this into more beautiful language you might say, “… in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity …”   it is astonishing how long that formula has remained viable.       

So in this new year when it looks like we will be asking a lot from our government, we should pause to remember that we should not ask too much, and it is not only because we should ask not what our country can do for us, but ask what we can do for our country.   Let's not grab for that remembered unity that we never can recreate or ask for guarantees of prosperity that nobody can provide.  If you give government the power to grant all your wishes, you also give it the power to take them away. It is tempting to trade liberty for security, but w/o liberty sustained security is impossible.  

Happy 2009!

December 31, 2008


Fang the Matel's first dogThe picture is our first dog, Fang.   Springer Spaniels are supposed to be gentle and he looked sweet and docile, but he wasn’t.  In those days before the dog whisperer, he was an incorrigibly bad dog.  He got increasingly out of control.  If you left him alone in the house, he would chew up whatever he could reach.  He knocked over the fish tank and scratched holes in the rugs.  He once even chewed up the metal Venetian blinds.  You would have thought that impossible, but you would have been wrong.  You had to literally fight him off to eat your lunch.  He would sit there growling and lurch at your food if you made eye contact or gave him an opening.  As I think back, it is amazing how long we tolerated his aggressiveness.  He bit everybody … except my mother.  He was afraid of my mother, but one day he bit her too.   After that he bit no more. We were sad to lose our dog, but it was good to be able to eat w/o having to watch for the rushing dog.   The vet told us that he was a “fear biter.”  I don't know what that meant.  I think he made that up. Matel second dog Sam

Our next dog, Sam, was the most docile dog in the world.   He never bit or growled.  He would bark at visitors, and it was hard to get him to be quiet, but then he hid in back of us when they came in.   I was locked out of the house once, so I climbed in through the bedroom window.  I didn’t hear a sound from Sam, except I could hear his claws on the linoleum kitchen floor as he backed up.  I still couldn’t find him, until I saw him hiding under my father’s bed.  As soon as he saw me, he came out bravely.  Everybody liked Sam.  He was a good looking dog, a Chesapeake Bay retriever.  He had some of the instinct.  He used to point at rabbits and squirrels, although he never bothered to pursue them. 

Our last dog was Xerxes.   He was the dog of my father’s later years and he reflected some of the infirmities of old age.  Xerxes was even more cowardly than Sam and not at all aggressive.   He is cringing in most of the pictures, because he was afraid of the camera.  If he heard a loud noise, he would go crazy.  Thunder storms and the 4th of July were not pleasant times.  My father treated him with a gentleness bordering on deference.  “He has rights too,” my father would say.  Probably as a result of this, Xerxes paid no attention to my father and would not come when he called.   

John Matel Sr and XerxesI have seen the “Dog Whisperer” on TV a couple times and it is clear to me now that we just didn’t know how to treat dogs.   Dogs are pack animals.   They need to know who is master.   We were always ambiguous about that, so the dogs personality and natural inclinations came to dominate the relationship.   Sam was my favorite dog and gave us no reason to complain except that he was too timid.  But compared with Fang, who you constantly had to hold back, it was a better situation.    I think Xerxes just got corrupted.  My father spoiled and indulged him.   

We used to have cats until I was around five years old.   They were not really our cats; they just sort of moved into our house sometimes, sort of community cats.  They all had the unimaginative name of “Kitty.”  It made it easier to remember their names and there really is no use in naming cats anyway, since they never come when called.  In those days it was considered cruel and unnatural to keep cats in the house and they wandered the streets.   You “put the cat out” at night.  Sometimes they would come back.  In between, they would enter cat society and alternatively fight, mate and kill birds & mice. They came back when they got hungry and/or when they couldn’t find a better offer.  Cats have no sense of loyalty.  Once Kitty had kittens.  One of them had six toes, so we called him “six toed Richard” after one of my mother’s similarly endowed cousins.  We got rid of the ultimate Kitty and never permitted cats again because she scratched my sister once too often.  My sister was a toddler+ at the time and wanted to play with the cat in a way independent felines evidently didn’t appreciate.  I got along well with that particular cat and even once gave her a bath, w/o getting scratched up.  I guess it all depends on how you approach things. 

My cousins Luke & Irma and their son & Tony, who lived upstairs from us, had the meanest cat I have ever seen.  I don’t remember what its name was, but we called him “Heathcliff” after the obnoxious comic book cat.  He was the Fang of the cat world.  One Christmas, my sister and I were watching Tony while Luke and Irma went to midnight mass.   We didn’t know where the cat had gone until we saw the tree shaking and found the cat climbing inside and batting at the ornaments.   I chased him away from the tree and he ran off and disappeared.  Soon he reappeared.  He had climbed up the back of the couch and was attacking my sister.   I drove him off again and he went and hid in the basement. 

His sojourns in the basement were his undoing.  He didn’t care to use his litter box and preferred to crap on the basement floor.  He did this with monotonous regularity until my cousins got sick of cleaning it up.  That, plus his unusually ornery temperament, doomed him.  I was sorry to see him go, since he was unfailingly entertaining, but I could see the logic in getting rid of him. 

The only other pets we had were fish and salamanders.  We never were very good with fish, so we raised guppies.  They require no care.  I had a green salamander, a newt that sat on an island in the fish tank until once we filled it up too much and he crawled out.  My mother thought that it was my fault because I used to take him out and let him crawl around where he got a taste of freedom.   He didn’t savor it long.   We found him a few days later dried up under the radiator. I subsequently had a red and black salamander that fared better.  He too escaped, but he survived in the basement, where it was damp and where he could eat spiders etc. We had an old house and part of the basement still had a dirt floor.  About a year after his escape, my cousin spotted him, much bigger and apparently thriving.  I don’t know how long those things live, more than a year, evidently.

December 30, 2008

Gallows Dunn Loring Development

Providence Forest Townhouse Complex, Vienna Virginia 

The neighborhood was very different when we bought our townhouse eleven years ago.   Actually we bought a piece or red dirt and the promise that they would build a townhouse.   Ours was the first new development of its kind in our immediate area.  At that time it was a kind of pass over zone.  There were nice neighborhoods all around, but we had some gas stations, warehouses and fast food outlets.   It was a low rise neighborhood.   But it had two big assets.  There was the Dunn Loring Metro stop.   We bought because the Metro was only a seven minute walk from our front door.    It was also a central place on the way to Tyson Corner.    

The Metro was the real key. 

Dunn-Merrifield Metro stop - Vienna, Virginia

The Dunn Loring Metro opened in 1986, but for the first ten years of its life was almost exclusively a park and ride.  Our town house complex was one of the first walking distance developments.   When we bought, there were big plans to in-fill the place and increase the density to encourage transit oriented development.   We had to take that on faith, but it did start to happen.   Since we bought, a big town house complex developed across from the Metro.   There are also high rise condos near the Metro and down Gallows Road and we have a Marriott Courtyard Hotel.   But the immediate area, the one we saw outside our door, didn’t change much.   It was the ugly mix of cheap warehouses and metal buildings.  Now the big changes are on the way. 

Warehouse on Gallows Rd - Vienna Virginia

Most of the buildings across the street are torn down and the others soon will be.   I don’t mourn the loss, except I miss the Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.   The plans are to build something like fifteen stories high. Condos and hotels will be on the top floors with retail on the ground floors.   The plan is sound.  I hope it works out.  Our neighborhood will be a lot better.   Our town house complex will go from one of the densest developments to one of the least dense.   Don’t know how many more years we will be here.   The irony will probably be that we will move away just about the time the neighborhood gets walkable and nicee, but after we retire and no longer have the daily need for the metro, the high value property will be less attractive.   When we chose to live near the Metro, we paid more for a smaller space in order to get the better commute.    That logic will probably change.  

Demolition of buildings on Gallows Road - Vienna, Virginia

Above are the old buildings being torn down.   It takes only a day or so.  The buildings int he background were built a couple years ago.  Ones like that will go up.  They are not so pretty, but they have retail etc.   And they are better than what they replace.

December 28, 2008

You Can't Handle the Truth

These might be a little boring and unorganized.   My new job requires me to understand better how information is transmitted and received, especially via the new media.    I am working this out by writing it.   I would appreciate any comments from anybody who wants to read through. 

A Few Good Men

The audience is meant to side with the Tom Cruise character when the Jack Nicholson character tells him that he can’t handle the raw truth.   Cruise has cleverly manipulated Nicholson into incriminating himself on the witness stand.   Nicholson doesn’t get it.    He doesn’t like cruise; he see him as a pretty-boy w/o the experience, temperament or character to face the hard facts of life – the Truth with a capital T.   The audience sides with Cruise.   The court sides with Cruise.   Justice sides with Cruise.  But Nicholson told the truth.    Or was it just a truth.   

The use of the definite or the indefinite article makes a big difference.    “A” truth (with the indefinite article) is different from “the” truth (with the definite article) and different from truth expressed with no article at all.*    How different would it have been if Nicholson had shouted, “You can't handle truth!” or “You can't handle a truth!”

Thinking about a courtroom drama is appropriate when considering information on the Internet or in the new media.   How useful is “raw truth?”  How can we differentiate THE truth from a truth or truth?  Has Steven Colbert’s truthiness replaced truth?  Do we care if it has?

Eyewitness Not so Good

We overvalue eyewitness testimony and are improperly influenced by how much certainty and passion people express in defending their testimony.     In the courtroom drama, we give a lot more credibility to the guy who says that he is certain.   He may indeed be telling a truth, but he may also be wrong.    A lot of things influence our memories and perceptions.    There are things I believed to be true based on personal experience that have turned out to be objectively false.    (I read a good book re called Witness for the Defense re which I recommend, but anybody who keeps a journal knows how memory can change.) 

Failure of Memory

The key concept is change, not fade.   The false analogy is that memory is like a book or a movie.  We think that with time some things are lost, but the fundamental integrity of the information is sound.   In fact, memory is living and reactive.   It constantly reorders facts and perceptions to integrate new information.   This is learning and is a good thing, but it changes memory.   We usually don’t know this has happened and we are rarely put to the test.    We all know that people’s honest recollections of events differ.   We are less accepting of the fact that our own honest recollection of facts differs over time.   

Memories change.  That is why perjury is such a difficult concept and the concept of repressed memory led to such abuse and injustice.   It is a virtual certainty that if you were asked under oath to describe a situation that happened six or eight months ago, you would be untruthful about some, or many, of the details.   That is assuming that you are trying to be 100% honest.   The irony is that some of the things you are most certain about & the things you felt most passionate about would be the ones that were the most wrong.  Passion clouds judgment and alters memory.    It is a truth; it is your truth, but it is not THE truth anymore.

When I stared to write this, I was thinking about the concept of truth on the Internet and in the new media.   My digressions above were necessary because the Internet is a sort of collective memory and it is subject to a lot of the same risks and pattern mistakes as individuals.   But it has the added factor of group activity and the magnification that technology offers. 

The Myth of the Unfiltered Truth

Internet provides first-person immediacy with all the benefits and traps that entails.  First-person accounts appeal to passion.   Passion is a big part of humanity, but passion often destroys logic and makes it difficult to see the big picture.  There is an old saying that if you make all your decisions with your heart, you will end up with heart disease.  Passion tends to lead either to inappropriate action or just as often no effective action at all.   First-person accounts are always incomplete.  

Listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.    Everybody knows the story that he was deaf when he wrote it and he couldn’t physically hear the music that has evoked so much passion in listeners for generations since.   Beethoven didn’t need to hear the music because he understood the concept and the context.   He understood the big picture and could orchestrate it in a symphony.    Now imagine you get to hear the oboe player and nobody else.    What kind of impression do you have?   Let’s expand your world.   You “have access” to all the musicians.   What are the chances that you can assemble them all into anything resembling the symphony?    Well can you – maestro? 

I know this from my experience in Iraq.   I reported what I saw and heard, but I didn’t always have the context.   I was surprised to see how my information, aggregated with others, produced a coherent big picture that was completely beyond, and sometimes ostensibly contradictory to, my on-the-spot perceptions.

Self Organizing Systems & Their Discontents

A lot of people put their faith in the self-organizing ability of the Internet.   I have reasonable faith in things like Wikipedia to develop useful truth, although we clearly need to have a “trust but verify” attitude.   But most of the Internet is not truly self organizing or truth seeking.   Many of the participants on the Internet have no commitment to truth at all.   In fact, much of the information on the Internet is put there by people actively spreading their biased viewpoints, if not actual disinformation and propaganda.    Many contributors and webpages are well financed by governments, pressure organizations and wealthy individuals.   

Internet is easily manipulated by trumped up facts and passions and it is getting worse.     YouTube posting can provide compelling pictures and sound that are as manipulative as Nazi or Soviet propaganda shorts.   Your intuition tells you to believe the evidence of your own eyes, but it is too easy to forget that the maker of the video controls all the angles, timing and perspectives your eyes are delivering.

The Golden Age That Never Was

Of course, speaking of Nazi & Soviet propaganda, there was really no golden age of truth.   The new media doesn’t introduce more manipulation; it just sort of democratizes it.   This probably means that most people have a better chance of finding the truth about things that concern them.    It is simultaneously easier to pass lies off in the short term and harder to make them stick in the long term.   The mass lies of propaganda past are probably made untenable by the Internet.  On the other hand, the smaller lies will probably more persistent. 

"You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time,” said Abraham Lincoln.    The Internet doesn’t change the general categories, but it does change distribution.    Internet makes it much harder to fool all of the people even some of the time, but it makes it easier to fool some of the people all of the time.   More disturbingly, Internet facilitates the aggregation of those people fooled all of the time.   A few isolated weirdoes are just curiosities.    If enough of them find each other, they may form enough of a mass to become a real menace.    Like the embers of a dying campfire, if you spread them out they all burn out, but if you gather them together you can have a conflagration on your hands.  Internet makes this much easier. 

As I wrote in the first paragraph, I am just working through these ideas.   I am done doing that for now, but I really need to get this clear in my mind so that I can do a good job in my new job.


*BTW while English makes these distinctions, many languages do not.    Scandinavian languages stick the direct article on the ends of words with a pattern I never quite understood.  Slavic languages don’t have articles (direct or indirect) at all.   Arabic has only direct articles.   These languages find different ways to make the distinctions I am talking about above, but I wonder sometimes how the ability to easily express certain concepts affects people’s perceptions of those concepts.    Linguists and anthropologists have been on this case for many years.   They seem to have discovered many truths, but not THE truth, although many particular experts will tell you that he has indeed discovered and explained the ultimate reality.   

When I was in college, I read and liked a book called Language, Thought and Reality.   This book explained the Whorf hypothesis about language.    It made a lot of sense to me.  My anthropology professor told me it was wrong and implied that I would get a bad grade if I didn’t agree with him.  

  That was back in the 1970s.  A lot of things we learned in the 1970s, especially in anthropology and sociology, was crap.  Those were proto-PC days.  Most social scientist still believed some variation of the “blank slate” in those days and the very idea that human potential was limited or partially determined by structures or innate tendencies offended them viscerally.    Noam Chomsky, despite his general pernicious misunderstanding of the world and politics is a good linguist, argued persuasively against the Whorf hypothesis.  We have come a long way since then and, although the PC crowd still filters the public interface, the inquiry has become more of a science and the truth much more nuanced.   The most recent good book on this subject, IMO, is Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought. 

December 26, 2008


Below is the lantern Espen bought me at LL Bean.   You crank it up and it produces light.  I already had a crank up flashlight that I have been using for more than a year. These are great innovations.  You don't need to think of batteries or plugs, probably as close as you can come to that free lunch.

LL Bean crank up lantern

Anybody who tells you that he understands the economy in all its complexity is lying.  It is not possible for one person or any group of persons to understand.   The data is not available and even if it was there is no way to integrate it.   Beyond those two formidable problems, the economy is constantly changing, so you will always be a couple steps behinds.   These are some of the reasons why central economic planning has never worked.   And the economic planners have even another hurdle: their plans and action will change the assumptions and facts. 

Central planning is grabs the popular imagination because people haven’t thought through the factors and we just find it hard to accept that something so important to our lives is fundamentally unknowable, unplanned and chaotic.   What I just said is another basis of misunderstanding because it is only true within a flawed set of assumptions.   The economy cannot be comprehensively planned by anyone whose job it is to be a planner, but it is certainly not unplanned.

We have in place a wonderfully effective method of aggregating distributed knowledge and allowing for dispersed decision making.   Our market system works better than any alternative to give most people the capacity to make choices about their lives.  It produces the best results in the long term, but nothing is perfect all the time.   

It seems a contradiction that the free market requires government intervention in the form of rule of law, regulation and periodic kicks in the ass.   I learned this in Eastern Europe.    When I went there after the collapse of communism, I thought that all that was required was to get rid of the oppressive state structures.    The fall of communism provided a kind of laboratory, where we learned that removing the state interference was necessary but not sufficient.    Governments and civil society have to build the sinews of the market economy.     

The difference between a life saving medicine and a deadly poison is in the dosage and the application.  The same goes for government intervention.    We need to keep this in mind with all these bailouts.    The lifesaving therapy, applied too broadly, becomes a deadly poison.    It is also good to keep in mind that what worked yesterday may not work today or tomorrow and that this does not need to signify failure, abuse or incompetence.    I ate a big meal yesterday, yet I think I will need to eat again today.   I didn’t fail to eat properly yesterday; it is just an ongoing solution.

There exist truths that are unknowable by us in an absolute sense, but they are not unknowable in a practical sense.   They may also be unknowable to any one or any group of us but they are not unknowable by all of us aggregated into societies and markets.   When large groups of people make estimates independently, the aggregated estimate is usually better than the individual estimates of even the best and the brightest among them.   That is why democracies and markets work.   Governments can tap these reservoirs of human information, imagination and innovation but cannot control them.   The seeming contradiction is that it only works as long as you don’t try to make it work.   

Government management of the economy is a chimera.    Having the government take decisive action is very appealing and we sometimes need the intervention, but knowing when to stop, combined with the wisdom to know that perfection is impossible and that we cannot get everything we want, is the key to long term prosperity. 

December 20, 2008

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr Smith Goes to Washington, screen shot This work is in the public domain because it was published in the United States between 1923 and 1977, inclusive, without a copyright notice.The old Jimmy Stewart classic was on today.    I suppose that it was scheduled well in advance, but the movie is particularly appropriate these days given the Senate seat sale apparently underway in the great state of Illinois.   “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was made in 1939, so I guess it shows that political corruption is nothing new.   But I fear that we seem to have lost the capacity for shame.   Now we see things in terms of political maneuvering and tend to treat it more like a game. It should not be. Politicians do not own their offices.  They just are holding them for the people. 

That film made an impression on me.   I saw it on TV for the first time on the day before my mother died.    That whole day is strongly pressed into my memory.  We didn’t handle it well.  My father was trying to protect my sister and me, but I think it ended up isolating us.  I figured if I just didn’t believe it was possible, it wouldn’t be true.   My sister was only fifteen.   My time would have been better spent being with her than watching television by myself.   Sorry.  Seeing that movie brings back those memories.   Thirty-six years later it still stings.  But that’s not all.

As with all real classics, the impressions from the movie grew beyond it with theoutside experience.  When I joined the FS and came to Washington for the first time, I walked around the Capitol Mall, as Jefferson Smith does in the movie and I had a similar reaction.  I still do.  Even after all these years and daily familiarity with the monuments, they still move me. 

Of course, it is painful that Jeff Smith is such a complete rube.  We have a kind of fetish of the outsider in the U.S. that innocence and inexperience are the keys to successful political leadership.  I think that is wishful thinking and a caricature of the valid argument that not all expertise and intelligence resides with experts and professionals.  We need and benefit from a constant influx of new people and new ideas.   It is too easy for people within the beltway and the political class generally to think they have cornered the market on knowledge.  But like anything else, there are skills and experience that are useful in government and they are not always self evident or easily acquired. 

My view on the movie is more nuanced than when I saw it when I was seventeen.    Then I just saw the good little guy against the big corrupt machine.    I used to think that politics was about right and wrong, that there was a RIGHT answer.   Now I understand that we have politics because we disagree about what is the right thing to do.  When we all agree, we don’t have politics; we just have laws or customs.   Politics is about compromise in all the connotations of that word.    I don’t believe that a politician as a person must or should abandon principles or values, but the TOOL of politics is at best amoral.   That is why it is best to keep as much out of politics as possible.   Reserve politics for the real disagreements. 

As I watched the movie again today, I thought of how Jeff Smith should have gone about his work in the Senate.   He could have built that boys’ camp, but maybe not at that exact location.   In fact, the dam the Taylor machine wanted to build might have improved the setting.  They could have a nice lake and get to watch the nearby construction.     If all parties to negotiations have positions they cannot or will not compromise, it is unlikely they can come to any kind of mutually beneficial deal.   The idea is that everybody gives and gets.  When one of the parties takes a “my way or highway” stand, as Jeff Smith does, nothing moves.  

There are sacred principles that cannot be compromised.   There are things we will fight for and die for, things we will impose on others.  If you cannot think of any, you are soul-dead.   If you can think of too many, you are a self-indulgent narcissist.   Given a few more years of experience, Mr. Smith would have been more effective, f less certain of his righteousness.     It probably would not make a very interesting movie, however.

December 09, 2008

Flying to Doha

I am at home today getting ready to go to Doha tonight, where I will meet colleagues to work on our strategy paper.  I am unenthusiastic about the journey.    It is something like 16 hours on Qatar Airlines in an economy class middle seat.  It is officially a United flight, so I hoped that I could use my United miles to upgrade, but this is evidently not possible with a code share like this.

Airport in Washington 

I don’t have many complaints about flying and I think that all that gnashing of teeth about passengers’ bills of rights is exaggerated.   Travel sucks by its very nature.  You just have to get used to it.  Most of us (me too) are unwilling to pay extra for business class seats, so we get stuck in the cattle car class.    In other words, we get what we pay for.    It will be an ordeal. 

Many people think diplomats travel first class. No, our government is not that generous. We fly economy unless we upgrade ourselves.  They used to have a rule that we could fly business class if we had to be on the plane for more than fourteen hours.  No more, except if you can claim that you have to go to work immediately on landing or you can assert a credible disability.   Being too tall to fit comfortably in the seats doesn’t qualify.   

I sat next to a fat guy on my last trip home.  He wanted to put up the arm rest so that he could flow into my seat too.   He complained about the injustice of air travel when I told him no.    Being fat is increasingly being classified as a disability.   A Canadian court has ruled that airlines have to give a free extra seat to the will-power challenged among us.   By that logic, they should have to give more leg room to anybody over 5’10” tall, maybe extra luggage space to those who just have to bring along more stuff than they can use.   Maybe a passenger bill of rights would handle all these permutations and produce a kind of Malthusian solution.  If we do it completely, it will drive the price of flying so high that almost nobody will be able to afford to fly anyway and it will be pleasant for the survivors. 

I don’t think Doha will be much fun.  We have to stay in the camp the whole time.   They say that there is a running trail around the camp that is around 3.5 miles.  The nice thing re Al Asad was that the base was big.   There was not much variety, but it spread over twenty-two square mile and I had more space than I could run over.   3.5 miles is actually enough for most of my runs these days, but the idea that there is no more bothers me.  I like to know I could go farther if the sprit moved me.   I can take the limited horizons for two weeks.    I hear that they have a pool in Doha.   It is like a holiday camp.   That is the way I am taking it.   The weather should be nice this time of year. 

November 28, 2008

Using Time Wisely

Not many people are around here on the day after Thanksgiving.   I like to work on such days.  Volunteering for such duty makes me popular and the quiet time gives me a chance to think.  This is my most productive activity.

Below is the Commerce Building.  When it was finished in 1932 it was the largest office building in the world.

Commerce Building in Washington Dc

I read the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People almost twenty years ago.  It was one of the books that most influenced my life.   There is not very much really original in the book.  Stephen Covey’s contribution is that he manages to put things we know we should do into understandable chunks.  I won’t go further into detail.  Suffice it to say that it gives practical methods to live a principle centered life and puts character development above the tricks most self-help books teach you to get ahead. 

One of the parts I found most useful was the section on time management.   I am not talking about making lists and accomplishing goals.   Covey talks about doing the right things and taking control of the process.  He divides tasks on a four quadrant chart.   Some things are urgent and important.  Some are important but not urgent.   Others are urgent but not important and the last quadrant has things that are not urgent or important. 

It is easy to get stuck doing the things that are urgent, whether they are important or not.  Can you resist picking up a ringing phone, even when you are having an important talk with someone in person sitting in front of your desk?   But the urgent is often not important and the urgency of many important events results from lack of anticipation and planning.  The place where you should spend most of your time is among the tasks that are important but not urgent.  (Preventing the fire is more effective than the urgent need to put it out, but which seems more heroic?)  This will put you in charge of your life and help you avoid lurching from one urgent task to another w/o the time to do them well.  It will also help you avoid doing many "urgent" things altogether.

BTW – I am writing all this from memory.   If the details are not perfect, I don’t care.   I had a chance to meet Mr. Covey a few years ago.  He told me that the ideas were meant to be internalized and changed to fit particular circumstance and personalities.  Ideas are like virus that live & reproduce only in human hosts.  They mutate and adapt.  The ideas I was “infected” with twenty years ago are now uniquely mine.  My experience has customized them and these are the lessons I took.

Below is Dept of Agriculture building completed in 1930.

Dept of Agriculture

I rarely agonize about decisions.  People who like me say that is because I just know the right thing to do.  Detractors see me as shallow, flippant & insouciant.   I believe the truth is that I can make quicker decisions because I have thought through similar scenarios and tried to apply values & integrate experience and I did this BEFORE I was faced with the urgent decision currently at hand.  Contemplation is an activity that fits squarely into the important but not urgent category. That does not mean that I make the right decision, BTW, but I am neither flippant (usually) nor do I just know what to do by some mystical process.

Covey and many other leadership thinkers tell us that is what we are supposed to do, but they always warn that other people might not like it (hence the flippant moniker) and they will give us a hard time for “not doing real work.”  All of our great achievements are created twice: first and most importantly in our minds and then only later in the practical world.   The intellectual capital is usually the most valuable, but others can see only the practical creation or activity.

Washington Monument & Capitol

There is a story about a man who has a serious plumbing problem. He calls the plumber who tells him he can fix the problem and it will cost $100.  The plumber goes down and whacks one of the pipes and everything begins to move as it should.   When he asks for his $100, the customer is irate.  “All you did was whack the pipe and it took only a couple seconds,” he says.  “I want an itemized bill.”  The plumber gives him the bill which reads: whacking pipe - $.05; knowing where and how to whack pipe - $99.95.   

November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

Thanksgiving is the best holiday.  It is the one where you make a conscious effort to think about and be thankful for the good people, things & experiences in your life.    No matter how hard we think we have worked, none of us achieves happiness or success by ourselves, and all of us are lucky to live in a society that gives us so many chances. 

Below - my parents on their wedding day.John & virginia Matel

I had trouble learning to read and in first grade my teacher put me into the low group.   My mother convinced the teachers that I was not stupid, just bored and a little stubborn.   To placate my mother and probably teach her a lesson, they jumped me into a higher group.   I did well there.  W/o that intervention, I think I would have been a failure at an early age and then continued down that road to earthly perdition.    I am thankful for my mother’s confidence and flexible teachers.

My father dropped out of school when he was in 10th grade, but he nevertheless saw the value of education.   He just assumed I would go to college and because of that and because of him, I did too.   My father didn’t have the experience to understand what college meant, but he knew enough to launch me in the right direction. 

Below I am standing in front of Medusa Cement Company on in Milwaukee.  The picture is from 2006.  My father worked there for thirty-six years in the dust and the noise.  I put in four summers, which gave me only a small taste of the hard work he did to support the family. John Matel at Medusa Cement  His work helped put me in a position to get a great job where they pay me to do what I would pay to do. 

I was seventeen when my mother died.  My sister was only fifteen and my father didn’t know what to do.   My mother’s sisters stepped in to help.   I am thankful for my aunts, who carried us through those hard times.    They took turns and one of them came over every day.  My whole extended family has been good to me.   I still always have a place to go and a home in Milwaukee. 

Speaking of Milwaukee, I was lucky to grow up in Milwaukee & Wisconsin, with the wonderful parks, nice museums and inexpensive education at the University Wisconsin system.   I am also thankful that it was easy to get into university in those days.    With my grades and habits when I was eighteen, I am not sure they would let me in these days.  

There is way too much for me to say about Chrissy and the kids and besides it is too personal to put on the blog.   No matter what you achieve in your professional life, you need good family relationships to be really happy.  

Below is angel oak in South Carolina. 

angel oak

My list is of good things is long.  I sometimes cannot believe how lucky I have been and how many people & events have helped me along.    Good fortune in important.   We should pray not merely to be fortunate, but to be able to do the things that make us deserve to be fortunate.

November 26, 2008

Thinking Peripatetically

Below are griffins at the Federal Reserve building.

Griffins at the Federal Reserve 

Washington is not very crowded the day before thanksgiving.   I had some appointments at the Main State Building.   I got there a little early so I went to visit Abe Lincoln.   It is nice before the crowds arrive. I still take inspiration places like the Lincoln Memorial and I still get a bit of a thrill looking out over the reflecting pool toward the Washington Monument and the Capitol.   

 Reflecting pool at Lincoln Memorial

I make a point walking between Main State and SA 44 and I l get off/on the Metro a little ways away from work, so that I can walk across the Capital Mall.    I think of it as my “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” trip, after that old Jimmy Stewart movie, because in one run you can see the Capitol and the memorials: Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington, Vietnam, Korea and WWII.    

Below is Roslyn in Virginia across the Potomac.  In DC buildings cannot be taller than the Capitol. 

Roslyn VA

Some people ask me how I find the time.  They tell me that they are too busy for these sorts of luxuries.   It takes only around forty-five minutes to walk between the State annexes.    When you add the waiting time to the shuttle drive time, you save only around ten minutes.   If I get off the Metro a couple stops early, it just adds around fifteen minutes to the start or end of the day.   In return I get a calming walk through one of the world’s most pleasant areas.  It is also a great thinking opportunity.   I think better when I walk or run.  This is an old habit.   When I wrote papers in college I used to read all the sources and then go running.   During that time it would all come together and when I got back I could just produce the paper as fast as I could physically write it down.   If I just stayed in my seat and “worked hard”, nothing would come.   I still like the peripatetic decision making.  Being literally in motion helps me make sense out of confusing situations.   

IRS building and American flag

Above is the front of the IRS building.  I like the classical styles.

Below ice skating at the National Gallery Garden.  It really isn't that cold, but they have a refigerated rink.

Ice Rink in Washington

Besides, it is a real luxury to be able to walk around in Washington, something to be thankful for.

Sunset on Washington Monument

Above is the end of the day and the scene as I was walking to the Federal Triangle Metro to meet Chrissy.

November 17, 2008

An Ordinary Day at Work & Play

Below - Path to Potomac from NDU.  Notice the red oaks on one side and the laurel oaks on the other.

 Path to Potomac from NDU.  Notice the red oaks on one side and the laurel oaks on the other

I have to leave before 0700 to get to the task force by 0800.  NDU is about a fifteen minute walk from the Waterside Mall stop or around a half hour from Federal Center.  I prefer to walk to Federal Center.  That way I don’t have to change trains.   I like the walk, although according to the Washington Post the area near Waterside Mall is not a safe area.   I don’t intend to change anyway, so I don’t suppose I need to look into it any further.

Washington Metro sign

Below is the escalator to my Metro stop.  The etiquette is that people stand to the left and walk to the right.  I like to guess who will stand and who will walk.   I believe my record is good. I admit that I might have confirmation bias, but you can often predict by body type.  Tourists also tend not to walk, but I think they just don’t know the local custom. 

Metro escalator

Below is my Gold’s Gym.  I used to go there three times a week, but I still have not renewed my membership.   Tomorrow.  Gold's Gym is simpler and cheaper than some others.  My kind of place.

Gold's Gym

The walk along the Potomac from the Metro to NDU is a little out of the way, but it is nice.  

Titanic Monument Washington

I came across this monument to the victims of the Titanic.  It says it was commissioned by American women to thank the men of the Titanic for letting the women and children go first.   This sounds crazy to people in our more cynical age, but that is evidently how it happened.   The movie “Titanic” had to go against the historical record and show a more cynical picture.   In a similar situation, when the Lusitania sunk Alfred Vanderbilt gave his life preserver to a young woman even though he couldn’t swim.  His body was never recovered. 

Zoning meeting in Fairfax Co VA

In the evening, Chrissy and I went to a zoning meeting.   They are talking about raising the density of the lots on both sides of our townhouse complex.  Some of the buildings could be as high as 115 feet.  We will be like a canyon between all these buildings.    But density makes sense near the Metro.    It is good to see all the citizens involved in their communities.   Although some of the same people make the same comments and complaints.


November 16, 2008


Below are grounds at NDU.

Cannons at NDU 

If you want to effectively be action oriented, you have to spend most of your time trying to figure things out.    You have to be reasonably certain that you are doing the right things and that you are doing the important things and not merely responding to the urgent ones.    If you don’t think about things in advance, you will get stuck responding to events and/or be captured by the passions or fears  of others.   All this makes perfect sense, but it is harder to do than to talk about.   It is hard to not get excited when things are moving fast and it is easy to get blamed for doing nothing or waiting even when those are the proper responses.   

I expect life will get interesting soon when the new political appointees come to take over.  IIP has been w/o political appointees for a couple of years, ever since Alex Feldman left.  This is very uncommon.  In times past, we had all sorts of political guys around and I am sure we will have them again in the new administration.  The new people always have lots of ideas and they often believe that they are the first to have thought of them.   This is my forth big transition.   When all the sound and fury is finished & the dust has settled the trajectories are fairly predictable.  Career people like me have to remember that the political leaders set policy and we have the duty to help those policies succeed for the good of the country.  The hard part is to give advice in a credible way w/o being either arrogant or sycophantic.  The best way to do prepare for this is to know the portfolio and have thought through the various scenarios.   In other words, to be action oriented you have to have spent the time figuring things out.

The thing I worry about in the transition is security policy.  (I am happy that I am not directly involved with too much of this, BTW, but I still think about it.  Transitions are seams and enemies can exploit seams.   The U.S. did a good job preventing new terror attacks after 9/11.   We also managed to turn around the situation in Iraq and achieve tentative success there.    I am afraid that there is a growing public perception that these outcomes were natural or resulted from luck.   As the memory of dangerous and uncertain events fades, complacency grows.   We were indeed lucky in that the bad guys did some really stupid things – they overreached - and we were lucky that in the last couple of years many things broke our way more often than not, but our success depended on a lot of things we did right.   I am personally familiar with only a small part, but I know enough to be sure of that.   We should be sure not to lose through apathy & unawareness what we have worked so hard to win with effort, bravery and blood.    

Below - waterfall at American Indian Museum in Washington

Waterfall at American Indian Museum  

It seems so long ago now.  In the years since 9/11/2001 many people have been trying to understand the motivations of terrorists and working to make profiles of the sorts of people who become violent extremists.    Not many people really have the mental profile of the violent extremist.   It takes a prodigious amount of hate, intolerance and determination to make a person want to be a terrorist.    Fortunately it also takes something else – opportunity, as well as a impetus. Beyond that, the link between attitude and behavior is tenuous.   

Links – Links are the keys.   There is a long chain between the conception of a terrorist desire and the successful completion of destruction & mass murder.   A chain is as strong only as its weakest link and each of the links in the chain can be attacked.   You attack the whole chain by identifying and attacking each of the links as well as the environments that help forge the chain.  That is what I hope and believe our information activities are helping and will help to do.    That is what we have to keep on working to do.

We have to be not like a chain, but like a cable, where each strand goes from start to finish, twined together seamlessly.   I hope this transition will be smooth and clean.

November 15, 2008

Earth Day Park & L’Enfant Promenade

I usually get off the Metro at Smithsonian.   That is two stops before the one closest to my job at State Annex 44.  The walk takes around fifteen minutes and it is through some nice places around the Smithsonian. 

Earth Day Park Washington DC

You probably would not make a special trip to see Earth Day Park, on Independence Avenue.   As the old saying goes, it is worth seeing but maybe not worth going to see.  It is one of those things  you notice and enjoy when you it becomes an ordinary part of life.   You enjoy it more when you know a little about it. 

Earth Day Park was dedicated on Earth Day in 1996.  It covers the top of Interstate 395 as it passes below the Mall.   This makes it remarkable.  This kind of thing is not usually attractive and I understand that this was no exception until the park was made. 

Everything in the park is low maintenance.     The lily turf requires no regular cutting.  It is enough to do it once a year and it survives even if you don’t.    The trees and bushes can live on the semi-rooftop environment, with its frequent lack of normal soil moisture. 

BTW – the path looks very inviting, but if you follow it you don’t get anywhere.  When I first saw it, I thought it might be a nice sideway to get to work.  Not. 

L'Enfant Promenade, Washington DC

Above is L’Enfant Promenade.   I mentioned it in an earlier post.  I don’t like it.  It is ugly, almost Stalinist.  That boulevard goes nowhere.   You can kind of get down to the riverfront from there, but it is not easy.    The road ends at Benjamin Banneker Memorial, about a quarter mile from where the picture was taken, just over the rise at the horizon.    

In typical 1960s style, L’Enfant Promenade manages to almost get it right, but ends up combining two things in a way that emphasizes the disadvantages of each.   You can see from the picture that the promenade looks like a boulevard for cars.  It is.   But since it goes nowhere there is not much point to drive along it.   It has become a long parking lot.   There was great potential as a walking street, as the name promenade implies.   The end of the street has a nice view of the river.  But there is enough traffic to make walking (or running) unpleasant.    The design exacerbates the problem, as the few cars that do use the road come around a circle at Bannecker Memorial in a way that keeps pedestrians looking over their shoulders.

So, to sum up:  Earth Day Park Good; L’Enfant Promenade bad.  Perhaps they should restructure L'Enfant to make it more pedestrian friendly and more like Earth Day Park. 

Quiznos in Washington DC

Above is one of the local attractions - Quiznos.  You can see all us bureaucrats lining up for the feed.  I get the small classic Italian on wheat bread.  When you get the combo (i.e. coke and chips) it costs $7.02 with taxes included.  Quiznos is my favorite sub, excepting Cousins from Milwuakee, which is unfortunately unavailable in Washington.

November 14, 2008

Good Life in Washington

Ginko tree at Smithsonian 

Above - ginko tree outside Smithsonian

The best things in life are free … especially if you live in Washington DC,  where you can go to all the museums and enjoy all the public space, think tanks and events at no or little cost.  Europeans justifiably boast of their cultural achievements, but everything costs money there.   You have to buy tickets to the museums in Rome, Paris or London and much of the public space is not really open to the public. 

Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian

Above is Sackler Gallery.  There are vast underground facilities.  The Mall gets to look untrampled.

The irony – and this goes for lots of things besides museums – is that in America we have access to things in practice but not in theory, while in most other places you have access to things in theory but not in practice.  People are often beguiled by the promises.  They want to be granted the right to something in principle.   They forget what Otto von Bismarck, who originated the first social security program said, “When a man says he approves of something in principle, it means he hasn’t the slightest intention of carrying it out in practice.

We get a lot in practice, even if we are not doing so well in theory.  Way back in 1827, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German man of letters, wrote it in a poem. "Amerika, Du hast es besser" (America, you have it better), he said -  and he was right. Life is good. 

National Gallery Pompeii exhibit

The National Gallery of Art & Pompeii

I enjoy being in Washington.  It offers so much.   On my lunch break today I walked over the National Gallery of Art to see “Pompeii and the Roman Villa.”  I couldn’t take pictures inside, but you can see what it looks like at this link.    It is great just to drop in.  Because there is so much and it is freely available, you don’t feel like you have the chore of staying all day and making an ordeal out of the appreciation of art.  I stayed only around a half hour.  I did not “see everything” but I can come back.   IMO that is how culture should be, a part of life integrated into daily activities.  

Below - community garden near Capitol.  I think this is left over from the 1960s. 

Community garden near Capitol

I heard about the exhibit before, but I was motivated to go today by my Roman history lecture on my I-Pod.  They were talking about the Roman cities and used Pompeii as an example.   Pompeii was not the greatest of Roman cities, it was not even very important, but we have the unique frozen in time aspect.  Tragic as it was to the people at the time, the eruption of Vesuvius has made them the messengers of their culture to future generations.

Below is depression era artwork on a government building near the National Gallery/

Depression era art on Washington DC government building

The area around Naples for the Romans was something like the California coast is to us.  Life was pleasant and easy.  The rich and famous went there to live and vacation.   They build expensive houses and lived large.  According to what I learned at the exhibit, the very rich people lived in coastal villas.  Pompeii was sort of middle rich.  The district was called Campania.  It had a good climate and great soil, provided in part by the volcanic activity that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79.  Volcanic soil is very productive.   It is sort of a bargain.  You get live the good life on the volcanic minerals, but it is unpleasant to be there when the volcano spreads a little more ash.

October 15, 2008

Becoming American: Then & Now

St Augustine church Milwaukee 

Above is Howell Ave looking north as St Augustine Catholic chuch, where I occassionally went. 

Milwaukee's old ethnic communities are gone, replaced by new ethnic communities.  I clearly saw that the Polish immigrant community around 6 and Lincoln is now a Hispanic immigrant community.  All over the city it is the same. The workingmen with the big forearms speaking with accents that sang Eastern European rhythms (where the streetcar bends the corner around) even into the second generation are gone.  We shall not soon see their like again.

Below - Public schools Americanized generations of immigrants, my ancestors included and I suppose me too  This is Dover St school, founded 1889 and still in the same place.  When I went there, it was still black from the coal smoke.  I thought all brick building were black, but I found that most were a nice light brown (cream city) color when they were cleaned up.  I don't like the paint job.  Dover is made of nice Cream City brick.  They should just clean it up and let it be natural.

Dover St School

I miss them.  These were the hard working, blunt and practical guys who went to war to save America from fascism & communism.  They literally built & protected my world.  Their patriotism and loyalty to the country of their or their parents' choice was enshrined at the VFW posts, their hard work evident in the busy factories and their troubles washed away at the many taverns.  A new generation of immigrants and their children is at work in the old neighborhood.  They come from places like Mexico or Honduras.  I have confidence that they too will build America and in process become Americans, just as the Poles, Italians, Serbs and Germans did before them.

After a couple generations all that really is left of the immigrant are T-shirts saying “proud to be Italian” or “kiss me; I’m Polish,” along with some food preferences and two or three phrases in the old language that make genuine natives of the old country smile.  Imagine someone whose language was learned and frozen in the slang of the 1940s or even the 1960s or 70s.   Language changes; immigrants keep and propagate the old stuff in groovy and copasetic ways.   They just don’t know it. I know it from personal experience, when teachers at the Foreign Service Institute who left their native lands long ago taught me phrases equivalent to “23 skidoo” or “now you’re cooking with gas.”  

Below - These steps lead from Chase Ave to ... nowhere.  I suppose they used to connect neighborhoods before the freeway went in. 

Stairs leading from Chase Ave

I do have some concern about too many immigrants coming from the same place and concentrating among each other.   When you get immigrants from many sources, they have no choice but to learn English and become Americans very quickly.   This is what happened circa 1910, when immigrants made up a greater % of the American population than they do today.  If immigrants from Poland, Russia, Germany, Italy and Greece were all together, none could dominate.  The only language they could use was English, even though it was nobody’s first language.  I saw it happening with my kids friends in Fairfax County.  Arab kids, Chinese kids, Korean kids and other from countries you cannot even find on a map get to be friends and speak to each other in English.  Diversity is really strength.  Immigrants from one place can maintain their separateness.  Separateness is a bad idea.  I value true diversity, with lots of different groups all contributing to an American identity.

October 13, 2008

Beer and Sauerkraut

I went with my sister to the Miller brewery and then around the old neighborhood.  Below are the boiler vats.   They are eighteen feet deep.

Miller vats 

Miller Genuine Draft is good beer.  Miller Highlife & Miller Lite are not.  Miller also has a partnership with Leinenkugel, which is very good and it distributes Pilsner Urquell and Fosters, both of which are among my favorite beers.    It was fun to see where they were made. 

This is King Gambrinus, the patron saint of beer.  This statue is in the "cave", caverns dug into the hill where they used to keep beer cold before refrigeration.  They used to gather ice from the local lakes during the winter and pack it around in the caverns.  This cooled the temperature during the summers.  Evidently the ice would last until the next winter.  People lived closer to their environment in those days.   You have to be more innovative if you have to do more than flick a switch to get air conditioning.


The plant in Milwaukee makes a half million cases of beer a day and all this beer moves out EACH day.  This plant serves the upper Midwest and around 40% of the beer goes to Chicago.  Five other plants around the country serve other regions.  

BTW - According to the Bier Reinheitsgebot (beer purity law) issued by Wilhelm IV of Bavaria in 1516 all beer sold can be made of only malted barley, hops, water, and yeast.   This rule still applies on Germany.   Beer can be made from any grain.  Miller mixes in some corn with the other ingredients and Budweiser uses rice.  That means by German rules these are not really beers.

Only 1600 people work at the plant and half of them are corporate staff.  That means that around 800 workers make all that beer.  The plant is mostly automated.  I was thinking again re the loss of jobs.  Those jobs have not gone to China; they have just gone away.  below is the Miller warehouse, clean, tidy and almost w/o workers.  A half million cases will move through it today.  You can easily see the jobs that automation takes.

miller warehouse 

On the other hand, other jobs are created but hard to see.   My cousin Tony works for a company that runs webpages called and   The firm was founded in 2006, has about a dozen employees and distributes furniture around the country – w/o a significant bricks and mortar operation.  We still think in the old industrial model where lots of people come together in one place.  The new model has people distributed thinly and in small groups.   It is hard to get used to it.

maples in Humbolt park 

Anyway, we had another beautiful fall day.  Milwaukee has nice parks as you can see from the pictures. Above and below is Humboldt Park.  Pictures cannot capture such a glorious day.  Even if the visuals could be perfect, you would not have the smell, sound and feel of the day.

Humboldt pond 

I also drove down to Franksville.  It is not a major tourist spot.  It used to be where they made Franks Kraut.  I don’t know if they still do, but I did see lots of cabbage fields.  The brand is actually owned by the Ohio based Fremont Company, makers of all sorts of Kraut and catsup.  Franksville is interesting for me because it was for a long time the edge of my biking world, as far south as I could reasonably ride and return in one day.   It is still familiar.  below is a cabbage patch.

Cabbage patch 

Below a pumpkin patch near Franksville in Racine County.

pumpkin patch Racine Co Wi 


October 12, 2008

Indian Summer in Milwaukee

Below is Lake Michigan looking south from Warnimont Park.

Lake Michigan looking south from Warnimont Park Oct 13, 2008 

Indian summer is always a bittersweet time.  The warm sun shining through colorful leaves is delightful, especially mixed with the smell of the new fallen leaves and the sound of their rustling underfoot.  But this is also an ending.  The last flowers of summer are on hanging lonely on their stalks.   The falling leaves will soon leave branches bare.  Pleasant October will yield to rainy and bleak November and we will have to wait several months for exuberant life to return to the forests and field.

Below is Boerner Botanical Gardens in Whitnal Park

Boerner Botanial Gardens Whitnal Park 

Indian Summer is often a metaphor for life with its last vigorous but perhaps futile & melancholy gesture.   It essentially one of the characters in John Wayne’s last movie, “The Shootist”.   The poem “the Last Rose of Summer” sums it up.   (I put the full text at the bottom of this post.)

Below is Austin Street where I grew up looking north.  Those beautiful yellow trees are ash trees planted after the death of our elms.  They were planted in the middle of the 1970s.  The one on the right I repaired after a wind storm broke its branches.  It was smaller then.

Ash trees on Austin St

Metaphor aside, October is my favorite month and Milwaukee’s October did not disappoint.  I visited some of my old haunts.  Many things have changed; most things have remained the same or similar.  

Below is a statue of Patrick Cudahy in Sheraton Park.  Cudahy founded the city that bears his name when the opened a meat packing operation south of Milwaukee.  

Patrick Cudahy  

Below is Tadesuz Kosciuszko the Polish American hero in the park that bears his name.   The Polish epic Pan Tadeusz is based on him.  Interestingly, it starts "Litwo! Ojczyzno moja! Ty jesteś jak zdrowie."  Lithuania my country, you are like good health.  Of course nationality is always complicated.  The most famous Polish epic, written in Polish about a Pole can talk about Lithuania because they were part of the same commonwealth, which was lost, swallowed by its more agressive neighbors in 1795.  It was gone for 123 years.  That means that most Poles who came to the U.S. were not technically coming from Poland; they came from Russia, Austria or Germany, the countries that had annexed Poland and controlled its parts.  Pan Tadeusz goes on with some poingancy, " I never knew till now how precious, till I lost thee. Now I see thy beauty whole, because I yearn for thee."  Poles didn't get their country back until 1918.  The Lithuanians lost theirs again in 1940 and didn't get it back until the fall of the Soviet Union.  When I see the statue, I am reminded of the struggle.  This was a Polish neighborhood and people knew the story back then.   Today most people probably just see a man on a horse and think it is George Washington.

Tadeusz Kosciuszko in Milwaukee 

Speaking of a Polish neighborhood, this is Saint Josaphat's Basilica, built by Polish immigrants.  Milwaukee has lots of churches near each other.  Each immigrant group built its own. We used to see it in the distance from our house.  It was lit up at nights and my sister and I thought it looked kind of like some kind of giant monster. It was scary.  You can see how this might be the case. Look at the "eyes".

 St Joesphats in Milwaukee

Below are geese flying into the pond in Kosciuszko Park.   The geese chase away the ducks. In this goose-duck war, the ducks are completely outclassed.  Geese used to be rare, but now they are all over the place.   They are bigger and more aggressive than the ducks and they crap all over the place.  Eventually, I suppose they will come to replace the ducks in the local ecology.  They also used to migrate, but now many stick around all year living off the fat of the land (and the local gardens)


Don't forget the poem


Tis the last rose of summer

Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
To give sigh for sigh.

I'll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter,
Thy leaves o'er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
From Love's shining circle
The gems drop away.

October 10, 2008

Unpopular Thoughts on Energy

I was reading the new book by Tom Freidman called "Hot, Flat and Crowded" re new green industries.  Freidman says that President Bush should have imposed a stiff tax on imported oil right after 9/11.  There would have been support for the sacrifice and the tax would have taken money out of the pockets of many people who don't like us and probably avoided the crisis we face today.  I agree on this point.  Now we see oil prices falling from their highs and I am afraid we are about to fall into a trap of cheap oil - again.  Below are some things I wrote a while back with some updates.   

Most conspiracy theories are as nutty as the people who believe in them and I hate to be associated with those guys in any way, but I think that there is a glaring example that we all see but don’t notice. There is the periodic lowering of oil prices.

The oil market is not free. Governments control most crude oil and often oligarchs and despots control these governments. They make decisions based more on political than economic factors. Market forces constrain the their choices and they cannot completely ignore the forces of supply in demand, but they have stumbled on a kind of a whipsaw strategy to earn higher profits than the market would pay them in the long run by LOWERING prices in series of short terms.

We have seen this happen twice already and I am afraid we will get a third dose of it within a couple of years.   Already oil prices are dropping.  We foolishly welcome the cheap fuel and end up paying more in the long run. How does this work?

Somewhere around $60-70 a barrel (adjusted for inflation) alternatives become competitive with oil and the higher the price goes, the more investment flows into alternatives. We saw that happen in the late 1970 until the early 1980s and we are see it happening now to an even greater extent. The problem with most alternatives is that there is a significant up-front investment. This includes research and development costs as well as capital investment in things like solar panels that might take several years to pay off.

When energy prices are high, investments in solar, wind or hybrid vehicles pays off quickly. When energy prices are low, such investments pay off slowly or maybe not at all.

High energy prices provide a de-facto subsidy to alternative energy. Unstable energy prices make all energy investment uncertain.

Last year I attended a forestry convention where the theme was alternative energy from forestry residue (wood chips etc). The speakers were visionaries, talking about the great potential for alternative energies. Some of the guys around me looked skeptical. When I talked to them, it turned out that several had tried such things in the 1980s but lost their investments in the 1990s when the price of oil dropped through the floor. They recalled a similar, although smaller, such fluctuation in the middle of the 1970s. They were not going to jump on this bandwagon this time.

It is true that market forces cause the price of oil to fluctuate. As prices rise, there is more exploration and development which naturally brings the prices down. But manipulation by governments greatly exacerbates market cycles and makes them pernicious. People like Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Vladimir Putin are not friends of free market democracy and are not enthusiastic about alternative energy sources that will cut into their profits and political power. They exercise their power to destabilize the energy market and make it a hostile environment for alternatives.

We are not helpless but our choices are limited. We cannot decree cheaper energy in the short run, but we can use market power against those who would keep us dependent on oil. The ironic way to lower energy prices and develop alternatives to oil in the long run is to make sure energy prices stay high in every short run.

We cannot allow brief episodes of low prices to periodically destroy progress in alternatives and conservation. This happened in the 1990s. We foolishly welcomed these low prices and thought that the good times would roll forever.

Let's scr*w the despots and declare independence from oil addiction. (Those who want to include American oil companies in this crowd, feel free to do so.) What we need to do is tax carbon and keep the price of oil up when it is coming down. It could be enacted in a simple fashion. Today the price of oil is high and we don’t think it will ever come down very far. Experience indicates this is mistaken. As oil prices come down, we should impose countervailing taxes to keep the drop from destroying our efforts to develop alternatives and invest in conservation strategies.

Nothing works better or faster than price.  People talk a lot about raising fuel standards.  High prices do that naturally.   Otherwise raising standards doesn’t work, since people just drive more.   There just is no easy way to do this. 

I know what I am saying is deeply unpopular, especially this week when thoughts of the Great Depression are on so many minds.  We all like lower gas prices; we just cannot have them in the long run, but consistent and sustained higher prices in the short term will lead to lower price in the long run and it will help us break the hold foreign despots.  Wouldn’t it be great if Chavez, Ahmadinejad and Putin had less money?   A higher tax on oil will also help do that.  I generally don't like taxes, but this is one we need.

The oil pushers have fooled us at least twice. I am sure there are more examples, but there are two big ones I can recall. Let’s not give them a third shot.

Today’s Problems are Yesterday’s Solutions

Since we cannot always be right, we must be flexible and robust. As new information becomes available or conditions change, even the best decisions must be revisited and sometimes overturned. The ethanol debacle is a good example of both this idea and the pernicious effects government intervention in fouling up and calcifying the change and innovation mechanism.
Don’t burn fuel; grow it! What a great bumper sticker and the idea that a renewable, home-grown energy could replace dirty imported fossil fuels undeniably attractive. The devil is in the details, the execution & the fine tuning. Cf. a good article from last year.

First, let's be clear. We do NOT have an energy crisis or even an energy problem in the real sense. We have a mix of energy choices. As we make different choices, options and consequences change. It is not a problem in the usual sense. Problems can be solved. This one is unsolvable. No breakthrough will save us. If it did, we would just expand our "needs" to encompass the new possibilities, as we did in the past. We can, however, manage the situation and change our energy mix. Nobody knows, because it is currently unknowable, what the optimal energy mix will be ten years from now. Some of the information we need to understand the upcoming situation and make sound decisions must be developed through trial and experimentation. Some sources and technologies that seem very promising today will prove unsuitable. They will need to be altered or abandoned w/o too much heartache or recrimination.

Wisdom lies not in knowing the best future, which is unknowable at current levels of technology & information. The appropriate solutions literally have not yet been developed. The best choices of 2025 are perhaps still not invented. Wisdom lies in having a system that can develop alternatives, smoothly transition from one option to another and easily course correct when appropriate. We need a system that allows people to imagine and innovate and then develop innovations into useful solutions. Fortunately, we have such a system.

This is something only the market can do. Government’s role is to point in the general direction of options that are politically acceptable. Within that broad constraint, however, government has no business picking winners of losers and it has no capacity to manage or micro manage the process. The more detailed instructions that politicians and bureaucrats give to those developing solutions, the less likely they are to succeed. The ethanol debacle is a good example. Government rule and subsidies are locking us into a technology and feed source that is proving a mistake. It is a QWERTY solution. (If you don’t know what a QWERTY solution is, take a look at your keyboard. This keyboard was designed to SLOW typists in the time of mechanical typewriters so they would not jam. Does your computer jam?)

The fundamental strength of the market is NOT its ability to choose the right choice. Rather it is the ability to try many solutions simultaneously, experiment and change course rapidly and smoothly. This is almost exactly the opposite of the skill set government bureaucrats and planners bring to the table and it is usually anathema to politicians trying to win votes. (Why didn’t they dump the ethanol subsidies last year?)

Ethanol from abundant American corn seemed a great idea. It was well worth the experiment and certainly some ethanol will be made profitably from corn in the future. It was NOT a bad decision, but unfolding events, new information and developing technologies over took it. The market can and to some extent is turning away, but the power of politics will prop up this sick horse for years to come. People in developing countries will go to bed hungry because of the good policies of the U.S. and Europe. Sometimes things go wrong BECAUSE of not in spite of our best efforts and every solution has the potential to become a problem. When condition change, we should change our minds too.

Colorful World

Right outside the Window

living room

The sun is lower in the sky in October and it enhances colors in the evening.   You don’t have to be at some beautiful outlook to see it.  I was just sitting on my couch at home when I was struck by the beauty of the light playing on the leaves outside.   I watched it for a little while and then I thought I would take a picture to share it.  Beauty really is everywhere.

It is enhanced by the soundtrack of the birds singing and the crickets chirping as night falls.

 My New Truck

I just got a new truck.  Speaking of colors, it is a very bright red.  I wanted to get an off-white one that would reflect the heat in July and would not show scratches and dents so much, but everybody else wanted the red one.  I need a truck for the tree farm.   The new farm is off the paved road and the small, low-clearance Civic Hybrid just can't make it over the dirt road.

New Ford Ranger

This is a Ford Ranger.  It is the smallest truck you can get and the mileage is not so bad.  This one is supposed to get 19 MPG in the city and 24 on the highway. 


October 05, 2008


Below is a pond on Ft. Pickett near Blackstone, Virginia.  I was there during my field day mentioned a few posts back. 

Lake near Blackstone, VA 

State Department has a course on leadership that I will take and they sent me some preliminary questions to prepare.   Generally, they want us to think about the nature of leadership.   It is not easy to define.   I have seen those who seem to be the ultimate leader in their manner or comportment, yet the organizations they run produce little.  On the other hand, there are those who seem barely aware that they are in charge whose teams produce phenomenal results.   Since the essence of leadership is the ability to produce results through the efforts of others, we must conclude that that second kind of leader is better.

Leadership in government is particularly hard to judge because we don’t have a bottom line.  Everything is political and subjective.  People in government can win points just by being busy.  In practical affairs, sometimes doing nothing or at least doing less is preferable to taking action or doing more.  The non-action alternative is rarely available in government.  Many times government officials are running around solving problems a smart leader would have avoided entirely.  More often than we like to recognize the problems are actually caused by our own activity.  The need to be seen to be doing something limits the efficacy of government.  Government also comes with a specific overt limit on leadership. 

We really don’t want government officials to be leaders.  Think about it.  Government is a public trust.  Government officials work within the rules ostensibly created by the people and their representatives.  Leadership usually involves setting new courses, changing paradigms and innovating, i.e. changing the rules ... unilaterally.  

Leadership always concerns making decisions in the climate of risk and uncertainty.  Otherwise it is just administering rules.  The leader decides and leads others in toward the goal he defines or discerns.   Government bureaucracies are designed to make that difficult or impossible.  Let me emphasize that point.  They are DESIGNED to limited freedom of action.  It is not a by-product or a mistake.  Government systems are and must be designed to limit innovation by those operating them.

This is an important distinction that divides private enterprise from government administration.   Government and free market techniques overlap, but they do not occupy the same space.  There are things government can do and private enterprise cannot and the reverse is also true.   That is why is doesn’t make much sense to advocate more or less government w/o determining the appropriate TOOL to be used. 
It is not appropriate to ask government to innovate.  Government always must follow a set procedure.  If government officials or bureaucrats deviate too far from the rules and regulations they are, by definition, acting illegally.  That doesn’t mean government cannot be creative if given a task.  The USG sent a man to the moon and brought him safely home.   But it cannot do the kinds of innovations that determine truly new courses or preferences.  Government cannot legitimately be entrepreneurial.  Government consumes wealth; it does not create it. 

Private individuals and firms create wealth.  However, government is necessary to the production of wealth.  W/o the rule of law and reasonable regulation the private sector cannot create wealth, since individuals and firms cannot protect the wealth they create.   Government must provide the legal and often the physical infrastructures.  Since government has a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of coercion, only it can perform this function.
Lately I have been thinking about my government job in relation to my “job” on the tree farm.   In the past year, I have made decisions in both jobs that put thousands of dollars at risk in the anticipation of greater good.  In the tree farm, it is my money.  I will benefit if I am right and suffer if I am wrong, so it is really nobody’s business to second guess me.   I can also do things just because I think they are good things, with little or no anticipation of a concrete return.   For example, I spent a couple thousand dollars on wildlife plots, which I never expect to pay off in any practical sense.  I have a personal preference for that.  I can feel generous and virtuous for improving the environment.  My land is nicer, but only in my opinion.  In government I cannot and should not allow my personal preferences to impact decisions.  It is not my money.  Nobody can be generous or virtuous giving away the government’s money.   As ePRT leader, I had a lot of discretion, but it was a very different sort of discretion spending taxpayer money and using Uncle Sam’s resources.

As a government official, I have a duty to LIMIT my own leadership and not elevate my own preferences beyond my assigned mandate.   It is a significant responsibility.   I can exercise leadership, but only in the predetermined direction.   It is not like running your own show.

August 01, 2008

Doing Nothing All Day

Below is part of my bike/running trail.  It follows the old W&OD rail line.  I like to run on that gray gravel.  It is very pleasing to hear the sound of your footsteps and it makes a good base.  The bike trail is a great because it is essentially a very long park.

W&OD trail 

I spent my second last day at home doing prosaic things.  In the morning, I went running.  It was warm and very humid.  That kind of weather used to bother me, but no more, perhaps because I can always retreat into the air conditioned comfort in the evening.  I enjoy being out in the humidity.  I like the smell of Virginia at this time.  The humidity holds down and accents the various vegetation smells.  The sycamores are especially pungent and I can easily tell the difference between a loblolly and a white pine by smell alone.  I run up the trail and then walk back, so I have time to look at things and think about them. 

Chin bars at Navy Federal

At the end of the run is Navy Federal CU headquarters.  They have nice grounds and an old fashioned exercise area.  I like to do chin-ups, but I don’t use the other things, which are kinda lame. 

Construction near Cedar in Dun Loring

My neighborhood is being “in-filled”.   When Fairfax County suburbs grew initially, development jumped over my area.  I think it was because there was some light industry and a noisy highway interchange.   Even when they built the subway stop, development lagged.  Now they are making up for lost time.  The picture above is along the running trail.  It used to be a bunch of little dumpy houses.   Now they will be "luxury homes."  Below is another site for luxury homes not far from the Metro.  IMO they are too big for the average family and they charge too much for them around here.  In a place like Lacrosse or Southside Va these same house would be around 1/4 the cost. They got the land here ready last year, but the lots are not selling as well as they thought.

Dunn Loring Chase homes

When we bought our house in 1997, the development was just starting.  Fairfax County has plans to build a town center and allow denser development near the Metro.  That is all to the good, as far as I am concerned. If you have transit, you should have transit oriented development.  Below is a teardown.   There was an old apartment building it will be new condos.

Demolition near Dunn Loring metro

Below is across the street from the demo.