December 19, 2013

Another tequila sunrise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 29, 2012

Is tipping your favorite waitress a form of corruption?

A new Harvard study finds a connection between tipping and corruption. Let’s consider the whole field of influence.

Some people get a lot of what they want because they are "charming". There are lots of components to this and less charming people tend to get annoyed by the success of their more charming colleagues. Socially adept people (this group overlaps a lot with charming) get more of what they want. Good looking people get more than unattractive ones. Celebrities benefit at the expense of ordinary folks. We can all add to this long list. The various gifts tend NOT to be distributed equally. Charming people often tend to be attractive, perhaps because being attractive is related to behavior as well as physical looks. These advantages tend to make them more successful in other areas of life. Is this wrong?

Humans are social animals. We spend most of our time in social webs and are constantly working on way to improve our position or influence others. It is what we do, coded into our genes. Those who don't do such things are thought to be weirdoes, maybe even psychopaths. Besides these sorts, we ALL care what others think of us. Those who claim they don't care about the opinions of others - like those who claim they don't care about money - are often the ones who think about it all the time. (If you really don't care about something, you don't talk about it at all. The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.)

Let's get back to tipping. It depends on the cultural context. Canada and India have a similar level of tipping, but Canada is low corruption country and India is very corrupt. The motives are different. In Canada tipping is recognition of good service; in India it is a advance payment for future service.

Some countries automatically add in 10%. In those countries you do not tip beyond that. Don't let those waiters in France convince you otherwise. I like this idea. It is not a tip for good service, but more of a piece work, i.e. the waiter makes more if he handles 100 customers than he does if he serves only one. That is fair.

In the U.S. I tip just under 20%, i.e. I figure the 20% then I round up to the nearest dollar below that amount so that the credit card bill is an even amount. I used to try to modulate my tip based on the service, but I don't anymore unless it is extraordinarily good or bad. This is rare. I think if you stay at a hotel that has a free breakfast, you should tip about 20% of what you would have paid. This can lead to a type of favoritism, however. I often stay at a hotel where I get a free happy hour. I leave my 20% tip and I have found that I now get much better quality drinks than I used to.

This brings me to loyalty programs. I am a gold member at a hotel chain and on an airline. This is a sweet deal. That is why I get those free drinks I mentioned above and I get to choose the best seats on my flights. This is very explicit. I get stuff free that others have to pay for because I have behaved in a particular way in the past and the firms hope to encourage similar behavior in future.

None of us wants to be treated "as well as" everybody else; we want to be treated better, i.e. as individuals. This is an inescapable fact of human life. When does it become corruption?

IMO, it becomes corruption when people are giving you things that are not theirs to give. If I offer a tip from my own money, it is entirely my business and not corruption on my part. If you accept the tip and do the same sort of job you would have done anyway, maybe with a little more joy, there is no corruption on your part. The problem comes when we are acting for others. I cannot be generous with the money of others, so if I give you a tip paid for by my employer, this is corrupt. If you grant me favors at the expense of your employer, this is also corrupt.

Things can be very unfair w/o being corrupt. If I own a company and I give you a special deal just because I like you, this is not corrupt. We all try very hard to cultivate relationships that will provide us with exactly this. We call it networking or making connections. It is the biggest part of many people's jobs. It is the biggest part of the job of people like presidents & CEOs. Once they get the relationships right, many other decisions are very easy.

November 09, 2012

Moments in time

Houston skyline 

I am heading to Houston today, where I will meet up with a Brazilian university delegation and go to Rice University. After that, we go Louisiana and then Washington. This is a follow-up to our successful visit in February, but this one will be aimed more at the graduate student part of the Science w/o Borders program. On this visit, we are talking emphasizing oil & gas and biosciences.  I look forward to learning something new. 

I missed the first couple days of the program because I had to stay in Brasília for the presidential election.  My colleagues did all the important organizing work, but I add some value by being around and lending my ostensible authority to decisions.  We need somebody around to do that and/or take the blame if things do not work out as they should.  A lot of leadership is intangible.  When it is working well, it doesn’t seem to matter; when it stops working, everything just seems to fall apart.


But now I am on track. The usual Delta flight to Atlanta is getting routine.  I have traveled this year more than any time before.  I have become a gold member.  This is good, since I can choose better seats, but it still sucks. Travel gives time for reflection. Airports are semi-familiar. 

I decided to write a kind of stream of consciousness in my little notebook to give myself a shot of the day.  I transcribed them below. No big insights.

Indigo Hotel 

Coming into Houston. From the window it looks very flat and sprawling.  Flight attendant says that we are in the Central Time zone.  It makes me recall my mother. She died forty years ago, but is not forgotten. Strange that this reference would provoke a recall, however.  Central time is 4 hour different from Brazil.  Will be some jet-lag.

Off the plane easily.  Stopped at Dunkin Donuts for food and coffee I don’t need.  I am early and luggage will take a while to arrive.  It seems odd speaking English to clerks.  Not sure English is their first language anyway, but Portuguese would not work.

Passing adverts for MD Anderson Cancer Center.  Reminds me again of Ma, when I see on about a woman cured of leukemia.  When you are thinking about something, you notice connections.

Signed up for Super Shuttle.  At $24 is it much cheaper than the taxis. My travel budget will be cut and it is always a good idea to save money for Uncle Sam anyway.  Fifteen minute wait, they say. No worries. I still have the Dunkin Donuts coffee to finish.  I like it more than Starbucks, but I drink little coffee in general.
Reading “Concrete Planet” book about cement, probably the most ubiquitous manmade material around.  Concrete reinforced with rebar is doomed. The rebar rusts, expanding and causing concrete to crack and crumble.  This gives us hope that many of those horrible “modern” buildings built in the 1960s will turn to dust, but not such a good thing talking about bridges etc.  Romans used concrete better than we do.  Their structures don’t have rebar and have lasted thousands of years.  Rebar seemed a good idea at the time.

Go on the shuttle with two guys going to MD Anderson. Guy next to me is a biochemist/biophysicist now semi-retired.  Used to work at  Baylor, now at the University of Texas in Brownsville. Studies proteins and is interested in dengue.  I told him re our Brazilian mission and gave him my card.  He was very interested in getting Brazilian students and researchers. Don’t know how much he will pay attention, however. He was going to MD Anderson for a serious operation.

Both guys got out. Talking to the driver. He has been in Houston for ten years and loves it. Says that people who live in Houston love it, but visitors don't.  It is not pedestrian friendly and its hard to know where things are unless you live her.  Told me that the many rich Mexicans are moving to an area called “the Woodlands” and building big mansions. They are fleeing the violence and kidnappings of their own country.

He said he used to work at one of the country clubs in the area. Said that the rich people were often odd and told a story about a woman who could not get her car started. When he check, he found she had just run out of gas.  Somebody had always done that for her. I joked that she was so rich that she could just get a new car when the old one ran out of gas.  He didn’t get the joke and told me that they did indeed fill up the tank.   

My pictures show Houston from the CVS, a sundial at the Gallery and my hotel. 

October 27, 2012

The gift of boredom


I have always spent a lot of time in airports and on airplanes, but never as much as now.  I travel a couple times a month and sometimes to the U.S.  Trips to the U.S. are a relatively new part of my FS life. Usually, we go somewhere and stay for a time. But my involvement with higher education has been in support for Science w/o Borders drawing me to the U.S. We brought a group of Brazilian university leaders to the U.S. in February and will bring a similar one in November. I went to Houston for an educational conference and just got back from the Harvard-Laspau meeting in Cambridge

This year, I have flown enough to become a silver medallion member on Delta.  After my next trip, I will achieve gold.  This has a couple advantages, the most important being you get to have better access to seats, especially exit rows.

curioius George shp 

It is better to get to the airport an hour before you need to rather than a minute late.  I always get to the airport way early if I can.  I don't mind sitting in the airport; in fact I like it. I can think, write, read or just sit around. It is a good time for reflection.  We do not spend enough time being by ourselves and reflecting on things. 

I also don't mind flying as much as I used to.  I think this is part of my general increase in laziness. It used to be that I could not stand to sit around for more than a few minutes. Now it doesn't bother me much. One thing that really helps is scheduling. I made a list of things I should do on the plane.  I don't really do them, but the procrastination makes the time seem to move faster. Another key is the I-pod and audio books.  That is the most important factor. I find it hard to read on planes, but it is easy to listen to the audio books.

Reading in the old fashioned way is still important.  When traveling in Brazil, I tend to read through news magazines in Portuguese that I would not usually read through if tempted by other attractions and I can buy them right in the airport. I read through the Brazilian issue of HBR. It is easy to read because many of the articles are translated from English (so they keep some of our format). Even the ones in native Portuguese are in the business article format.  The New York Times is going to publish in Portuguese soon. That will be easy and useful to read. It is much harder to read literature in a foreign language.  

I just finished a biography of Hadrian (in English). This took me four years. Yes, four years. I only read it on airplanes and then not so much.  I found four airplane tickets stuck in the book as bookmarks.  It was a good book and I learned a few things.  The total travel time (counting airports and transits) is more than 20 hours, so there is lots of time.  I will kind of miss bringing "Hadrian" along.  I rarely travel with fewer than three books, since my interest wanders.  This time, I had "Hadrian," "How to Deliver a TED Talk," and "Swerve" about the philosophy of Lucretius and how it helped form modern thought.  I read a few pages of each, enough to finish "Hadrian." Now I can move to Marcus Aurelius.

Anyway, airports are giving me a good education. It is important to be unconnected sometimes and have the gift of boredom.  It is akin to when the Marine explained to me that I had to embrace the suck.  You can easily turn liabilities into assets if you just have the right attitude.

My on top picture is a ceremony receiving the body of an American killed in action. I did not take a picture of the actual casket or the family, since I thought that was not right to intrude.  It was very sad watching.  The next picture is from what they say is the world's only Curious George shop. It is on Harvard Square and I can easily believe that it is indeed the world's only Curious George shop.

October 15, 2012

The (semi) drunkard's walk

I make no secret of the fact that I enjoy a drink sometimes.  Of course you need to strike the balance between a little lubrication and inebriation.  But I have found one of the more pleasant parts of the process is the walk home.  It gives you time to think and to wear off a bit of the alcohol.

I have some good memories of this going back to college days in Stephens Point.  I recall walking back to the dorms from a place called the Maple Leaf in the Wisconsin winter air with the cold air you could taste.  I recall doing the same in the hot and humid summers.  It is a joy that most people don’t experience, since they drive back (very dangerous) or are driven.  But the short walk between drinking or even a big meal, putting your feet on the ground, is really a joy.

I had two drinks, not enough to get drunk but enough that I should not drive home, so I had a nice experience walking back from a restaurant near the bridge to my house. It takes about twenty minutes, which is just about the perfect amount of time. Of course, I am lucky to live in an area that has not much crime, so I feel safe.  I suppose it would be unpleasant if I had to look over my shoulder constantly.  Anyway, you get that peaceful easy feeling, extenuated in my case by my I-Pod with old Eagles music with the same title. 

June 23, 2012

Old Dogs

Younger people think us baby-boomers had it made but this was not really true. Older baby-boomers, who became adults in the 1960s, enjoyed a great economy. Younger ones, who became adults in the 1970s, faced high unemployment and stagflation, economic times more challenging than we face today, at least for youth. One reason we are well educated is that we stayed in school because we couldn’t find good steady work. 

I noticed an interesting story in the WSJ talking about how older workers are being affected more acutely then even younger workers by current doldrums. Take a look at this chart and count backwards. Younger baby-boomers were young during the rotten times of the 1970s and are now the old of the rotten times today.  

But let's share a deeper fear. As a 57-year old, I am afraid that my skills are becoming - have become - obsolete. Experience means much less in a world that is rapidly changing and in some cases old skills may actually become a liability. Thirty years of experience in one line of work may be of no value looking for a job in another.  There is also the assumption that young people know the tricks of technology that old dogs cannot learn.  

I think this is why older workers fear losing their jobs so much. Once we fall out, our chances of getting back in are limited. Those with the means may simply choose early retirement; others will just be poor and this period of unemployment may well affect their life prospects for the next thirty years or until they shuffle off this mortal coil, poorer, sadder but perhaps not wiser. 

Random chance plays a big role in our lives. Those who are successful are less often the smartest or the quickest than those who keep trying.  As you get older, you have fewer roles of the dice left and often fewer places to throw them. I don't have a solution to this problem, which more or less reflects the human condition. But I do point it out to those who might think that unemployment among older people is a situation that doesn't matter so much since they can retire.

April 20, 2012

Rock-Paper-Scissors Solution

I was talking to a group of visiting college professors today about why the academy has seemed to become more distant from society. The irony is that years ago, when universities really were places of the elite, they were better respected and integrated than they are today. What the heck happened and how can we get back to the way it was? I think some of the problem is admissions.  

When I grew up in Wisconsin, we considered the university "ours", even though nobody in our working class neighborhood had actually been to college. Our outlook was forward looking. Parents expected that their kids could go there. In those days, if you were alive and lived in Wisconsin, you had an excellent chance of getting into the flagship university in Madison and a nearly 100% chance of getting into a university somewhere in the system. 

This was a good thing for me because I was pretty stupid.  I was "disadvantaged," in that I didn't study. No decent university would let me in today, but back then they did. After a while, I learned the system, studied and did well in school and subsequently in life. I messed up many times, but America is the land of many chances. Or at least it was. 

Today admissions process is crazy. It cuts people off from the university. It creates a wall that most people know they cannot jump. Even ordinary state schools require nearly perfect academic records plus all sorts of outside activities. What 18-year-old can live up to this? The ones with parents who create and mold the resume from the time they are born or maybe even before. This creates tension in the whole system, makes parents worry that their three-year-old isn't getting the proper stimulus, encourages legions of doctors to prescribe drugs that quiet rambunctious kids & drives teachers nuts teaching to tests. And it doesn't improve quality. How can we stop the madness? 

I have a couple suggestions. We have to remove the incentives.  How? The first is open admissions. This works with community colleges. Many states are expanding sensible programs where students of community colleges can get automatic admissions to four year colleges after successfully completing their associate's degree with a 3.00 average. This lets kids earn their way into college instead of having to make the once in a lifetime jump that can determine their futures. 

My other suggestion is to allow a little more random chance. Top colleges often have several times as many qualified applicants as they do places. They spend a lot of time trying to judge the "whole person" which is something they really cannot do. Edison, Einstein, Churchill and many other great individuals were indifferent students. I have a simple solution. 

Universities should establish threshold requirements, i.e. qualifications. It might be things like adequate English and math ability, experience in science etc. Better universities can establish higher thresholds and specific programs would have their own. Universities could publish these requirements in advance and interested students could work to meet them. At this point, the student would not be compared to each other. They would make the cut or not on standards determined before any applications had been received. This would probably produce many more applicant than the university could accept. After that, rely on random chance; hold a lottery; do a random number; I like rock-paper-scissors. Whatever works. Make the process completely transparent. Students could be told the odds, which would give them a better chance of predicting outcomes than they have today. 

Consider the advantages of my "rock-paper-scissors" solution. 

1. It is very cheap. It doesn't require big boards of experts.

2. It is simple. Kids would not need to spend hours fighting with complicated applications and assembling all sorts of portfolios.

3. Randomness eliminates bias.  A roll of the dice is fair. Dice have no memory nor can they be affected by prejudices unconscious or overt. Random chance recognizes neither race, gender nor creed.

4. It will increase real diversity. The outcomes will reflect the populations from which they are chosen.

5. It will introduce new sorts of people and ideas. One of the values of diversity is that it helps groups make better ideas. Studies have shown that groups of experts do a better job if the group contains some variety, even if the variety means someone less prepared. 

It is time we gave up this crazy idea of classification and abandoned the idea that we can accurately predict outcomes. A little randomness is good. We cannot avoid it anyway and should take advantage of it. It will make us all better off. 

Using the tools of randomness works in lots of life's decisions, BTW. We should always do our homework, but at some point we have all the information that we can reasonably gather. Additional gathering will not help and may actually hurt. After you have gone as far as logic and research can take you, a coin flip is as good anything else and better than wasting time on the arrogant idea that you can figure out all the angles. 

January 22, 2012

Time Enough

Hand lawnmower 

Unless I am working or traveling, I spend my weekends and holidays home alone. The big events are walking to the grocery store and running along the lake. This is not as sad as it sounds. I am alone but not unconnected. I talk to Chrissy every day and get lots of internet connections.  And I have things to do.  I actually like the work I do, for example, and I like to do background research and writing at home w/o interruptions.

I have found that I have to make lists of things to do to keep the day on track and make sure that one day doesn’t just melt into another. I have to put my house cleaning & laundry duties on the list; otherwise I put them off. The weather in Brasília helps create a feeling of timelessness. We have a wet and a dry season but the days are similar. You don’t get that changing seasons feeling.

BTW – the list system works well in other timeless activates, such as long airplane trips.  I make a list of things I want to accomplish on the plane.  I never get them done. I procrastinate.  But the act procrastinating and avoiding work makes the time pass much faster. 

On weekends I can catch up on my sleep.  I really don’t like to go to be before midnight, often 1am, but I still have to wake up at 630. By the end of the workweek, I am tired physically.  I also have lots of books to read. I put them on the list and tend to get at them on weekends. I have written before about audiobooks. Audiobooks go with walking.  I find that if I sit while listening I fall asleep. 

My biggest weekend activity is gardening.  I dispensed with the services of the gardener and bought a push mower.  You have to mow the lawn more often but it doesn’t make all that noise.  I planted corn, tomatoes, beans, lettuce and cauliflower.  I planted the corn with the beans.  The beans will fix nitrogen to help the corn grow and the beans will be able to grow up the corn stalks.  The corn just spouted, so I put in the bean seeds.  My plan is that the corn will be ready in March-April when the dry season starts and it gets hot enough to finish the corn.


My watermelon experiment is failing. I got really big vines but I had only one melon. That one was attacked by some kind of animal and subsequently invested by pests. It takes me a week and a half to eat one watermelon.  It probably just is not worth it to grow them, even if I could. Tomatoes and corn, on the other hand will be cost effective and worth the effort. I should have planted them earlier, but I went with the flowers first.  I have a banana tree, but I don’t know when/if it will get any bananas. I had lots of mangoes, but I don’t much like mangoes.  The birds tended to get at them anyway. Mangoes are very productive and I can see that they would be good to have if you liked the fruit.  

What I need is a Coke Zero tree.

I know this is a boring entry and it might seem to indicate a boring existence, but I don't see it that way. The books are giving me a lot to think about and the gardening, growing the plants from seed in what is for me a strange soil and climate, is pretty interesting for me. Maybe I am just a boring guy, but these are things I find interesting.

Of course, my work can be interesting in the more active sense.  Next weekend, for example, I get to take a boat up the Amazon.  It will be part of a "semester at sea" program. I have to give a few lectures and in return I get to do what not many people can. That weekend will be more eventful than usual.  I will take pictures and post some entries. 

Window washers in Brasilia 

Above are some guys washing windows on one of the new buildings. I thought it was an interesting picture. 

December 31, 2011

Ghosts of New Year Past


I put the boys on the plane back to the U.S.  I talked to Chrissy on Skype.  Right now I am watching a nature show with Portuguese narration about New Zealand.  New Year Eve party.  As you can see the picture up top, I have all I really need. 

Boys in Brasilia 

I do not plan to swim in that whiskey river, at least not very far,  maybe one drink when the clock strikes midnight Brasilia time.

I don’t feel sorry for myself. This is my choice and among my preferred outcomes given the other choices. I had several options for New Year events, but I don’t much like the sorts of parties.  It goes beyond just being boring, which I suppose I am. New Year has never been a happy time for me. I suspect it is not happy for lots of people, which accounts for much of the alcohol addling that accompanies most celebrations. 

Alex & me 

When I was a kid, New Year meant that I stayed up late watching the late-late movies.  In those days TV was not twenty-four hours.  On most days, the stations would sign off around 2am with the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.  New Year was different. 

My strongest New Year memory is a very sad feeling. It must have been 1972. I had been in the hospital after spiting up blood. Our doctor called it an ulcer. The diagnosis later kept me out of the Air Force. It also ruined my swim team season.  I think it was a misdiagnosis, since it never recurred, but who knows.  More serious was my mother’s health.  We knew there was something seriously wrong, but the (same) doctor couldn’t figure it out.  She died of leukemia nine months later. I didn’t know this would happen, but I remember thinking that things would not be the same, if for no other reason that I was growing up. 

I went down into the basement, where we had a refrigerator with Coke. Even then I drank a lot of the stuff (even though I was not supposed to because of the “ulcer”).  Our basement was a little bit creepy.  It was not finished.  My father and grandfather had done a little work, but they were usually drunk when they worked and you could tell.  It was also full of spiders and perpetually damp, so damp and full of spiders that when my pet newt escaped his terrarium he managed to survive two years down there, with sufficient habitat.    When you wanted to turn the lights on or off, you loosened or tightened the bulbs on the ceiling. 

It was one of those times when reality just bites. Outside was sub-zero Wisconsin winter and I could hear the wind.  The one bulb that I screwed in threw harsh light that didn’t reach into most of the corners.  It was around midnight and I was the only one awake.  I sang auld lang syne to myself in a quiet voice, not all the words.  I didn’t know all the words then and I don’t know them now.  And I didn’t know what auld lang syne meant.  But I mumbled as much as I knew and then went back up to watch the Late-late movies. 

The movies were a strange choice for New Year festivities.  TV 6 showed a bunch of World War II movies.  I don’t remember details, except that one of them ended with an American soldier in the Philippines trying to make a radio broadcast as the Japanese advanced.  He repeated “Manila calling, Manila calling”.

I don’t vouch for all the details of this forty year memory.  But that is what I recall. 

I spent the New Year 1974 working at Medusa Cement.  I was working the night shifts unloading hopper cars.  I made good money, but it was cold outside and the work was outside, in the dark.  We had to open the bottoms of the hopper cars with heavy crowbars.  I couldn’t get a good grip with my gloves on, so I took them off.  Cold metal against warm skin gives you a good grip but creates a bit of pain.  We would work outside as long as we could tolerate it and then retreat to a shack where we had a kind of propane heater shaped like a torpedo.  That thing threw off lots of heat and fumes.  My associate, a guy called LC Duckworth, the strongest man I ever met, actually set the leg of his coveralls on fire by trying to warm his feet too fast.  I helped put him out.

I most enjoyed riding the cars. We had to push them off and jump on the back, turning the break as fast as we could when we got near the end of the track, which would have taken us in the KK River.  It could be kind of exciting. 

Our operation was on the river, as mentioned above,  from which I could see the clock at Allen Bradley.  At the time, this was the largest four sided clock in the world.  We used to call it the Polish Moon.  Next to it was a temperature sign. As I watched the clock reach midnight on January 1, 1974, the temperature listed was minus five Fahrenheit. 

You can see my old cement company as it looks now at this link.  Below is the Allen Bradley clock in a different season.

Allen Bradley Clock 

My work during the Christmas break kept me solvent through the spring semester, but I didn’t use all the money I earned wisely.  I bought a bunch of booze and held a belated New Year party for my friends.   I was determined to enjoy their company w/o drinking myself.  I learned that it is impossible to enjoy yourself as the one sober person in a room full of drunks.  The jokes just are not as funny.  So I decided to catch up.  In short order, I drank a full bottle of Tequila and I remember nothing else until the next morning, when I tried to get out of bed, but couldn’t. I had never been so sick before and so far have not been since.  I couldn’t actually move around, or even keep down water until around 7pm.  Then I was really hungry and thirsty.  Tequila used to be my booze of choice, but I have not consumed a drop of tequila since January 4, 1974. Can’t even abide the smell.  

A few years later, when I didn’t have a Christmas break job, my friends and I  went out to the bars and night clubs.  I don’t recall the year, but it was probably around 1976. In those days, you could legally drink at 18 in Wisconsin.  We went down to Lincoln Avenue to a place called the President’s Club.  I don’t know how we chose it, but it was full of old people. They did not appreciate us and we didn’t enjoy their company, so we decided to go to Crazy Horse, a younger person club near the airport. 

I don’t recall why, but our friend Mark decided that he would ride on top of the car, mind you that this is Wisconsin with -10 nights in January.   He got up on top of the car, sort of like a deer during hunting season, and hung on for the 2 ½ miles from Lincoln Avenue to the airport.  He was never quite the same after that, but you have to respect his ability to hold on.  There really isn’t a lot to hold onto on top of a car. Jerry had a Cutlass Supreme, which had landau roof, giving a little more traction, but not that much.

After these experiences, I adapted to a more boring party scene. The only one that really stand out in the latter days is New Year 1985. Chrissy and I were invited to a kind of command performance at a fancy club called Leopoldina in Porto Alegre. It was actually a pleasant time.  With a lot of good canape. The place was not far from our house, so we could walk back, making it possible for us to drink more freely. It was a warm night in the middle of the antipodal summer and the place had a pool with a cover on the middle. Our friend Pedro drank a few too many caipirinhas. He jumped in the water and swam under the cover, coming up on the other side, evidently just to prove he could.  It was not the usual type of behavior expected at such events. All of us just kind of pretended it didn't happen - even when it was happening - and never spoke of it again.  But the next year Pedro's invitation ostensibly got lost in the mail.

This New Year will not produce any funny or sad stories.  Well, maybe an old guy drinking a glass of Jim Beam chased by Coke Zero is funny or sad, but I am content.  "Sou Cesar" is coming on TV. That should take me through the new year.

BTW - if you doubt the theory of evolution, take a look at my boys in the second picture.  I kind of expected one of them to pick up a bone and start smashing stuff to the strains of "also sprach Zarathustra".  In fairness, the sun was in their eyes.    

December 13, 2011

Genetic Determinism

Rainbow in Brasilia 

I was doing a vanity search on my name.  John Matel is not a common name, so most of the people named that that I found are me.  But those who were not were an interesting group. I found a John Matel who is a forester in Texas, a John Matel who is a wildlife biologist in California and a Larry John Matel in Washington State who writes about water quality issues. I don’t know about all the John Matels, but the Larry John Matel is my second or third cousin.  

Rainbow on the lake 

Is it just coincidental that so many of us – all of us actually  that I found still alive and with something on the Internet – are doing something related to forestry or environment.  I know that I am drawing spurious conclusions based on limited evidence, but I am going to do it anyway.

Recent studies on heritability of traits indicate that we not only inherit obvious traits such as height and appearance, but also talents and temperaments.  I doubt there is a “forestry gene” but I imagine that the tendency to seek solidarity in nature is probably a personality trait that could be heritable.  Although it could also be a long-term cultural inculcation.

I know my cousin Larry is the descendent of my grandfather’s brother, Felix. Felix and my grandfather Anton came over on the same boat from Poland sometime in the late 19th Century. I also met a cousin in Poland, called Henrich Matel who was descent of a third brother, who stayed in Europe. Henrich told me that his side of the family was very fond of booze, which was pretty much the same as my side. Who knows what other cultural traits and ingrained habits they brought in their baggage. In my generation, we largely conquered the boozing problem, but I notice that my kids have some traits that I recognized in my parents, ones that I do not believe I have. Yet I may have/probably did pass those traits on to them. I have noticed in other relatives that some of the grandchildren resemble and have traits of grandparents they never knew.  

There are transmission mechanisms that transcends time and space. Like my rainbows in the pictures, you can see the end but never get there. How many generations ago did a trait arise?  I can understand how different circumstances could make traits useful, wasteful or even pernicious.  I think of heroes like Davy Crockett or Wyatt Erp.  Imagine guys like that today. Fearless, strong, but never holds a job for very long, likes to wander around and is quick to take action, sometimes violent action. We love "brave, courageous and bold" in theory and in movies, but have little use for it in average life today. Now think of the wimpy guy who stayed at home, never made a name for himself and never became king of the wild frontier. He's the guy the firms hire.  He is probably better at math than Wyatt or Davy too.

Anyway, I base my essay on some thin evidence. That is why it is an essay and not science. I do things like this. I wonder if my cousins have the same habits. 

My pictures are rainbows on the drive home. Brasilia gets rain and sun at the same time that produce nice rainbows. 

November 05, 2011

The Beauty of Audio Books & the Timelessness of Great Ones

I downloaded a couple more of the “Great Courses” series today.  I am very fond of them because they are relatively short, very well done and available whenever I want them on an I-Pod that can contain a library.  I listen to them while driving, walking to the store or on an airplane, times when I otherwise would not only waste time, but also be stressed and anxious.  It is better than music, which is mindless.  I have music too, BTW, for the mindless times but generally it is better to be engaged.

Audio books and courses have been part of my life since 1984. I remember this date so precisely because that is when we bought our first car. (Yes, I was 29 before I owned a car. That is maybe why I still bike, metro or walk so much). The audio books came soon after. I don’t recall the name of the first series, but it was a series of lectures. They really were not produced originally for audio books, rather they were clearly just lectures recorded in a lecture hall.  The audio quality and the presentations were of uneven quality.

Few real books were available and in those days I was more into the motivational stuff anyway, so for a few years I was into programs that told me how to be a winner.  It is easy to laugh at myself when I think about it or the type of person that wants such things, but I think it was a stage I had to pass through.  I learned a lot of skills that I still find useful.  Many of the motivational programs are just stupid, but the better ones take actual wisdom and put it into bite sized chunks, sweetened with the promise of quick success. One of my favorite was “the Secret of Power Negotiations.” A lot of the techniques were/are simple, but they were new to me or at least it was useful to have them crystalized.  There was another one about techniques for getting ahead in business that I recognized as “the Prince” updated with modern examples. My time with these types of programs lasted until the late 1980s.

My next dominant genre was business books.  I signed up for some monthly cassette clubs that sent me abridged books by guys like Tom Peters, Peter Drucker & Peter Senge. Of course I choose these example because they were peters, but jokes aside I got a pretty good business education and learned lots of things about marketing, finance & management that I either didn’t learn of forgot when I was doing my MBA.  I think there were at least two reasons why this was true. The first is that I believe I spent more total hours listening to the books than I had spent in class but more importantly I think I was more able to absorb the information. I had real world experience and need for the information that I didn’t have as a callow youth.  I have generally passed through this stage too. There tends to be a lot of repetition.   

The business related books that I still use today are those related to new media or prospect theory, which are still developing fields that apply to my current work.  Although I am going to give up the new media stuff soon.  The breathless “new” quality is starting to annoy me too much. A new, “must jump on,” bandwagon rumbles past every few months.  Not having jumped on several hasn’t hurt me.   

In Krakow we had a big district with lots of places who welcomed visits by American diplomats, so I drove around a lot. I think it was a lot like being an old country doctor. Usually I drove myself or went with our drive, Bogdan. I learned a lot of Polish from Bogdan, often things that my more educated staff would castigate as low class, but eventually we exhausted our stories. The audio books were great. I discovered Blackstone Audio Books, where I could rent unabridged books about history, politics and literature.  It is funny how memory mixes. I presented a series of lectures in a little city called Bielsko-Biala, about an hour and a half from Krakow. I drove there every week for six weeks to give the lectures, doing business along the way in Silesia, so I was in the car alone a lot, I think every Wednesday.

I listened to a couple of Audio books during these trips. The one I remember best was called “Novo ordo Seclorum” about the Constitutional Convention in 1787. I tended to let the tape play and sometimes repeat, so I got it good.  The funny thing is that my memories of the information are mixed with the memories of the sights, sounds and smells of Silesia in the fall, so when I think of Alexander Hamilton at the Constitutional convention, I usually recall the smell of burning leaves or the coal smoke from the chimneys and I can still picture the foggy skies and the rainy forests of Southern Poland in October.

I stuck with the cassette technology for a long time. There was a kind of golden age for cassettes after 2000. As others moved to DVD, I could get the cassette cheaply. I didn’t really matter to me if they were a little old.  If you are listening to a biography of Julius Caesar it really doesn’t matter if it was published in 1985 or 1995.  But I did have to change technologies to take advantage of more contemporary topics.  I liked the Bob Woodward books about the presidents and the Robert Reich comments on the economy.   

But my favorite topics were biographies.  Four stand out in my memory from my DVD days.  There was “His Excellency” about George Washington, a biography of Franklin, the exact title escape me and two really good books by Ron Chernow, a biography of Alexander Hamilton and an even more interesting one called Titan about John D. Rockefeller.  I liked that one so much I bought and read the paper version.  Suffice to say that Rockefeller was a complex man, generally mistreated by popular history. He certainly was ruthless, but his reorganization of the oil industry was a necessary step in the development of our country.  He was also admirable in his work ethic and personal habits.  He made the money with his own intelligence (cunning?) and hard work (i.e. didn’t come from a rich family) and always gave away at least 10% of his income, even when he was poor. As he got richer, he couldn’t do it well, so he created a business-like way of philanthropy – the philanthropic foundation.  

I was also a late convert to I-pod, but I have enjoyed it a lot. I used to get my audio books from I-Tunes, but after I noticed that most of them came from, I went directly.  When I checked today, I was surprised that I had download sixty three audio books from Audible since the middle of 2009.  Mostly I listened to them on the Metro of walking around. I never listen to I–pod while I run, since I like the total running experience, but I do listen on the walk back. In Virginia, I run out for around a half an hour.  The walk back takes three times that long, so I get in a lot of listening. The problem is the competition.  Now that NPR programs are on I-Tunes, I sometimes do them. There has also been significant competition from Portuguese. I have been trying to get the same audio books in Portuguese, kill two birds with one stone, but the selection is not as complete.

Usually, I listen to a couple of books during the same period.  I am listening now to “the Big Thirst” about water policy and “the Drunkard’s Walk” about randomness.  Sometimes I like the “theme” my books. When I drove through Texas, I listened to “Empire of the Summer Moon” about the Comanche. It is a great book that I recommend. I also listened to “the Forgotten Man” about the Great Depression during my last cross country trip. I recommend that one too.  

As I wrote at the top, I am still enamored with the Great Courses. They have lots of things I should have learned in college but forgot. I also think that the Great Courses are sometimes better than average college courses.  There is some competition, of course.  There are some very good courses available on I-Tunes U.  For example, the “don’t miss” course is a history of Greece given at Yale by Donald Kegan.  

In history & literature, for example, the Great Courses still talk about great things. It seems that in modern colleges they often concentrate details that make little difference and/or on life’s losers and all the troubles of the world related to contemporary problems. We are not the end of history. The thing that makes literature or history great is timelessness. The fact that it is NOT lashed to an ephemeral “relevance.” I hate it when they think I want to learn about “people like me.” I want to learn about those who are different, maybe greater than I am. I prefer to concentrate on the great achievements that can inspire me to better things and consider the timeless lessons.  Human nature doesn’t change.  I also believe in the importance of great decisions.  The behavior of Agamemnon still has a lot to teach, for example.  I understand it is literature, not fact, but the fact that hundreds of generations were influenced by that narrative makes a difference.  There is no such thing as a modern classic or one that is newly discovered.  A classic is like wine or cheese. A classic has to be aged and have a chance to influence more than one generation in more than one place. 

Speaking of timeless value, I mentioned that book “Novo Ordo Seclorum.” The author talked about the personalities of the founding fathers, but also about the books and ideas that influenced them.  Madison, Hamilton & Washington read and were influenced by many of the same classics that influenced me.  I can put myself in their august presence to say the “we” learned the dangers of republics from Thucydides.  We accompanied the abuse of power with Tacitus & Suetonius.  Understood the nature of balances of power with Aristotle and accompanied various human interactions with Shakespeare.  Practical people also need to be grounded in the wisdom of the ages.

Below is the list of the Great Courses I have down loaded in the last two years.  I actually thought I had a few more.  I suppose I am conflating them with the audio books and I-tunes and I used to get them on DVC, which I have lost or damaged. The Great thing about the Great Courses is that they remain on the website and you can download them again if you change computer or your I-pod dies.  And you cannot lose or ruin the disk by spilling Coca-Cola on it (happens to me more than you might think.)

America and the World: A Diplomatic History

American Mind

Art of Critical Decision Making

Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft

Conservative Tradition

Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor

Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitut...

History of the United States

Late Middle Ages

Making History: How Great Historians Interpret th...

Odyssey of Homer

Peoples and Cultures of the World

The Skeptic’s Guide to the Great Books

Understanding Complexity

Western Literary Canon in Context

Wisdom of History

World War I: The "Great War"

October 06, 2011

Back on the Bus

Curitiba airport 

Our flight from Curitiba to Porto Alegre was cancelled because of fog. The next available flight does not leave until after 4pm tomorrow.  A-F-T-E-R-FOUR-P-M. The whole day will be lost. So we are looking at taking the bus. It takes 12 hours, which is still not good, but that would get us to POA about noon tomorrow. IF the bus leaves soon.

I don't think the people at GOL airlines are being very helpful. I understand that the cannot get us on the flight. But they also are not letting the bus go until/unless they can fill it. That means we might wait much longer. I think they are being cheap when it would make more sense to be generous. The bus should cost them less than a hotel room for the at least seven people willing to take the bus. I would argue more, but my Portuguese is not up to situations like this. I don't do very well even in English. Nobody does. This is one of those rotten situations. We are just being mistreated by the overall system, but no individual is responsible. The people you might be able to yell at are not the decision-makers. They merely carry the bad news.

I have the feeling I may be sleeping on the floor at the airport. They offer hotel accommodations, but the hotel is evidently some flea-bag about an hour away from the airport. So we would get a two-hour bus ride no matter what and still arrive very late tomorrow.

It is like that movie - "Trains, Planes & Automobiles." I was looking forward to getting to POA today. It will be somewhat familiar and we were staying at the Sheraton.  In Curitiba, we stayed at the Ibis, which is not terrible, but not sort of the place I would have stayed as a student. I also had the pleasure of staying on a floor they were painting, so I got the familiar smells of fresh paint and turpentine. Beyond that, I got in late because of a rep event. I am just tired. Travel is generally hard and my days have been tightly scheduled.  Now it looks like my night will be too. No matter what happens, I will not get a good night's sleep and it is stressful, even for a calm guy like me who can embrace the suck.  The best case scenario is that I get to sit on a bus all night. I have never been on a Brazilian intercity bus, but I don't expect it to be great.  My ears hurt. This often happens in stressful situations.  I think I tighten my jaw.  I don't mean to complain, but things just don't seem very pleasant when you are sitting in the airport with no firm idea when you will get to leave or by what means of transport.

I am posting now from the airport at about midnight not knowing how this will work out. I will write an update later.    

Update: at 1230am we got a van.  Very tight and uncomfortable. We drove to Florianpolis, got there about 4am. Caught the plane to POA at 640 and got to POA just after 7am. We were tired during the day, but didn't miss any of our scheduled appointments. All is almost well. The usual many cups of coffee provided at all the appointments didn't hurt.

My picture shows the Curitiba airport. It is a little out of focus, like I was. 

September 21, 2011

Garbage In

Electric garbage can at Atlanta Airport 

As I walked by the garbage can in the Atlanta airport, it opened its mouth.  Yes, the thing is automatic, so that you don’t have to waste energy pushing it open to throw away your coffee cup or Hershey wrapper.  Of course, it wastes lots of other energy.  I see public service messages on TV telling me to unplug my chargers.  They call such things energy vampires.  How about the electric garbage can?  And anything that has moving parts wears out.  That means that these things require maintenance.  So some pinheads have taken a simple thing like a garbage can and made it complicated and expensive. 

Solar powered garbage canBut that was not the end of the waste odyssey.  I was walking around Roslyn and noticed an even more expensive and complicated garbage can.  These garbage cans evidently compress the garbage after you toss it in. This waste is probably justified by some people, since they run on solar energy.  Each of these things has a solar panel on top.  But solar energy is not free. There is a considerable capital investment.  I cannot believe these fancy garbage cans will ever break even.  I suppose since they compress the garbage, the garbage collectors can come around less frequently, but I bet they don’t. What happens to the liquid? People throw away half full cups of soda or coffee.  They toss out organic materials and food. So can you really leave this stewing even if – maybe especially if – it is pressed together. So this machine squeezes the juice out of garbage.  It seems to me that this worsens rather than improves the garbage disposal situation.  It requires more, rather than less care and it does so at significant cost. 

IMO, these are all examples of somebody spending somebody else’s money. You couldn’t sell one of these things to an individual homeowner, at least an individual homeowner whose home isn’t the nut house.  Consider if they didn’t have these things.   What if you had to push the thing open with your own muscle power in Atlanta or if the trash was not compacted into little package in Arlington. What a hardship.  It is certainly worth the thousands of dollars and commitment to future maintenance.  Yeah. 

On a related note, garbage cans in Brazil (which you actually have to push open manually, BTW) often have the word “Obrigado” written on them. Obrigado in Portuguese means thank you, thank you for throwing away your own garbage. We have the same thing in the U.S. in some places.  I was talking to someone who told me that he had a friend who asked why Brazilians kept on saying “garbage”. Sounds absurd, but it makes sense if you recall where this guy commonly saw the word written.

June 12, 2011

Lost Like Tears in the Rain

Truck on Johnsonmatel tree farm near the wildlife field 

Foreign Service Officers get to experience more transitions than most people.  We go to different countries, do different things, speak different languages and in some ways even have different personas.  It is no surprise that some people refer to them as “incarnations.”  Each transformation seems more comprehensive or more important than the others, but from the longer perspective they don’t seem as discontinuous.  

I am in the cleaning up and throwing away stage of this transition. It is a slow process because many things cause pause and stimulate introspection. Today I dug out a bunch of green pocket-notebooks, where I had taken notes and recorded impressions from my first weeks in Iraq until now. What should I do with them? Do I throw them out or save them? I have too much stuff, have written too many words.  I feel the compulsion to write “history” but even I am unlikely ever to read it with any meaning.

The ephemeral nature of life is weighing on me just now. My history and observations are ephemeral.  My blogging gives me the illusion of eminence. I read that there are more blogs than there are people in the earth.  Most are not active, but that gives an idea of the scope.  One more disappears like tears in the rain.  So why write? Because this is one of the things I do. 

This is not a useless “because it is there” rationalization. I believe you have to go through the motions and duties of life.  The meaning lies in the activity itself as much as, maybe more than, the putative effects. The accomplishment of our activities is what creates joy and fulfillment. I have always written journals. Now some of that goes to the blog.  What it has accomplished in the great scheme of things I don’t know.  But it made me a better and more joyful person. My question in almost all parts of life is “So, what do I do?” You can often know what to do before you can understand the reasons and sometimes if you do the right things, the reasons follow.

I have never been very religious, but I believe in transcendent truth. There are many ways to truth. Religion is a road for some people. I love the idea of Jesus. I have read the Bible and still do. I know the words to the old hymns and they inspire me. These are good to help find the way to truth & right action, but religion is not the road I can travel.  I cannot base my faith on words, no matter how beautiful, true or good. I usually know what to do, even when the explanations are difficult.

Mysterious experiences are not part of my daily thoughts, but I have a big one. Some people think I am nuts when I tell the story, but I will tell it anyway with the caveat that my words cannot describe the feeling. My father’s death affected me profoundly and grieved until I had a strange dream. In my dream I glimpsed a transcendent reality, an eternal now.  Everybody, yesterday, today and tomorrow was there and I knew them all. I cannot explain much better, but even after more than ten years this feeling lingers and comforts me.

My title comes from an old science fiction movie called “Blade Runner”. A character, who had been a ruthless villain is about to die.  He recalls his unique & fantastic experiences and laments that all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.  It is all accompanied by the evocative music of Vangelis.  Watch the scene at the link above. You could interpret it as a lamentation on the futility of life.  I do not. I always found the scene vaguely uplifting. My dream gave me an answer to the words at least.  Are tears in the rain lost? They are certainly small in comparison to the mass of rain water, but are they truly insignificant?  Aren’t they really just returning to their “home” or did they ever really leave? Didn’t they always remain part? All the water in the world is always part of the water system. I am content with my own answers to the questions themselves and to the wider ones they imply. And I know what to do.  

Life is changing for me again. I have been doing this part long enough and it is time to do something else. Brazil will be a new adventure with new ideas. It will change but stay the same. I look for meaning in the paradox.

The picture up top has nothing to do with the posting. It is my last left from my tree farm visit. It shows the truck up near the first wildlife plot. Alex has the truck now. Maybe he will let me use it when I need it. 

May 23, 2011

Burning it Away

heavy rain on I65 

I bragged a few days ago about getting 52 miles to the gallon when driving on a smooth, flat and almost traffic free stretch of road on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Yesterday I had to waste ¾ a tank of gas.

We are shipping our RAV 4 to Brazil. It cannot be shipped with more than ¼ tank of gas, so I used up most of the gas and planned to send it along. Unfortunately, Espen forgot my admonition NOT to fill the tank when we were gone. He so rarely fills the tanks with gas, that I was surprised when we got home about 6pm yesterday to find the RAV 4 full of gas. I quickly learned that you really cannot siphon gas out of a new car, so Alex and I drove all over Northern Virginia and Maryland to get the gas down to the expected level.

On the plus side, a RAV 4 gets decent mileage for a SUV. It was doing about 27 miles per gallon, which meant we had to drive for hours. We drove down I66 to Winchester, almost in West Virginia. Going there and back took us down only to a half tank, so we drove completely around the beltway, through Maryland and back to Virginia on the other side until we just touched the quarter tank. 

If I would have had another day, it would have been good to go somewhere using that fairly expensive gas.  It is ironic, since I usually try so hard to save fuel, driving the kids nuts by gliding to stops and never accelerating too fast. It was not a complete loss. I had a good talk with Alex in the hours we spent driving with the only object of burning fuel quick as possible.

The picture up top is left from our trip. It is the heavy rain through Indiana on I65.

January 29, 2011

The Way Back

I thought “the Way Back” would be just an adventure movie. It was interesting from the adventure point of view, but I thought it was even more interesting from the point of view of politics & heroism.

The main character is a Polish officer captured by the Soviets after they and the Nazis divided the country between them in 1939. The Soviets massacred many Polish officers at place like Katyn forest, so that he escaped alive was an achievement. It was a terrible time in Poland and not very good in the world in general. It sometimes seemed that the world would be divided between totalitarian communist or totalitarian Nazis, with lots of petty tyrants mixed in but not much space left for freedom. In the movie, the communists throw the guy into a Gulag on the usual communist style charges. There are scenes of the brutality. The main character and some others escape and walk all the way across Asia from Siberia to India.

It has been more than twenty years since communist collapsed in Europe and Poland led the way to freedom. The horrors of communism have faded from popular memory. It is almost impossible to believe it really happened at all. Whole populations exterminated, people thrown into camps because of their associations, class origins or just for no real reason at all. The wars of the 20th Century were bloody with industrial strength, which makes it even more astonishing that more people died from the murderous internal oppression of revolutionary socialism, like communism and its cousin Nazism,  than in all the battle associated deaths.  

When the world started to wake up from that long nightmare, when the Berlin Wall fell and freedom returned to large parts of the world, our joy at the events allowed us to put aside some of the horrible memory. Few Americans have ever experienced anything even remotely like the horrors of the Soviet Union, but it is important sometimes to recall the carnage and suffering committed in the name of progress toward totalitarian utopias.

We like to think that the human race has grown past this kind of thing. People living in just societies in peaceful times can feel that way. History gets sanitized. But the study of history informs us that it good times represent just pushing back the wilderness, in limited times and geography. The demons still lurk out there and even within. World War I opened the door for lots of them and in many ways Lenin, Hitler, Stalin & Mao were made possible by the monumental disruption in the world order. With the passage of time, some of these events and personalities seem less pernicious; they become stereotypical characters, and their murderous henchmen, like Leon Trotsky or Che Guevara can even acquire a kind of radical chic.  

No matter the other merits of the movie, it helped me remember both the horror and the heroism of those who resisted tyranny and ultimately brought it down and also the dangers of revolutionary change. The mostly peaceful general collapse of communism in Eastern Europe may have made us too optimistic. In a place like Poland, it happened smoothly as power moved to a well-prepared and civilized opposition. Despite the past, there were no significant reprisals. As I write this, we are witnessing potential revolutions in the Middle East. I don’t know the details and I certainly cannot predict the future. But I am afraid that behind the revolutions there, there is no Geremek, Onyszkiewicz, Mazowiecki or Wałęsa. I am not sure what the historical analogy will be. When the Iranians knocked down the Shah, worse and more persistent tyranny followed. Just knocking down tyranny is not enough. Some will be there to pick up the pieces. Good does not always get there first with the most. The good people are not always the best organized and the violence, exhilaration and power associated with revolution can corrupt even the best people.

There is no solution to this or a formula that will work all the time. In the times of wrenching change, a lot depends on personalities and luck. Would our post-revolution been so successful w/o men like George Washington?  If the Germans had not “imported” Lenin back into Russia, might their revolution been more moderate and less horrible?  The farther we get from events, the more they seem to have been destined to unfold as they did, but nothing is determined.

Returning to the prosaic, “the Way Back” is a good movie, worth going to see. You can enjoy it as an adventure film and a tale of adversity & triumph and if it makes you think, so much the better.  Colin Ferrell does a great job of playing a murderously dangerous and dumb but somehow likable man.  Ed Harris always does a good job. And Jim Stugess, who plays the Polish officer in the main role, portrays an honorable and determined man in an almost impossibly challenging position. See the movie.

January 14, 2011

Useful Comparisons

I like to look at maps, but maps can be deceptive. They might lead us to believe that countries that cover a big area are more important. You can also be deceived by prominence in the news. An interactive map from the Economist puts in some perspective. Giant Russia has a GDP the size of Texas and oil rich Saudi Arabia is no richer than Massachusetts.

Your perspective changes when you look at the map that compares population. Saudi Arabia has a Texas sized population, even if it doesn’t manage Texas style prosperity. Cameroon has a population as big as New York’s. New York’s GDP partner is Australia.

Countries like Sweden and Finland would fit in well as states in both terms of population and GDP. Sweden has a GDP about the size of North Carolina with a similar sized population. Finland has a GDP about the size of Wisconsin’s and a population like Minnesota. Finland, Wisconsin & Minnesota all feature clean cities, cold weather, northern forests & lots of lakes, so maybe that is appropriate.

International comparisons are always rough and the United States is especially problematic because of its unusual size, population, prosperity & diversity. The only "country" that really can be compared to the U.S. on all counts is the EU. We are often fond of the cherry picking comparisons that seem to prove a point. In fact, as we can see from the map, that the unit of comparison might often be more at the state level. I remember an interesting comparison. The GDP per capita in Germany is about the same as in Arkansas.

January 11, 2011

The Doctor Lied-Kids Died

Kids used to die from diseases that are now preventable. Many of these diseases, such as measles & whopping cough were almost eradicated until a dishonest doctor published an article in the once reputable medical journal "The Lancet" blaming vaccines for autism. Crooked lawyers and opportunistic politicians jumped on the bandwagon. Measles is now endemic in England. California recently suffered a whooping cough outbreak that made 7,800 people sick & killed 10 babies.

This is a story with real heroes and villains. The obvious villain is "doctor" Andrew Wakefield and other researchers who used bogus data to reach dubious conclusions. Also villains are lawyers who quickly sued firms. Useful idiots are the parents who wanted to blame someone and maybe profit from their children's suffering. I am not sure where all the celebrities and politicians belong. They may not actually be villains, but they are worse than useful idiots.

The problem is that this kind of thing happens all the time. Remember when Merrill Streep, in one of her best passionate acting voices, testified before Congress about Alar? Celebries look so good and seem so earnest that you might almost think they knew what they were talking about. Many people laid off their healthy apples for weeks or months. By the time the truth comes out, or by the time it is actually proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that even crooked lawyers cannot spin, the damage is done. It is especially fun for them to go after big firms, something like what is going on with Toyota, BTW, right now.

And one of the biggest threats to human health and safety is the ignorant attacks on the sciences of biotechnology and nanotechnology, but those are all subjects for other posts.

I had all my kids vaccinated against everything they might get. I made sure they got their meningitis shots before going away to school. I get my flu shot every year. I grew up just after polio was conquered. I remember people not much older than I was telling about the horrors. I got my immunization to chicken pox, measles and the mumps the old fashioned way, by getting the disease. I survived, but it is not a harmless thing.

You have to be pretty dumb to avoid vaccinations unless you have a specific medical reason - a real one, not one you got from the Internet. But those who avoid vaccinations are worse just dummies. They harm others. Not everybody can get vaccinated. People with compromised immune systems cannot, for example, but they are extremely susceptible to sickness. The chicken pox that just bothers you and me might kill them. They depend on all of us to NOT to be the carriers of the germs. If you bring measles or mumps etc among them, you might be killing some of these people.

Just be smart and take the jab. If you won't do it for yourself, do it for others. And if you won't do it for others, go live someplace by yourself. You may both avoid the contagious diseases and avoid passing them to others.

References are here & here and especially here.

January 01, 2011

Bean Soup

My father subsisted on pea soup and bean soup, more or less, for the last twenty years of his life, those things plus some Polish sausage and almost ripe tomatoes. Making them is easy and cheap. The biggest challenge is remembering to soak the beans/peas overnight. You can use leftover ham as a base, or the parts of the ham that you didn’t want to eat because they were too fat or too hard to pick off the bone. You can see why this is such a wonderful peasant food.  It stays good for a long time. In fact, it improves with age.  Nothing is wasted.  You can also toss in whatever vegetables were laying around.  It all turns into a kind of thick gruel that tastes pretty good if you put in a little pepper and salt.

I don’t make these soups as much as I did when I was in college. Back in college pea soup and bean soup were among the foods that had the three attributes I craved: they were cheap, reasonably nutritious and I could make them. That is probably why my father ate them all the time too.  But my kids don’t like either, so they cannot form the basis of a family meal.  As I recall, I didn’t like them either when I was a kid. I learned to like them when I was in college. No doubt under my father’s influence, I made it from scratch, the less expensive and better way, rather than buying the pre-made stuff in cans.

You can get pea soup at some nice restaurants, but it is kind of a specialty not common most places.

We had ham for supper and we have ham bone left over, so today I made bean soup.  In a couple of days, I will make some pea soup with what still will be left of the ham.  This week, we will dine like the old man taught me.

Oh yeah, he used to make cabbage soup too. I haven't made that for a long time. No matter how much of this kind of food you try to eat, you really cannot get fat on it.  These kinds of food fill you up before they can fill you out - the original diet food.

December 30, 2010

Groundhog Day


“Groundhog Day” is one of my favorite movies.  I was watching it this morning, dubbed into Portuguese with Portuguese subtitles, so I could assuage my guilt for not studying enough.

I like it for several reasons.  One is unrelated to the movie itself.  The movie was on cable at the Condo where we stayed when we took the kids to the theme parks in Orlando back in 1994. It seemed to be on over and over, so I recall it being on the whole time.  It was a good time.  The kids were excited about Disneyland etc.  The weather was perfect that October when we went and our sense of relief was accentuated because we were coming from Krakow, where the weather was turning bad and – more significantly – the air pollution in those days was horrendous.  So I remember being in a clean, green place with Chrissy and the kids having a good time.  Everything associated with that basks in the glory of that moment, including “Groundhog Day”.  But there must have been other things on too that I don’t recall.  “Groundhog Day” had other things going for it.

Fairfax Honda 

The setting is comforting.  The movie is set in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but it was filmed somewhere in Illinois, so it has a thoroughly Middle American feel. Of course, I have never actually seen a small-medium sized city that is as lively or has so many diverse things to do, but it is nice to imagine.

If you have not seen the movie, you should. A brief summary is that a weather man comes to Punxsutawney for the annual groundhog festival, but each day he wakes up to the same day. It repeats, over and over. They never say how long this happens, but it is a long time, maybe thousands of years’ worth of February 2. The main character, Phil Connors played by Bill Murray, goes through predicable stages. At first he is confused; after that he takes advantage of life with no consequences; then he gets depressed and kills himself many times in many ways, but each day he wakes up in the same place. Finally he decides to live in the moment. He improves himself by reading and learns to play the piano.  He also improves the lives of the people around him w/o any expectation of personal gain.  He does these things essentially because they are the right things to do at the time when he does them.  Finally, after living the perfect day, he progresses to the next day and that is the end.

Borders Books 

The movie raises lots of philosophical questions, but it does it in a stealthy almost unconscious way, which makes it such a unique film. I suppose you could watch the whole thing just for the fun of it w/o getting any deeper than the funny lines and situations.  But I think it would be hard not to think about it, if you were at all paying attention. Most of us have thought about how we might do things differently if we could do things over again, if we had a second chance. This takes us a little beyond that. What should be your ethics in a world where there are no permanent consequences to your actions? I think that the film leads to the conclusion that there ARE permanent consequences, even if external conditions don’t change, because the consequences are contained in the person, who chooses, or not, to do the right thing. The movie is a story of personal development, of redemption.

Sidewalk end 

Phil starts out a selfish a-hole, who after many renditions of the same day develops into a man balanced and at peace with himself. It is not the he just becomes unselfish and helpful to others. More profoundly, he becomes selfless in the true sense of the term. He merges himself with the people, things and the place around him.  He becomes his task no matter what it is, he becomes what he does and loses himself in it. He no longer works on being good, no longer thinks about doing the right thing, he just does it because it has become what he is.

I suppose I am reading way too much into a Bill Murray movie. But I have read many books of wisdom: the Zen of this, the Tao of that or meaning of everything. I am not saying that watching the movie is the one-big-thing.  There is no one-big-thing; however, if someone asked me about the great spiritual sources, I would include this movie. Like all works of philosophy, it should be watched, considered and discussed over time. The book – or in this case the movie - doesn’t change but your different experiences make it different each time. That is why it is impossible to understand any philosophy at the first sitting.  It takes a while to sink in, maybe years with differing conditions.

Lately I have been giving a more philosophical career advice. I tell the young people who ask me that they should strive to become the person they want to be, become the person who deserves success rather than strive for success itself. Success can be limited. Only a few people can be the bosses, champions or among the best at anything.  But everybody can aspire to become what they think is a good person. Reasonable success will almost assuredly follow anyway, but no matter what, you will have something of value when you are finished.  

The picture up top I took of the TV with "Groundhog Day" playing. The other pictures I took when I was wandering around getting the car serviced.  You can see Fairfax Honda and the Borders Book where I got the Hadrian book I wrote about yesterday. The last one shows the respect that pedestrians get around there. I was clearly in the middle of a car-preferred zone.  It is no place for old men, since you have to make a run for it when you want to cross the road.

December 19, 2010

Going Back up Before Finally Going Down

Old people are happier than young people, according to an article I read in the Economist.  Studies show that people have a declining happiness from youth until their mid-40s.  In your forties, many people go through the mid-life crisis, when you realize that you probably won’t achieve all those things you aspired when you were still a callow youth.  Age 46 is the nadir, but also the turning point; after you start to get happier again.

I suggest you look at the article linked above for details.  The authors discuss some of the objections that might be raised about the data-sets.  But they explain that the results hold even when you control for income, education, location etc.   Of course, these things make a difference. Richer people are generally happier than poorer people, for example, but the age differences hold when adjust for such things.

There are a few interesting permutations. Women tend to be happier than men, as a group, but women also suffer depression at significantly higher rates.  Some people are naturally happier than others in ways that you might expect. Some neurotic Woody Allen types can never be happy even in good times, while outgoing people are often happy even when conditions around them suck.  Another interesting apparent contradiction is that when asked about OTHER people, both young and old say that younger people are happier, but when you ask them about their OWN happiness, the older guys come out on top.

It is hard to remember with certainty, but I think I am happier now than I was twenty-five years ago. I don't remember being unhappy back then, BTW, but I have reasons to be happier now. Life is easier.  It is exciting to start out in life and a career, but it comes with lots of stress and uncertainty. I used to feel like I was falling behind.  At this stage of my life, I know what I have achieved and what I am likely to in the future and it is good enough. Maybe you just get used to being "average."  The article quotes the philosopher William James who said. “How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young—or slender.”

December 17, 2010

Diversions on the Way to Pick up Alex


I picked up Alex at James Madison today and brought him home for Christmas vacation. I am glad to have him home and I like to ride with him, so I don’t mind the drive up and back.  The road has become familiar and I have developed routines. For example, I always stop off at the Wilco Truck stop on the way home. I have around fifteen cents a gallon on gas, as compared to the prices in the Washington metro area. They have everything I need, a Hess gas station, a Subway Sandwich shop & Dunkin's Donuts. But I don’t save any money despite the cheaper gas because I waste a couple dollars in quarters in the gambling machine you see up top.  

You drop quarters in and sometimes they push more quarters into the tray and you “win.”  The quarters perch enticingly on the edge, as you can see. In fact, there is no way I can win at this game and I know it. Oh yeah, I can win a few rounds. Sometimes I get the joy of hearing a pile of quarters fall into the tray, but those just permit me to play a little longer. It is just a diversion. I can afford it. I suppose it is more transparent than bigger deal gambling in casinos. At least with these machines it is easy to understand that you aren’t really going to win.

Speaking of things you cannot win, I used to play “Space Invaders” when I was in college. Sad to say, I got very good at the game, which indicates how much money I wasted. It costs a quarter to play, and that was back when a quarter was a lot more money for me. I could “beat the game,” which meant that it went through nine cycles and started back at the easier level. You never got your quarters back, but you could put your initials on the high score board. For a few glorious months, there was status in winning at video games. That was when college students (i.e. semi-adults like I was) were the champions. But we were soon replaced by teenagers and then children who had even more spare time than college students and more capacity for the mindless repetition it takes to master games. There isn't much honor in beating a kid & even less in being beaten by one. In fact, finding an adult too good at any video game is not a good sign. I had a colleague who was master of Minesweeper & computer solitaire; not a good worker.

Of course, today games like Space Invaders are hopelessly primitive. My kids laugh. I explain that it used to be a bigger deal and that it is more challenging to play in a bar after you have had a couple of beers. My other favorite game was Missile Command. That game took more coordination than Space Invaders, so I played that one earlier in the evening.

On my way to pick up Alex today I got out a little ahead of the rush hour traffic, but I still was happy that I could use the HOV lanes on the way out.  One of the advantages of the hybrid is that I can use the HOV lanes.  Frankly, I don’t think it should be allowed.  We have HOV lanes to cut congestion. Conserving fuel is only a secondary goal.   My car does indeed save fuel, but I noticed a single guy in a Lexus SUV hybrid who also had the special right to use the HOV lanes.  I suppose a Lexus SUV hybrid gets better mileage than an ordinary SUV, but I bet it gets poorer mileage numbers than an ordinary Honda Civic.

November 30, 2010

Be Happy

The Danes are the happiest people in the world. The U.S. is up near Denmark, while poor little Togo is both the unhappiest place on earth and the among the poorest, if you believe measurements of those things. China & India fall in the lower middle of both. They have some growing to do before they reach that land of sweet contentment where hardships don’t prevail.

happinessI am happy until I ask why. Then I am just perplexed. Maybe that is because identifying the components of happiness is hard and they are often ethereal. When we look at them closely, they may disappear or seem insignificant. What made me really happy on Saturday, for example, was sitting in front of a south facing wall, after my run, soaking up the warm sun on a cool day. What goes into that, however, is having energy and time to run and to doze in the sun after. It is also the earned freedom to rest after even a small accomplishment. It would not be the same if I just went out and sat in the sun.

Enough money is clearly a component in happiness, since it gives you options and helps avoid hardships. I recall the old hippie saying, “Life is a shit sandwich; the more bread you have, the less shit you have to eat.”

Some people are naturally happier than others. But almost everybody can be made less happy by circumstances, some of which can be avoided by having money. Nevertheless, it remains a sort of statistical process. A rich person has better odds, but a poor person may come out better off with better luck and wise people may be able to maintain their equanimity despite the vicissitudes of capricious fortune. We all die pretty soon no matter what, which evens out all the material possessions, so it is probably not a great idea to get too wound up in the acquisition of stuff - or the lack thereof - anyway. Sic transit gloria mundi.

This interdependence of wisdom, wealth and luck is more or less what Solon explained to Croesus. Read the story at this link. (BTW - the Greeks thought of almost everything we care about in philosophy. This shows us that our problems are nothing new and ensures that you can always quote one of them if you want to be erudite.) A quick summary is that Solon was known as a wise man. He was asked to make reforms in Athens, which was going through challenges a lot worse than we are facing in America today. They had their own sort of globalization (or at least Mediterraneanization) going on and when you said you were a debt slave back then it was literally true. Solon did his duty and after he was done he wisely got out of town before the glow of the people's gratitude and enthusiasm wore off. During his travels, he met Croesus, the King of Lydia & the richest man in the world. Croesus asked Solon who was the happiest man in the world, expecting that Solon would pick him. (The ancient Greeks rarely made a strong distinction between happy and rich, often using the same word for each w/o distinction.) To his surprise, Solon named others. Croesus thought Solon was nuts, but in the end it turned out Solon was right.

Solon & Croesus

Read the link above if you want the rest of the story and if you are apt to complain about not being happy, cut it out. If you cannot actually be happy, pretend to be happy. Acting happy is sometimes enough to actually make you happy. But even if that doesn't work, at least you won't be bothering other people.

November 15, 2010

A Couple of Little Anomalies

Alongside is “Our Lady of Sunoco.”  We used to call it “Our Lady of Exxon,” but I noticed that it is now a Sunoco down there.  I used to pass this place all the time when FSI was located in Roslyn. I suppose a church can be anywhere, but it just seems odd to have the gas station with the steeple on top. There is a lot of new construction going on in Roslyn.  It doesn’t seem to have hurt the area that FSI moved away.  

Below is the bike rack at Dunn Loring with a motor scooter.  This seems to be part of a trend. I am seeing these motor scooters more and more places that used to be the domain of bikes that actually require some muscle movement to propel them.  

I am a bike snob.  I don’t consider motor scooter folks as up to being in the “bike club.”   Just having two wheels is not enough to qualify.  The scooters have the additional negative of often being loud and stinky.  The irony is that those little engines make a lot of pollution.

They don’t belong in places with bikes.

I remember how the scooters and mopeds made walking around in Rome a lot more stressful. A moped can go pretty much anywhere and the pinheads riding them feel free to ride down paths and sidewalks. Bikes shouldn't be in some of the places either, but the moped people tend to be more aggressive. Mopeds and scooters have never been very common around here. Let’s keep it that way. I put them up there with leaf blowers as marginally useful devices that we would be better off without.

the bike rack at Dunn Loring with a motor scooter.  This seems to be part of a trend. I am seeing these motor scooters more and more places that used to be the domain of bikes that actually require some muscle movement to propel them.    

October 29, 2010

Transitions (Sic Transit Gloria Mundi)

Lincoln Memorial at sundown 

You don’t think of yourself getting older. But you do. At the cafeteria today, an acquaintance was talking to the checkout woman about coffee. He told her that he could remember when coffee was a quarter. Then he looked up, noticed me and said, “And that guy can remember when it was a nickel.” Actually, I can’t, although maybe it is just because I didn’t drink coffee.  But the young checkout clerk seemed to accept it w/o serious doubt. She looked at me and asked, “Really, you used to be able to buy coffee for a nickel?”  I suppose it is better to be talked about than not talked about. I just mumbled “yep” and let it go at that. This is my last day here, so I don’t need to maintain my credibility.

US Capitol waiting for the John Stewart show 

I am done and the day is not even over yet. I turned in my Blackberry, did the final checkouts, said my last goodbyes and reduced the size of my email box (according to IT, the most important thing). Nothing remains but to slip out the side door. Transferring within the Washington Metro area is not very hard. I look forward to the adventure of language at FSI and then to Brazil, but it is always sad to leave.

US Commerce Department in late afternoon from Smithsonian Mall 

Of course, I will miss the big things like the people I work with and the job. But I am past that now. Now I am thinking about some small, prosaic things that have contributed to quality of life.  For example, the shower/locker room downstairs is what really made bike communing possible.  It was very refreshing after a hot ride.  It also made lunchtime running a realistic option.   It is really important to integrate exercise into the day, because you will usually be too tired, busy or have some other excuse for avoiding workouts in the evenings and weekends.   A valid excuse is weather and darkness.  In the winter you can run during the middle of the day, when it is often sunny and reasonably warm even many days in January. By evening it is dark and cold.

Another pragmatic benefit was Gold’s Gym, although when we moved to our new building that became less useful.  But when we were in our old building, Gold’s Gym sat between my office and the Metro.  There was never any excuse not to work out.  In fact, I felt compelled to go in, even if I was “tired from a long day.” I have been lifting weights fairly regularly since I was fifteen, which is now forty years, but over the past six years (except for my Iraq time) I lifted MORE regularly because it was just more convenient.  FSI has a gym, although I haven’t looked closely at it.  It probably will not be as good. Gold’s Gym doesn’t have the really fancy equipment, but it is a place more attractive to people who really want to work out, as opposed to the dilettantes who just want to be seen looking good.

Well, one door closes and another opens. I am sure I will find plenty to like in my new incarnation.  I am eager to get to the kinds of work I do well and the intellectual challenge of the language and area studies is attractive.  

Time passes slowly but before you notice it has lurched forward and the future has become the past. The many days of doing routine things and seeing the same places seem to merge.

It is funny how things end. That is why it is more important to have goals re what  the type of person you aspire to become, rather than attaining particular jobs or positions. The day after you leave your job, no matter how exalted, is the day you are a former-whatever it was you were. You cannot take the nice office with you and the fancy title is meaningless once it is done. But you always take yourself along wherever you go, so it is a good idea to get to like what you are and to work not so much to win respect as to be worthy of your own respect and that of others, not matter what position you currently hold, or not  Sic transit gloria mundi.

The pictures show the Lincoln Memorial at dusk.  Next is the Capitol with the preparations for the John Stewart/Stephen Colbert show.  Last is the Commerce Department from the Mall. 

October 22, 2010

Weekly odds & ends for October 22

Why neither Republicans nor Democrats can win permanent majorities – both parties coalitions are unstable, writes Michael Barone, the smartest independent political analyst in the U.S.. It is a good history lesson.

Unhappy Americans - Gallup finds only 21% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time. If that does not improve in the next two weeks, it would be the lowest level of U.S. satisfaction Gallup has measured at the time of a midterm election in more than 30 years of tracking.

Wal-Mart goes even greener - People like or dislike Wal-Mart for lots of reasons, but nobody can doubt that when it sets its policy toward a goal, things happen. That is why it is very good that Wal-Mart is making a commitment to sustainable agriculture. I have no doubt that Wal-Mart will accomplish more than many hundreds of those earnest conferences held around the world for the chattering classes and big-name celebrities. I suppose the goal of “raising awareness” is to get firms like Wal-Mart to make the right decisions.

Environmentalism is becoming mainstream and a routine part of doing business. I understand that having the big capitalistic firms on their side makes the lefty-wing of environmentalists a bit uncomfortable, but for everybody else it is a great development. It makes sustainable progress more likely.

Most Americans think we are too politically correct - And 74% considered political correctness a problem. In an earlier, but related poll 63% believe that PC thinking contributed to overlooking warning signs that might have prevented the Fort Hood massacre. Most of us have avoiding saying things we believe true for fear of crossing the PC lines.

IMO – PC has led to a decline of humor, which often depends on making fun of odd behaviors and characteristics. The only group it is safe to ridicule anymore is bald white males, and there is only so much you can humorously say about them. Ironically, PC has made humor more nasty & coarse. What gets laughs is often crude and rude, but it doesn’t step on any PC protected toes. And crude leads to cruder as shock wears off and requires more.

Why European productivity lags the U.S. – No matter how you slice or distribute wealth, prosperity ultimately depends on productivity. Europe was catching up with the U.S. in terms of productivity until the middle of the 1990s, when they U.S. again pushed ahead. US productivity grew by 22 percent between 1995 and 2005; in Europe, productivity grew by 15 percent, of which only one-quarter came from these service industries. The fact that Europeans tend work less than Americans doesn’t explain the gap. This Mckinsey Report explains some of the causes.

Atlantic wind connection - I was happy to hear that a group led by Google was planning a $5 billion transmission backbone cable 15-20 miles out in Atlantic to connect future wind power generation to the Eastern U.S. grid. It would have a capacity of 6,000 megawatts. The biggest challenge to wind power is transmission. This would address that. There is some gnashing of teeth that it is not worth it, but the beauty of the free market it that investors get to make that call, risk their own funds and make profits if they are right. There is some Luddite opposition, of course. Interesting for me is that it is also viewed with tepid enthusiasm by environmental groups, who fear it might weaken political support for more wind.

I wonder sometimes if they believe more in politics than in the environment.

I have never seen a mature American chestnut tree and never will. The blight that was first discovered in 1904 destroyed the giant trees that had dominated Appalachian forests before I was born. They were not annihilated, however. Even a century later, they still sprout from roots and grow until the blight takes them down.

It was a true ecological & economic disaster when they were laid low by the blight, but people did not give up on them and generations of cross breeding may be about to bear fruit, literally, in the form of chestnuts that will grow into blight resistant trees. I will be getting my two seeds for next growing season from the American Chestnut Foundation. My land is a bit outside the native range of the chestnut, but still within the acceptable climatic zones. I have already identified a spot for them among the oaks, beech and tulip-poplars in the stream management zones. Maybe they will grow blight free, but even if they do, I will never see them at their former glory size. But my kids can show their kids.

October 15, 2010

Eclectic Sources

This is my new feature, a weekly blog posting with links to things I found interesting this week. They are not representative and in no particular order. I am posting it as much for my own use as others, since I often find interesting things and then forget them.

some textCurrencies out of Whack

In China a McDonald’s Big Mac costs just 14.5 yuan on average in Beijing and Shenzhen, the equivalent of $2.18 at market exchange rates. In America the same burger averages $3.71. That makes China’s yuan one of the most undervalued currencies in "The Economist's" Big Mac index, which is based on the idea of purchasing-power parity.

On a more serious note, "The Economist" also has an article about how to avoid a currency war.

Environmental Politics in Brazil

What the Green Breakthrough in Brazil Means - The loser in Brazil’s recent presidential election scores a win for the environment— the Nature Conservancy director of conservation strategies in South America explains. I also bookmarked this guy’s nature blog & traced down a link on Brazil’s new forest code. I have not found good, non-polemic, articles about the forest code in English and may have to do some research on my own to figure it out. The Brazilian minister of the environment is coming next week. I suppose she knows.

Forest Certification

People usually are unaware the most of the timber harvested in the U.S. comes from privately owned land, often family or individually owned. The American South produces 58% of the country's timber. It is important to most owners, to be good stewards of their land, but sometimes it is hard to know if you are doing a good enough job. That is why many of us look for certification that kind of assures us that things are okay.

My tree farms are certified by the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) the oldest certification system, founded in 1941. ATFS is a good organization. It is easy to figure out what you have to do and it doesn’t let the perfect interfere with the good. In 2008, ATFS was accepted under the aegis of Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. As you can tell by the spelling, it is not an American-based organization. In forest harvesting, it is good to be part of an international system, one that sets high standards but does not over interfere with management. Most of the things you do in sustainable forestry are reasonable. The only thing that I have some concerns about is that PERC is prohibiting GMOs. It hasn’t really come up yet as a problem, but with all the nasty invasive bugs flying around the globe catching rides on our airplanes or on our container ships, I think GMOs will become necessary to forest health within the next ten years. I suppose the ban can be reconsidered as science and circumstances advance.

Horrible Dictators of the Past

“The Economist” had a good review of a new book called “Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.” It talks about how Hitler and Stalin complemented and enabled each other in their massive crimes & how most of the destruction was in Eastern Europe. A couple of historical facts were mentioned that I am familiar with because of my Polish experience but I realize are little known or appreciated in outside. One is that the only government that took direct action to help Jews during the Holocaust was Poland. Seven of the first eight operations conducted in Warsaw by the underground Polish Home Army were in support of the ghetto uprising. After the war the communist authorities executed Polish soldiers who had helped the Jews and tried as best they could to wipe out the memory. I remember talking to Polish heroes like Jan Nowak Jezioranski and Jan Karski, who risked their lives to call attention to the Holocaust during the war. Jan Karski had to take a train through Germany, so he had some of his teeth knocked out to give him an explanation for his poor German. Somebody should make a Schindler’s list sort of movie about them.

Karski, Nowak and most all the other heroes of those time are dead now. Soon they will all be gone. "old men forget yet all shall be forgot ..." We may not soon see their like again, and that may be a good thing. Great men are forged in hard times most of us hope we will never endure.

Index of Government Dependence

The 2010 Index of Dependence on Government - The number of Americans who pay taxes continues to shrink—and the United States is close to the point at which half of the population will not pay taxes for government benefits. This new report talks about that.

Rare Earth

China’s Choke-hold on Rare Earth Minerals - China holds the largest reserves of the minerals required to manufacture cell phones, smart bombs, wind turbines and other high-tech products. In recent months, industries reliant on rare earths have encountered increasing delays, quotas and price hikes amid heightened demand. In 1990, the US was the industry’s dominant force, but because of costs, ceded control to China.

Wasting Money

Tax Spend & Shovel - Back in early 2009, President-elect Barack Obama was asked on Meet the Press how quickly he could create jobs. Oh, very fast, he said. He'd already consulted with a gaggle of governors, and "all of them have projects that are shovel-ready."

Oh Wow Man

Drug Decriminalization Works - Next month, Californians will vote on Proposition 19, a measure to legalize marijuana. Because no state has ever taken such a step, voters are being subjected to a stream of fear-mongering assertions, unaccompanied by evidence, about what is likely to happen if drug prohibition is repealed.

August 31, 2010

Pseudo Bike Friendly

bike racks at FSI 

I am at FSI for the PAO course that I never took. I figure that there are basic things that I just didn’t know and I hope to learn about them.

At FSI, I was greeted with an “improvement” around the bike racks. Look at the picture.  I bet these things cost the government a lot, because we never get anything cheap. What good are they? They won’t protect the bikes from the rain. The probably actually make it hotter around the bikes, since they face into the south and into the sun.  Worst of all, they eliminate at least two bike parking spots (on each end) and make it a lot harder to get at the bikes in the middle.

This is the kind of thing that someone who doesn't ride a bike much thinks is "bike friendly."

I figure that somebody will get an award for putting those things up. They will look better on somebody’s personal report than they do in real life. Maybe that same person will earn another award when they take them down, create more space and “save” the upkeep.

Class got out early enough for me to head down to Washington, go to Gold’s Gym and take the Metro home.  It is easier for me to go down to Washington and take the Metro than to go up hill home, although both are about the same distance. Actually, it was a bit farther, since I went the long way through Shirlington and along the Potomac. They connected the bike trail all the way. Sweet. You used to have to get off the trail and cross the freeway on a footbridge.


Above and below are pictures of East Potomac Park. I have been stopping here at the end of the day to kind of settle back into that peaceful, easy feeling.  It is another thing that is a little out of the way, but worth going.  I went down there today for around a half hour, listened to my audio books and watched the water flow. It is a pleasant place to be. The breeze blows off the water in the late afternoon, keeping the mosquitoes confused.


August 19, 2010

Love of Sports

U.S. runners were much less competitive than they used to be.  This bothers the author of the linked article.  Paradoxically, more Americans are running.  In fact, the author thinks this might be contributing to the slowing down of America’s elite runners. Races are dumbed down to cater to the masses. So what if we don’t produce world class elite runners?

I don’t care. Beyond the health benefits, which you can get at a relatively low level or competitiveness, it matters not at all if athletes improve over time. Competitive sports are the epitome of the zero sum game.  I bet they thought up that term to describe sports.  

If we improve the general level of production in business, everybody gets more, at least potentially. If we raise the general level of yield in farming, we can grow more with fewer inputs.  But if the general level of athletic excellent increases, it does nothing to improve anything but the record books. There will always be only one gold, one silver and one bronze.  It doesn’t matter that a decent HS athlete can run/swim/jump/throw better than the guys who won Olympic gold in the 1920s.

Even an average NFL teams today could probably beat the Champion 1967 Green Bay Packers. Players and training methods have improved that much.  Big deal.  In fact, we were better off in the old days before all this scientific training. The game between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys in the “ice bowl”  was as good as any game will ever be.  No progress is possible, no matter how much more bigger, stronger and technically proficient athletes become.  

It is always hard to know when enough is enough.  I was on the swim team in HS. I thought I was pretty good because I won most of the time. Technically, however, I was not very good compared with the really excellent athletes.  Did it matter?  It was against the rules for us to have practices before the season officially started in November. So before we had swim team, we had swim club. We all got together twice a week and worked out. When the season was over in March, we all did other things. There was no continuation of training until we showed up again in the fall.  We were good swimmers; we were never excellent swimmers.  But we were good enough.  It was better that the competition for swimming didn’t dominate our lives even more.

I don’t swim much anymore. It is hard for me to just have fun. Like Pavlov’s dog, I am conditioned. When I jump in the pool, I feel the need to swim back and forth as fast as I can. I still like to run and I make a special point of not competing nor even knowing exactly how fast I go.

Anyway, if America never again produces a native-born champion marathoner, it really doesn’t matter. If the average level of football, basketball or baseball languishes or even declines, it doesn’t change anything, nor does it matter if it improves.  It doesn’t create more winners.  It is much better if lots of Americans exercise even if none of them gets to be very good.   

August 02, 2010

Cultural Relativism: Jeitinho Brasileiro

A practical and effective cultural relativism would start with the premise that if people are doing something for a long time, they must have a reason. It does not suppose that the reason is a good one or that it remains valid. Many parts of culture become fossilized.  People continue to do things that were once useful and adaptive but are no longer. This has been most tragically-comic and obvious in military affairs, where warriors often continue to use weapons and techniques made obsolete by advancing technologies. A Samurai warrior, all decked out in his panoply of armor and edged weapons is a wonder to behold, but he is no match for a kid with a pistol. The Japanese, BTW, addressed this cultural problem by banning firearms (as European knights had tried to ban longbows and crossbows) and managed to hold technological progress at bay for a couple centuries. 

You must acknowledge that the cultural trait is done for a reason and has/had value.  After that you try to put the trait in context. This helps understand the culture. Seek first to understand before trying to be understood. But at some point soon after that, you have to start making judgments and choices.

I have been trying to brush up on my things Brazilian. I have a favorable attitude toward the place and a general affection for the people left over from when I lived there twenty-five years ago.  But I recognize that there are challenges. I just finished reading a book on sociology called “A Cabeca do Brasileiro” (the mind of the Brazilian) and I have been watching Globo (Brazilian TV) every day on the Internet.  All this reminds me of things I liked about the place and some things I didn’t like.   It is condescending to talk about only the good things and churlish to emphasize only the bad.  Anyway, many of the traits have aspects of both.

The author, Alberto Carlos Almeida, devotes his first chapter to “jeitinho brasileiro.” I don’t know how to explain what that is to an American reader and it is obviously hard even for Brazilians to explain it to each other if the guy writes a whole chapter about it.  Suffice to say that it lies in the twilight zone between a favor and corruption.  The jeitinho is a way around something, often a way around a regulation or procedure that everybody knows doesn’t make sense. One of the things I loved about Brazilians was/is their cleverness and flexibly. They can always think of a way to get something or get something done. You can easily see how this “good” trait could cut both ways.

So should we accept, celebrate or condemn the jeitinho? You really cannot ignore it because people will be asking you for it and doing it for you even if you don’t ask. Would you be an “ugly American” if you insisted that you – as an American – don’t do Jeito? Or would you be an even uglier American if you took advantage of it?   

July 12, 2010

Random Thoughts

Below are sunflowers planted near my bike trail.  The thing that is important to notice about them is that they are there at all.  Somebody planted them and nobody knocked them down, despite the fact that dozens of people pass each minute.   I think that says something about the neighborhood. 

Sunflowers on W&OD bike trail near Sandburg St in Vienna VA 

There are some tip-offs about the quality of a neighborhood.  Flowers are an indicator on the plus side, as is general neatness and lack of litter.  It also is a good sign if you don’t see lots of security fences or signs warning about loitering or trespassing. The character of the dominant dog population also makes a difference.  Labradors, golden retrievers and terriers are good; pit bulls and Rottweilers not so much.  I am suspicious of places where there are bars or sliding screens on shops, especially liquor stores. Being able to see more than one liquor store from any one spot is also a red flag. Lots of advertisements for lottery tickets is a bad sign and a big clue that you have crossed into a less desirable part of town are those places that cash checks 24 hours a day or give payday loans.  If you see storefronts advertising bail bonds, get the heck away from that neighborhood.   But sunflowers are good.

Sprinklers near Potomac River in Washington 

Above are sprinklers near the Potomac.  I found a place right in the rain shadow of a couple trees so that the water didn’t get to me.  I sat there a few minutes enjoying the peaceful sound of the spraying water until it started to rain.  That evening we got more than an inch of rain.  If you sprinkle your lawn or wash your car it evidently increases the chances of rain.

Ripley Center at Smithsonian 

Above it the Ripley Center at Smithsonian, where they often hold the lectures I attend. It is like the tip of an iceberg.  That little structure is the entrance to a vast underground complex of halls and museums. They didn't want to put lots of buildings up on the Mall, so they put them under.  

May 23, 2010


John, Dorothy, Barbie, MaryIf there is significance in numbers, this birthday is significant. I am double nickels now and it was double nickels the year I was born. You notice birthdays that end in zero or five. They seem like milestones. This one really isn’t, beyond the numbers. Nevertheless, it is an occasion to pause and think about past, present and future.But I don’t have any profound thoughts today.

Life has been good so far and most things worked out better than I planned, although I can't say that I ever really had a smart plan. Maybe that's why things worked out. You don’t have to be smart if you are lucky and I have been lucky.


May 21, 2010

Nobody Can Buy it for You

Veranda at Hearst Castle 

Money can’t buy happiness. Beyond minimum levels, people do not become happier as their countries get richer. Studies show, however, that those who have relatively more money compared to their peers tend to be happier, no matter what the general level of wealth. Maybe everybody has got to have somebody to look down on. Maybe we feel threatened by the success of others because we are just big bipedal apes we still see our relative status in Darwinian terms. Or maybe knowing that we have earned what we got has something to do with it.

Don’t underestimate the power of envy & resentment (people often dislike those who do better than they do) but don’t think that there is no more to life than greed and material considerations. I attended a good talk at AEI discussing the morality of free enterprise.

Arthur Brooks, the speaker, made several good points, such as a majority of Americans still favor free enterprise and smaller government despite all the economic setbacks of the past couple years. But the most interesting part of the discussion was when he talked about earned success.

Brooks mentioned the studies I alluded to up top about how people feel good about their own success mostly in relation to others, i.e. the rich are happier, but then he took the numbers apart. It is not being rich that counts; it is the idea of earned success. People need to feel that they have done something useful to get what they have got. And it really doesn’t have that much to do with money.

Money & relative status just tend to correlate with the feeling of earned success because those are often the rewards of earning. But correlation is not causality. People engaged in what they consider a good cause or good work also can achieve the feeling of earned success even if it doesn’t pay well. Satisfaction is common among skilled craftsmen, who use their skills to create something special. People often report more satisfaction working to achieve something than in the achievement itself. We want to fight the good fight and prove our character.

Brooks cited studies showing that lottery winners didn’t win long-term happiness along with their Powerball millions. After the euphoria of the first few days, they drift back to their previous levels of happiness, only with a little less joy. Unhappy lottery winners is a cliché and maybe it says more about the type of people who “invest” heavily in lottery tickets than it does about winning. But Brooks also mentioned studies that looked at people who came into unexpected inheritances. These people were presumably a different group but the results were the same. This makes sense anecdotally. Paris Hilton has piles of money, but she doesn’t seem to have much soul. You can have piles of money and still know you are not worth very much and that hurts.

All human civilization is based on reciprocity. We cooperate together because we are better off when we help each other. Our primitive ancestors learned that before we were even fully human. If I share with you when I have a successful hunt, you will share with me when I don’t. Reciprocity doesn’t have to be perfectly symmetrical. Good parents get joy from giving to their children w/o the reasonable expectation of ever recouping their investment. Most of us leave tips in restaurants even in places we will never return. Most of us like to be generous. But we do these things with the implicit expectation that there will be some kind of balance and most of us hate “free riders,” people who give less than they should and try consistently to sponge off others. Among our primitive ancestors, such shirking was easy to detect, and consistent shirkers might end up smilodon lunch. Reciprocity was an evolutionary plus. The idea of reciprocity is programmed into our cultural DNA and maybe our actual DNA. Good people feel an obligation to return good for good. Those who don’t care about these things we call sociopaths.

That is probably why earning your own way is important, why nobody really likes equal outcomes for unequal effort and why you cannot buy self respect. You can achieve monetary success through luck, dishonesty or the kindness of strangers, but unless you feel you earned it, it won’t buy you happiness.

May 19, 2010

Seven Ages of Man and Modern Retirement

Gunsmith-tinsmith in Old Salem, NC 

Shakespeare didn’t invent the concept, but he made it famous. I am at number five of the seven ages of man and considering whether or not the concept still makes as much sense in the modern age, when machines and medicines may change the way the whole game is played.

We still think today of the traditional career track, where we settle on a life-work when we are in our early twenties and stick to it until we are in our early sixties. After that we live off a pension or savings and  whether we move to a retirement center in Arizona or Florida or whether we age in place,  the remainder of our lives are just post scripts from the working/productive point of view. This really doesn’t work anymore.

For one thing, there is a crisis in Social Security and pensions. Franklin Roosevelt was very clever when he sold the country Social Security. It really is a type of Ponzi scheme, but he sold it as insurance and we have had that concept of it ever since. In fairness to Franklin, it was also a sort of insurance, since many workers did not live long enough to collect SS and nobody was supposed to depend only on it. Life expectancy was only 63 when Roosevelt proposed making the retirement age 65. Things have changed.

The last generation that will be able to depend on pensions and Social Security will retire within the next five years. There will not be enough young people to support the old people in the style to which they have become accustomed. “Young people” like me and younger, should expect to work longer and pay for more of our expenses through savings and continued work income and society will have to adjust to accommodate these needs.               

As we live longer and healthier lives, as the physical demands of most paid-labor become less onerous and as our retirement funds run out of money, it just makes a lot more sense to keep working. 

Staying on the job will mean getting rid of the old career paradigm we have today, as well as blurring the distinction between work and retirement. Most of us won’t be able to keep our current jobs and just tack on a decade or two.

For one thing, we have to move aside and give others a chance. This is especially true of managers and leaders. In the Civil Service, where longevity is rewarded, you often have the sad case a couple of workers growing old together. I say sad because one may have got the job only a year or two after the other, yet he could remain the junior guy for thirty years. We saw a similar higher profile case, BTW, with former Senator Ernest Hollings, who was the junior senator from South Carolina for nearly forty years, serving with Strom Thurmond, who hung around for almost fifty years and turned 100 while still in office. 

Another problem is that we just get bored and/or our skills are overtaken by events or technologies.   It is hard to keep up with changing requirements.  Most of us tend to slow down in our search for improvement after we think we have enough. This makes perfect sense. It is like the old joke that you always find your lost keys in the last place you look … because who keeps on looking after that. Calvin Coolidge said that you should always leave when they still want you to stay and it is very sad if you don’t take that advice.

So if most people probably shouldn’t just keep on doing their current job, what should they do? I met a guy who has one of the most perfect retirement jobs. He is the gunsmith/tinsmith at Old Salem, where he crafts guns and tools by hand.  He told me that he wanted to be an artist, but discovered that there were more talented people than there were places for them to work, so he went into business. After retirement, he got to indulge his creative side again doing a job and developing skills that keep him both useful and busy. His picture is up top.

Not everybody can get this exact sort of job, but there are lots of jobs that are functionally equivalent. I want to spend some of my productive golden years doing forestry and working on real estate development. My currently amorphous & slow moving dream is to work some cluster development into working forest and agricultural land, allowing them to exist in a symbiotic way. I think too many people are living too far from natural systems and I include in this group many who live in ostensibly “natural communities” that separate the work of man from nature. When Thoreau tramped though the nature around Walden Pond, he and his neighbors were aware of where their food came from and where the wood that would heat their houses next winter was growing. I think we should strive to strike a balance with nature – local nature - not separate ourselves and/or treat nature like part fragile flower in a museum that will be profaned by our touch and human actions.  I hope to make that the work of my sixth age. It will be useful and I hope profitable work. I would like to make the kids and (eventually I hope) grandchildren part of that before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Most people have something like this that they can do and want to do, something that will give them meaningful work until they can work no longer. I want to die with my boots on and I think most people want to keep working if they think about it. Years of leisure sound great until you have to live through them.   

The Bible tells us that the lifespan of a man is three-score and ten. That’s seventy years and roughly ten years for each of the seven ages of man. We do better than that today.

If we tweak Social Security rules to make it easier and more lucrative for retired folks to work, I think more of them will.  And if we made work rules more flexible to allow more part-time, flexible and intermittent work schedules, we can keep people working for decades past official retirement. New studies indicate that many of us will live to be 100 or 110. We really don't want to work for forty-five years and then retire for another forty-five years and just wait listening for the steps of the grim reaper. Old people can be assets or burdens to the earth. Increasingly it is a choice get to make ourselves.

Single men's workshop at Old Salem, NC 

Above is the single men's workshop at Old Salem. Below is the shoe maker's room in Old Salem. There is a story about a man who was in a terrible accident. When he woke up in hospital the doctor said, "I have some good news and bad news for you." The guy asked for the bad news first. The doctor told him, "we had to amputate both your legs." The guy shouted back, "what could possibly be good news to make up for that?" "The guy in the next bed wants to buy your shoes."

Shoemaker shop at Old Salem 


April 30, 2010

What is Art

Palm Springs Art Museum building 

I wasn’t allowed to take a picture of the most interesting part at the Palm Springs Art Museum.  The guard literally stopped me just before I pushed the button.  He claimed it was because the artist has not given permission and I can well understand why. If I produced art like that I also would not want to allow evidence.  It was a stack of black garbage bags.  I have seen such installations before, but never in a museum.  This guy evidently got paid for putting them there. Usually they only pay when somebody takes them away.

Cowboy statue at Palm Springs Art Museum 

Some of the other art was very good, like the cowboy sculpture in the picture.  These places are nice to have in a town.  It adds a certain spiritual/artistic dimension.  But sometimes we suffer from the “Emperor’s New Clothes” phenomenon.  Garbage bags are interesting, but they are not art.

Art museum in Palm Springs courtyard 

Below is a statue of a chameleon at Marriott. This is nice art, but not considered "fine" since it is inexpensive and common.

Chameleon at Marriotts 

Below is a street in Palm Springs.  Some of the stores and restaurants have some misting. In a dry climate, it really cools it down at street level. 

Misting on a Palm Spring Street 

Below is real art. This is a man-made landscape set in nature's valley. Very nice. Notice the way to clouds sit on the mountains. I think those are the Santa Rosa Mountains.  The moist air cannot make it over the summits, so on the one side it is wet, cooler and cloudy.  On the other side, it is dry, hot and clear deserts.

Marriott Resort looking at the mountains 

March 08, 2010

Death Panels

Tombstone in Boston cemetaryThe medical profession has failed miserably. Almost 2500 years after Hippocrates invented the profession, the human death rate is still 100%. Our ancestors lived more intimately with death than we do. They often did it at home. We make it a clinical process. They understood that death was inevitable and capricious. We are not too sure. We postpone death with our science and pour money into “saving” lives.

Read both the links. The second link in poignant. The first one is in jest, but both speak to both universal truths and our own attitudes that are out of sync with them.

In his Apology, Socrates talked about facing death. When confronted with the option of compromising and “saving” his life, Socrates pointed out that saving his life on this one occasion would not mean that he would live forever. He was already old and he preferred to die with the values by which he had lived. His decision was both practical and principled. End of life decisions have not really changed that much.

We have significant problems understanding health care because we do not want to face the truth of our own decline and mortality. No amount of money can buy back your youth when you’re old and nothing will keep you alive forever. The interesting thing about our extensions of life EXPECTANCY is that LIFE SPAN has not increased in the last 6000 years.

The Pharaoh Pepi II Neferkare reportedly ruled for ninety-four years. We assume he was young when he took the job, but you still have to figure that the man lived around 100 years. While there is reason to question the exactness of the records, SOME people clearly lived to very old ages w/o the benefits of modern medicine and we don’t live significantly longer. The difference is that back then MOST people didn’t live past their childhood. They pulled down the statistics.

Of course, there is also the question of whether or not you want to live to be 100. I see these guys celebrated on TV and it seems like an exclusive club of which I prefer not to become a member.

Pepi lived for a long time because he was lucky enough to avoid things that might have killed him sooner. There was nothing in ancient Egyptian medicine or pharmacology that could have extended his life. Today we can, so we have to start thinking about what we really want. We now have hard choices that generations past didn’t face. 

My second link tells the sad story of a woman trying to save her husband’s life. Modern medicine managed to extend his life – extend his misery – by a few years at the cost of $618,000. My father went out right. He got a medical exam in 1945, when he was discharged from the Army Air Corps and never went to the doctor again except once to remove a sore on his stomach.  At the age of seventy-six, he fell to the floor and couldn’t get up. When asked how he was doing, he said, “I can’t complain” and promptly died. No doubt good medical care could have extended his life, but would that have been a good idea?

No matter what, the decision you make will be wrong in some way.

There has been a lot of loose talk about death panels and medical rationing. Nobody likes the idea, but we – as a society – will indeed need to develop some ethics about end of life issues. Until recently we didn’t have to worry about it but if we apply our medical technology and our big bucks we will have to decide when it is enough. We shouldn't make it political. It is a matter of ethics.

February 18, 2010

Equality v Fairness

The concepts of fairness and equality significantly overlap, but they are not the same. A recent study showed how people’s perception of fairness of equal outcomes varied depending on what rewards were being offered. It seems that most people think equality is fair up to a certain level; after that treating unequal contributions equally is unfair.

Modern philosopher John Rawls in his theory of a "hypothetical contract” argued we could imagine a fair society if we imagined a situation where all of our individual identities were temporarily unknown. What rules would we all set up if we didn’t know what role we were going to get to play? This kind of analysis is bound to produce equality and you can see this kind of thinking at work for SOME things.

The sun also shines on the wicked

People tend to believe in equal distribution when they believe rewards are random or unearned. That makes sense to me too. If you cannot make reasonable distinctions, your best course of action is to treat everybody equally. People are even more generous with things they don’t feel they earned. The best time to ask for a loan is after someone has come into an unexpected windfall. Do the thought experiment yourself. How different would be your response to a friend asking for ten of dollars if (1) you just found $100 on the ground or (2) you just spent 12 hours washing dishes to earn $100 (maybe $60 after taxes and fees)?

And think of how much more generous you could be if it wasn’t even yours. I remember as a child, friends would sometimes let friends skip in line … but almost always in BACK of them. No cost generosity can be appealing.

So people believe that fairness is pretty much the same as equality when rewards are random. They also tend to believe in minimums. Few people think it is morally wrong for a starving man to steal bread from someone who has more than enough. It is interesting to consider how the evaluation changes when one starving man steals bread from another starving man. Most of us believe in basic equality, i.e. some minimum level.

Outside games of chance, the world offers few examples of complete randomness.

After that, fairness and equality diverge and their fairness requires unequal treatment of unequal inputs. It is a very imperfect calculation. There is a lot of random chance involved and that makes judgment more difficult. And it was difficult already, since the amount contribution might be hard to see. The contribution of someone who thinks for a couple of minutes and then makes the effective move might be worth more than someone who struggles all day doing the wrong things.

We also come against the problem of previous expertise. There is the story about the man who locks himself out of his house. He calls the locksmith, who wisely quotes a price of $50 BEFORE solving the problem. After they agree, the locksmith takes out a little hammer, whacks the lock and it opens.

“Fifty dollars,” the man complains. “All you did was hit it once. I want an itemized bill.” The locksmith hands him a bill - “$.05 for whacking the lock; $49.95 for knowing how to whack the lock.”

Those least able to make meaningful distinctions tend to favor equality of outcomes

It is no coincidence that the love of equality is most ardent among the young. They have not yet had much of a chance either to earn anything or see anybody else earn it. With experience comes a greater appreciation for fairness. Interestingly, the young tend to believe in economic equality, but can be ferociously unequal in other ways. The degree of social stratification among teenagers is something most adults never see. You can see what they think more about and what they know more about.

A modern society makes it harder to judge fairness too. In an agricultural society, everybody’s efforts were literally on view. Laziness or ineptitude would show up in a farmer’s crops. If there was bad luck, such as weather or unexpected bugs, everybody would be aware of that too. A man who worked hard only to have his crops destroyed by a hail storm clearly deserved help, the drunk that never bothered to plant at all, not so much.

Did the ants marginalize the grasshopper?

The old fable of the ants and the grasshopper appeals to an agricultural society. Retelling in our contemporary context often has the grasshopper saved by the generosity of strangers. I am sure there is a version that taxes the ants to pay for the grasshopper’s welfare and criticizes the narrow-minded, if hard working ants, for their insensitivity to grasshopper culture.

People are much more willing to tolerate suffering in themselves or others when choice is involved. Physically hard work is less common than it used to be, but people are willing to put themselves through grueling physical suffering in pursuit of sports. Nobody feels sorry for the Olympic Marathon runner, but imagine if someone was forced to go through that much agony to earn a daily living. The difference is choice

I liked (and still like) to drink beer and on some occasions have consumed enough to suffer severe “flu-like” symptoms the next day. Chrissy makes no attempt to mitigate my suffering and in fact boldly opens drapes and stomps around the house in the early morning (i.e. before 10 am) hours. Her behavior is very different if my flu-like symptoms are caused by actual flu. What causes the difference? Choice.

It is just plain cruel to punish someone if he has no choice and cannot change his behavior. On the other hand, if someone can choose, it makes sense not to protect him from the consequences of those choices. In fact, allowing someone to persist in error when he has the capacity to change is a morally questionable and cruel thing to do. Should you let a child walk into a fire because he is fascinated by the flame?

This is the moral hazard of insurance. Insurance is great to the extent that it spreads the risk of random events so that no individual is destroyed by bad luck. However, if individuals start to engage in riskier behaviors BECAUSE they can take advantage of others through insurance, you have a moral hazard as well as higher system-wide costs.

Free will or determinism

I think that current debates between liberals and conservatives often come down to the age-old debate about freedom and determinism. You can see it in the way they use language. Consider the case of the drunken farmer reference above. When asked why the fields went untended, a conservative might say something like, “He just wouldn’t stop drinking long enough to do the work,” while a liberal might say, “He was unable to stop drinking …” or even “He didn’t get the help he needed to stop drinking ….”

There has never been a definitive answer in the free will debate. The most nuanced approaches talk about free will exercised within the limits of constraints, but this just moves the discussion argue about the height of the walls of the constraints.

Somewhere between stimulus and response is a choice

A poor man might have fewer opportunities than a rich one, but how much is his behavior DETERMINED by his poverty and how much exercise of free will does he have? Nobody has complete freedom and nobody accomplishes anything completely on his own. But we are not animals. Somewhere between the stimulus and our response is a region of choice.

It is not always bad to start off or be economically less well off. For example, I am happy that I grew up in modest means. It has made my life easier in the respect that I didn’t have to “live up” to a high standard of the previous generation. Some of my richer friends have never escaped the shadow of their parents’ wealth, and it seems to fill them with anxiety and guilt. They might have really nice baggage, but maybe it is better not to have to carry it all.

The bottom line for me is that it is not unfair that some people are rich and others are poor. My own prejudice would be for some limits, so that we could relieve existential poverty and I believe that great wealth is morally corrupting, especially great unearned wealth. But that is just my prejudice.

I think there is a moral hazard in wealth redistribution. The test for me would be sustainability. If “society” can “invest” in you and there is a reasonable chance that this will help you become a productive and independent citizen who will someday make contributions (not only economic, also social, artistic etc.) in excess of the investment, it is the right thing to do. You have the choice not to play in this game, but others should have the reciprocal choice not to give to you. In other words, nobody should have the right to make demands w/o offering something in return.

Reciprocity is one of the basics of civilization

Most of us do not expect perfect reciprocity in every transaction, but you expect something. If you are generous to me today, you might never expect something back from me specifically to you, but you do expect that I will at least be grateful and/or be generous to someone else in the future.  Remember that movie “Pay it Forward”?

Freedom is more than another word for nothin' left to lose

We have choices. We often call the sum of our choices “freedom”. Sometimes people ask what freedom is good for and we might try to answer that it helps create wealth or that we can help the poor more etc. It does these things. Free countries tend to be richer, cleaner and generally more pleasant. But freedom is not the means to a goal. Freedom is the goal for which we are willing to sacrifice other things. If we created a perfectly “fair,” “just” or “equal” society at the cost of freedom, which includes the freedom to succeed and the freedom to fail, we have accomplished nothing.

February 11, 2010

Crooked Lawyers

John_with_leather_coat. bought in 2003 from Jos A BanksI have been a plaintiff in at least three class-action lawsuits.  I got nothing from any of them and never really understood what the cases were about. The one I understood best involved a leather coat I bought from Jos A Banks. “My” lawyers said that I had been deceived by online advertising.  I didn’t feel aggrieved but they make it very hard to get out of the “class.” My lawyers won a pile of money, but their fees took it all, leaving nothing for us victims. 

These kinds of class action cases are shakedown. 

Unscrupulous lawyers cruise around looking for people they can call victims and corral into a class. Sometimes they even create victims if they cannot find any on the free range. The key is to tie the victims to a firm that has money.  The target firms know that they may have done nothing particularly wrong, but they also understand they really cannot win. It might cost more to fight to a righteous victory than to pay the extortion money requested by the pirate leaders … sorry lawyers and there is always the chance with the crap shoot that can come from going before a jury made up mostly of people who had nothing else to do and/or couldn’t think of a good excuse to avoid being there.

BTW – I have not served on a jury and have never even been called up. Where you live makes the difference. Where we live in Fairfax County, they have lots of voters and not too many perps.  Some places the balance is different and voters there get lots more jury opportunities.

Toyota in the shakedown zone

What brought this subject to mind was a program I saw today with a lawyer talking about his plans to shakedown (he didn’t use that word) Toyota. This just makes me sad. We owned a couple of Toyotas.  They were good cars and the company was a good company.  I think they still are.  Nothing is perfect and the demand for perfection usually gets you in big trouble. Toyota may be able to pass through this purgatory but the lawyers will make it that much harder.

That is because they will demonize Toyota in order to make more money. What has the average Toyota owner actually lost? Most have lost nothing. But if clever lawyers can figure out ways to corral enough of people into a class, they can figure out how to shakedown the company. The lawyer on TV was running the gambit that Toyota owners may have lost resale value, since the demand may have declined as Toyota’s reputation has declined and that Toyota should pay them off. The TV host scoffed a little and pointed out that this sum would be nearly impossible to figure out and would not be much money per person. 

Not to worry. If lawyers put all these people into a class, it will be possible to get enough money out of Toyota to pay their legal fees. Of course, the average owner will get less than nothing. Why less than nothing?  Because all these lawyers will distract a good company from making better cars.  Instead of innovation, they will start playing defense.

A few very simple things that can be done to reform this system

First is to force the class-action lawyers get individuals to take the affirmative step of opting into the class. In the three class actions I was part of, they never asked me if I wanted to be in. In fact, they make it very hard to get out once they have herded you into the corral. I would never have opted in. Lawyers know that, which is why they don’t want to give us the choice. The second thing is to make the loser pay the reasonable costs of the winner in any lawsuit. Some people say that we should also get rid of contingency fees (where lawyers get a piece of the action only if they win), but I think the loser-pays system would change the incentives and take care of this too. 

Loser-pays would embolden the victims to take on the lawyer shakedowns. As I mentioned above, sometimes individuals and firms settle because they know that the cost of a successful defense would still be more expensive than just paying off. This would remove that as an obstacle.  

Innovation is great in science and technology, bad in law

It is good to be innovative and entrepreneurial in most things. That is because innovations can create wealth for everybody involved. It is a positive sum proposition, a win-win. When two or more people make a trade, they all get more of what they want.  The law is an exception because it is zero or even negative sum. Law settles disputes.  For every winner, there is a loser and when you count in all the other costs less comes out of a legal case than goes in. And once the lawyers get involved, the warring parties will harden their positions because of the adversarial nature of our law and it is unlikely that they will come up with synergy that makes them both better off. 

Law is also not voluntary. If I buy something you are selling, presumably we both think we got a good deal, since neither could force the other to participate in the transition. Law is all about coercion. One of us would prefer not to take part in the transaction and we both hope to use the coercion of the state to force the other to do something he/she would not do under coercion-free conditions.

Law should be plodding, boring and predictable

Law should be predictable, even if it is plodding, because people have to be able count on it.  It should not change to radically or rapidly that most people cannot keep up with it. In a just society, everybody is reasonably sure when they are acting within the law and when they are not.   Justice suffers when laws are ambiguous. In fact, there is a rough way to recognize a good society by answering a couple of questions.  (1) You have done something you think is wrong.  How afraid are you of suffering proportional consequences?  If the answer is “a lot,” the society is reasonably just.  (2) You have been accused of a doing something you do not believe is a crime.  How afraid are you that you will suffer disproportional consequences?  If you are very afraid, the society is unjust.   To the extent that lawyers blur the lines, they create injustice.

Innovation and entrepreneurial behavior among lawyers tends to dampen those things in other parts of society. A lawfare assault on one frightens dozens and makes them less likely to try anything new. 

The coat was a good deal

BTW – the coat was really nice. You can see what it looks like now in the picture above.  I bought it online for $149 in 2003.  It is very comfortable.  Given our local weather, I wear it much of the year and it looks like it will last many more years to come. It was not possible that I could have been significantly harmed by anything Jos A Banks did, ergo the lawyers who did this to them and used people like me as an offensive weapon, were crooks. I pity the people at Toyota. They will be lawyered for years to come.

January 25, 2010

Flying Johns 

I have been watching the Institute of Peace building going up outside my office.  Most of the time it is pretty prosaic work, like the guys laying concrete in the picture above.   But sometimes there is something more unusual, such as the flying portable toilets, pictured below.

Flying Johns at the US Institute of Peace building in Washington DC 

I imagined how it would be if some poor guy was using it when the crane picked it up.   I suppose the best course of action would be to lock the door, hunker down and hope for a soft landing.

Porta Johns being moved by cranes 

As long as I am on construction, below are pictures from the hot lane construction along the I-495 beltway.  I wrote a post re the hot lanes last year.  I took the pictures from the rolling Metro, which accounts for some of the blur. 


January 19, 2010

Swine Flu

pigs playing guitars 

"If you see 10 troubles coming toward you, you can be sure nine will run into the ditch before they reach you,” so said Calvin Coolidge and he was right. He could also have added that politicians will work the people into hysteria about those nine, take credit for vanquishing them, be distracted enough not to properly address the real one and then blame the tenth (the one that actually arrives) on somebody else.

It seems the swine flu may be the mildest pandemic ever and likely fewer people will die this year than in a normal flu season. We could credit the fast and effective action by the authorities, but there wasn’t much of that. The vaccine is only now becoming generally available. 

Please let me be clear that I am not saying that our efforts to fight the flu were misplaced. I got my own flu shot a couple days ago. It is only that we had a fairly routine problem which the authorities made sound like the return of the Black Death.  Unfortunately, this has become a common communication method.

According to the media, stoked by politicians and special interests, almost everything is an existential crisis.  When you look back, the disasters not only did not destroy civilization as we knew it, but are not important enough to be reported a few months later. On to the next "hair on fire" crisis. This is not a coincidence.

January 09, 2010

Say what you want about Wal-Mart. They don’t rip you off. I took Alex up to James Madison today and bought the books for his classes.   I buy lots of books.   In my experience, a good hardcover book costs around $20.  Not textbooks, evidently.    One book, a small book, called “Modern East Asia since 1600” cost $81.60.   You would expect at least to get the whole history of East Asia for that kind of money.   I checked on   It is not available in that edition.  That is the trick.   The editions keep on changing.  Not much really changes inside, but the pages are different so students can't properly use the old ones in coursework.

I could well understand if professors were getting kids to buy classics that would be of lasting value.  It might be worth it to pay big money for a good copy of “the Iliad,” “Wealth of Nations” or “Paradise Lost”.  Not that the kids would always actually read all of them, but at least they could legitimately grace their bookshelves for the next decades.   Ironically, the classics are usually inexpensive.  But the books they are asked to buy are rarely classics or even candidates for being classics.  Don’t take my word for it or rely on my judgment.   The authors obviously don’t think their tomes have any staying power, or else they wouldn’t keep on making minor alterations that require endless new editions.  

So let’s talk about how Wal-Mart is different.    After buying the textbooks at a total cost of more than $300, we went to Wal-Mart to buy a mini-refrigerator for Alex’s dorm room.  It cost $99.  How does that work?  Maybe we should put Wal-Mart in charge of the textbooks. 

Actually, I have to admit that I have been paying too much because I was stupid.  The kids bought the books they needed and I paid for them w/o thinking much about it.  I remembered that when I was in school books were expensive, but used books were usually a decent deal.   But now the used books are not that much cheaper and even when the discounts are steep they start from such lofty heights that it still is outrageous and there are fewer used books because of all the new editions.  I found that Walmart can indeed help, but not always and not that much.   The books are still really expensive because they start off really expensive.  

IMO, the problem is precisely that those making the demands (i.e. the professors) are not those making buying the books (i.e. the students) and those buying the books are not the ones paying the bills (i.e. the parents or government).   It gets worse.   Professors often write the kinds of books that nobody reads voluntarily.   (Those professors who do write books that sell (usually for around $20) are disparaged by less popular members of the professoriate as popularizers.)  Even if they didn’t write the assigned books themselves, many professors feel a kind of solidarity with their colleagues toiling in the narrow fields plowing up the dirt that where only specialists are allowed or willing to tread.

Nobody spends other people’s money as carefully as he spends his own and some people seem to think that it is a positive virtue to be generous with other people cash.  You can imagine a professor saying to himself, “Scholarship is more important than money anyway and if I can help deserving but poorly remunerated fellow professors make a little extra money, who does it hurt?”  Who does it hurt?

Some things get cheaper over time, at least in real dollars. These things include computers, laser eye surgery, electronics & small appliances. Other things get more expensive.  These include university education, medicine besides laser eye surgery and public transportation. How are these things different? 

December 25, 2009

Original Sin & the Environment

I was devastated when I first learned about original sin. No matter how good you are or what you do, you can’t overcome the sin carried by all humans. Fortunately, there is a way to redemption. Many in today’s world have rejected this religious concept and some have rejected religion altogether. At least they think so.

If you believe in nothing, you fall for anything

But humans are hardwired to believe in something beyond themselves. The non-religious or the un-religious often develop some very rigorous dogmas of their own. Sometimes they are deadly godless quasi-religions such as Nazism or communism. More often in our own times they are variations of difficult to define new age beliefs. Some people are attracted to these sorts of things because they can fill in whatever they want while still enjoying the safety net of spirituality.

Excessive purity is a perversion

Puritan Statue in Salem MAIMO, one of the most pernicious perversions of religion was/is the type of exclusive, bigoted purity (BTW - I avoid using the term puritan because that implies a particular time, place and people.) that declares the very nature of humanity as evil and holds out almost no chance of redemption. We have had outbreaks of this throughout history and it is a deadly disease.

I always thought that if God was almighty he could take care of himself without the faithful on earth having to kill or torture people in his name and a just God surely doesn’t reward those that do. But many of the purists evidently have less confidence in the Almighty than I do and feel he needs their humble human violent interventions. Good people have to oppose this perversion of faith w/o necessarily attacking the God that these misguided people purport to represent.

There is no possibility of redemption in most secular variations of original sin

Unfortunately, secular quasi-religions can also be intolerant, deadly and human-hating and they can and do produce a secular version of original sin. In the Marxist version, your “sin” relates to the class and Marxist theology allowed whole classes of people to be consigned to Gulags, no matter their individual behaviors or attributes. The Nazis did this based on races, as they defined them.

Your carbon footprint = your sin?

The concept of original sin is becoming prevalent in some of the deeper green environmental circles and is manifest most clearly in the concept of the “carbon footprint.” The whole idea of global warming maps closely with original sin. According to the more extreme interpretations, all humans are guilty of greenhouse gas. In a modern version of the medieval mortification of the flesh, you can reduce your “sin” but there is nothing you can do to avoid it. The best thing you could have done for mother earth was never to have been born and some people have advocated holding you accountable for your own carbon footprint and those of your descendants. We could paraphrase Exodus 20:5 by saying that it visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and forth generations, but this modern religion goes on forever. And it is even expanding to include our pets. Yes, owning a big dog may be worse than driving an SUV. Ironically, I think the idea that the human species should voluntarily vacate the planet sits better with some people than the idea that they would have to get rid of their dogs or cats.

Similar to what I wrote about religion a few paragraphs above, good people have to oppose this perversion of environmentalism w/o rejecting the concept that these misguided miscreants purport to represent.

Humans are part of nature and what we do becomes part of nature

Human beings are not some kind of blight on nature that should be extirpated. Humans are an integral part of nature as it exists today. As part of nature, we have the responsibility to use wisely the intelligence given us by nature and natures God. This also means using wisely those natural resources available on this earth. We must firmly and forcefully reject the idea that humans should deny their own right to continued existence on the earth, understanding that having humans on earth means that the earth will be altered by us. This is what every plant and animal does.

I always admit that I don’t have any original ideas and I don’t have any new ideas. I found something I wrote six years ago while sitting in forest shelter to avoid the rain. It has the advantage of being more spontaneous and I really cannot improve on it so I copied it below with a few minor edits.

I have been wandering forests for my entire adult life, most of my adolescence and some of my childhood. I have learned to identify the trees, soil types, & topography. I love forests, but my thinking about them has changed. I used to like to wander lonely as a cloud. I didn’t want to see the signs of human kind in my forests. Maybe that was because there was little chance I would get my wish.

Nature without people is just plain lonely

I have changed my mind. I don’t really like wilderness in the sense of land without man. There was plenty of that in the countless eons before man and there will be plenty more after we are gone. Will “time” stop with nobody left to count the minutes, hours, days and years? It might sound arrogant to say that man is the measure of nature, but it is even more arrogant and downright ignorant for any human to say that he can understand nature in any other way. Raw nature is nasty, cold and incompressible. No human can respect nature in its natural state and it really doesn’t matter if we do. There is nothing the human race can do to add or detract from nature. If we managed what we arrogantly fear (but couldn’t really do) – if we destroyed the entire surface of the Earth, would that make any difference to a nature that encompasses an endless universe of worlds without end with billions of years at its disposal? Is there anything any of us could do that will make a difference a billion years hence?

What can we do to harm nature? In the long run – nothing

It would make a difference to humans in the here and now. We can only add or detract from the human interpretation of nature. Now I am happy to see signs of “good” human intervention and sometimes even the results of a bad intervention healed. More than a century ago, a great man-made catastrophe transformed Northern Wisconsin. The great Peshtigo fire burned everything from the middle of the state to Lake Michigan. You can still see the signs in the type of vegetation and soils. We now call it old growth, but it results directly from inadvertent “bad” human intervention. The people living now benefit from this horrible tragedy of which most of them are unaware. Sitting in alone in a forest shelter in a downpour puts things in perspective.

December 22, 2009

Pedestrians = Rodney Dangerfield

Pedestrians are like Rodney Dangerfield. We get no respect. They did a good job plowing the streets for the cars, which means they piled the snow up on the corners, where anybody on foot has to climb a small mountain to get to the road. The problem is often not climbing the snowy mountain, but sliding down the other side and controlling your descent w/o falling on your rear or sliding into traffic.

Snow mountain on Gallows Road blocking crosswalk 


I have written before about the obvious way the authorities prioritize auto traffic while ostentatiously praising pedestrians. Below - if you look carefully, you see that there is a car in there. Good luck on driving out of that.

Car covered in snow

This is even the case near the Metro. Presumably some people might be on foot on the roads leading to Metro entrances.

But I have to admit that Washington DC does a relatively better job than Virginia. As you can see from the picture below, they have made a path. Here we have a different problem.  Pedestrians tend to walk in front of cars even when the cars have a green light.

Pedestrian crossing

I think we have a general disrespect for the law because the law has a general disspect for us.  Many drivers in the Washington region don't seem to understand crosswalks.  It is not just because we have a car culture.  California is more a car culture than we are but you have to credit drivers in California.  They pay attention to cross walks. Many places the "walk/don't walk" signals require you to push a button and wait a long time.  In other places the transitions are too fast.  I know of one place where the green turn signal stays on all the time, confusing both drivers and pedestrians.


Above - I just had to include this. It was actually fairly warm in the sun and the guy was snoring loudly.  If you look nearby at the bottles, you notice that this guy probably has plenty of antifreeze in his bloodstream anyway.  Below is the three-way snowball fight standoff. Something went wrong with my camera settings, which is why we have such "artistry."

snowball fight

December 10, 2009

Sick, Tired, Sick & Tired or Just Plain Lazy

Yesterday I did something I have never done before:  I left work early because I felt sick.   In retrospect and with the benefit of knowing how I feel today, I know it was nothing much.  I was just really tired and my body ached all over.  I now believe I just didn’t get enough sleep and a pulled muscle in my back was radiating discomfort through the rest of my body. It is better today.  I usually would have just ignored it, but I guess I succumbed to all that hysteria about the H1N1 flu, which BTW doesn't seem as big a deal as we all feared.

Sick of sickness

I felt a little bad about bugging out yesterday and on the way to work this morning, I thought about sick leave.   I have a lot of it saved up.  In the USG, you earn four hours of sick leave every pay period (two weeks) & can carry your sick leave balance over to the next year.   I have saved more than 2300 hours, which comes to about a year and a half of work time when you count in normal holidays.   I always thought of it as a kind of disability insurance policy.   Who needs AFLAC when you have SL?   I am lucky that I just don’t get sick very often, but I also don’t allow little discomforts to keep me home.  For example, I would not normally have taken sick leave for something like yesterday. Life is full of little discomforts; most don't matter.

The whole concept of sick leave is interesting, when you think of it.  We get annual leave (vacation) and then we get sick leave.   We are not supposed to mix them, but a lot of people do.  A significant number of people use every hour of both each year.  Sometimes I suppose they really are sick; sometimes not and sometimes I think the definition of “sick” is stretched past normal credulity.  

Sick on Mondays and Fridays

As a manager, I noticed that sickness tended to happen more often on Monday’s and Fridays and some people were consistently sick whenever some sort of difficult assignment was on the horizon.  It is a tough call sometimes.   Ostensibly you have to respect that people get sick. But you are very often faced with a simple choice.  Either the person is there or not. If they are not there, they cannot work. Whether the reason is good or bad, not showing up takes away a chance to succeed.   Since success tends to build on itself, if you don’t show up a lot you will have a lot more trouble succeeding.  

All success depends first on just showing up

Is that fair?  The chronically absent tend to think not, but what can you do?   I did an informal poll at my table during one my senior training last year.  It is hard to get into the SFS, so getting there is a measure of success. There were six people at my table and we all had thousands of hours of unused sick leave.   It was not a statistically valid sample but I think it makes sense.   Of course the causality is unclear. Do successful people get sick less often?  Are they sick less often because they are successful?  Do they just not abuse sick leave as much?   Correlation is not causality, but you can learn lessons from it nevertheless. 

I earn more than two weeks of sick leave a year, which I don’t use, so that means that I work two weeks more than I would if I took off.  In the course of my career, I have worked about a year and a half longer than someone who took off all the sick days allowed.  It stands to reason that additional time on task will probably yield better results.

I don’t believe that you should come to work when you have some contagious sickness and I don’t.  But that just doesn’t account for very much time. My general rule is to assume I am doing something I want to do, a vacation.  Would I let whatever I am feeling stop me from doing that?  If the answer is no, I should also go to work.

My parents taught me good habits. I don’t remember my father EVER taking a sick day. I suppose he did, but not often enough that you would notice. When I said I was sick he would tell me some stories about the depression or the war. He also told a story about his cousin, Eddy Wysoki, who evidently drank a whole bottle of rubbing alcohol. That made him really sick. I guess ordinary sickness wasn't invented yet back then. My mother let me stay home from school any time I claimed I was sick.  The catch was that I had to stay in my room and rest on the assumption that if I was sick enough to stay home, I was too sick to play.  I still recall an instance when I was legitimately sick in the morning, but recovered.  Nevertheless, I couldn’t play with my friends outside after school. I thought it was unjust, but it was a lesson I obviously still remember.

How to handle too much sick leave

The problem with accumulating sick leave is that it goes to waste when you leave the government service.  That is why I was happy to hear that the Congress has decided to tack ½ of the total sick leave hours onto our time in work for retirement purposes. That means that I will have an extra six months of credible Federal Service when I retire.  If you retire after 2014, you will get the whole time credited.  It makes sense, since as I wrote above I did indeed work that extra year. The USG was having some trouble with absenteeism.  

There is the incentive to just be sick.  I mean, who doesn’t feel sleepy in the morning? Could it be sickness?  Maybe we better sleep a little more to make sure.   Feeling a little winded after climbing some stairs?  Maybe better go home and rest.  When you have a year’s worth of sick leave that you will just forfeit and you plan to work for less than a year, such things begin to make sense.

I remembered a stanza from the Book of the Tao. It really doesn’t make much sense, but it kind of applies here.

Tao Te Ching - Lao Tzu - chapter 71

Knowing ignorance is strength.
Ignoring knowledge is sickness.

If one is sick of sickness, then one is not sick.
The sage is not sick because he is sick of sickness.
Therefore he is not sick.

December 04, 2009

We Are All Sinners

The media is wallowing in the Tiger Woods affair. The idea seems to be that he deserves special opprobrium because he seemed so good before. Schadenfreuden always take pleasure in anybody’s trouble, but it goes deeper than that. Many people seem almost to resent goodness as an affront to their own imperfections and they think they can pull themselves up by pulling others down. 

One of their most effective tools of character destruction is setting an impossibly high standard.   When nobody can reach the standard, the losers can say that we are all equal – equally craven.  

Two types of standards are useless: stupidly low standards that include virtually everything and impossibly high standards that are almost impossible to attain.   Mark Phelps is a better swimmer than I am, but if we make the test the ability to swim 50 yards in less than five minutes, we both equally qualified as swimmers.   On the other hand, if we make the test the capacity to swim from California to Hawaii, we are both equally unqualified as swimmers.  

It is fairly easy to identify and argue against absurdly low standards. It is harder to get at the absurdly high ones.   Proponents can accuse you of being against excellence or not caring about improvement.   The fact that nobody can achieve the standard just proves that we have a long way to go before we get where we should be.   The challenge is that these arguments can be valid to improve motivation and performance. It is just that they are easily misused.

So we just have to recognize that everybody is a sinner; everybody makes mistakes; everybody should strive to do better and some do better than others, i.e. we are not all equally good or bad. I told the kids that saying you are sorry means you will not do it again. That means you have to do better and if you can do better it implies that not everything is the same.  Just because we cannot achieve perfection doesn’t mean we have the option of slouching into decadence. Just because you cannot do everything doesn’t mean you have to do nothing.

I take no pleasure in Tiger Wood’s fall. It is none of my business.  I do not have the “right to know” and neither do the hack-journalists covering the affair. The fact that another human is not perfect doesn’t absolve any of us of the responsibility to be better.  It is a challenge we face every day and it is a challenge that nobody can face for us.  We should be judged on how well we fight the good fight, aware that we will never achieve the ultimate success.  

People who delight in the misfortunes of others are assholes, but I feel a bit sorry for them.  How bad must your life be if your outlook can be brightened by someone else’s sorrow?

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 24, 2009

The Bureaucracy Has No Memory

Dreary day in Washington on Nov24 

A significant part of my pay could be “performance pay” now that I am in the Senior Foreign Service (Senior Executive Service) and don’t get automatic increases.  I didn’t get to compete for performance pay for 2007/8 because of a technicality – Congress acted too late on my class’ promotion and we were not in grade long enough to qualify according to the State Department’s arcane rules.   (Ironically, however, they acted quick enough that I lost my overtime pay in Iraq and ended up taking a pay cut because of my promotion. It won’t be until the middle of next year that I make up the money I lost by being promoted.) This year I just didn’t get performance pay.  I am a little surprised.  

This was the last performance report that included Iraq.  Next year my Iraq experience will be buried under the relative obscurity of this Washington assignment.  If I didn’t deserve performance pay for Iraq, I certainly should not get it for Washington, so my prospects don’t look good. Iraq was about the best I can do.  I am beginning to feel unpopular.

In fairness, my colleagues are doing lots of important things in Embassies overseas and in Washington.  I don’t doubt the merit of those on the list. 

But being a PRT leader in Iraq seemed a bigger deal to the Department when they asked me to take the assignment. They dragged me out of the job I had and made me feel that delay of even a couple of days was disastrous.  It sure seemed important. Of course, the perceived value of a service declines rapidly after that service has been performed and there has, anyway, been a shift in priorities.   You get little advantage being tied to yesterday’s urgency, no matter how important they told you it was at the time.  

I said when I signed on for Iraq that I did NOT do it for career advancement and I was telling the truth.  I remain glad that I volunteered.  I derived immense satisfaction from doing the job there. I worked with great colleagues and I am convinced that there are people alive in Iraq today who would not be had we not done the work we did.   I would not change my decision.

Nevertheless, it bothers me a little to conclude that I would likely have been in a better career position, at least in terms of contacts & assignment prospects, had I not volunteered, had I kept and built on the good job I had in September 2007. Things moved along w/o me while I was literally wandering in the desert.  It is my own fault too. I did a poor job of reconnecting.   I thought I could just pick up where I left off; I was mistaken. 

Chrissy says that I don't get mad enough about these sorts of things and that I need to develop a stronger sense of entitlement. Sometimes the people who make the most noise get the most recognition. I tend to downplay hardships and achievements and I am not prone to anger. I am mad about not being recognized for my Iraq service, but this is about the extent of my rage.

"Do it because it is the right thing to do, but remember that the State Department talks a lot about the importance of the mission and the people who do it, but the bureaucracy has no memory."  That is what I will tell the people who ask my advice on taking on hard assignments.

It is a dreary, depressing day, both in terms of the weather (as you can see from the picture above) and my outlook, but the sky will brighten up and so will my situation.    I plan to wallow in self-pity for a little longer; then I will stop and try to do something useful again.  

November 23, 2009

Gated Communities & Defensible Space

crossroads at planned communityWe stopped at the remains of a small artillery fort on the Petersburg battlefield.   These days it is located in the middle of a neat planned community.  As you see in the nearby picture, they don’t have much imagination when it comes to naming streets.  We lived in a nice community in Londonderry, NH.  It was built around a man-made lake and had a lot of green space snaking through.  These were not gated communities, but they are limited access.

I have mixed feelings about gated communities.   Their closed characteristics vaguely offend my egalitarian impulses. I also don’t like the basic layout of the gated communities I have seen.   They are not conducive to walking.  They tend not to have shops or attractions you get to w/o driving a car. 

On the other hand, there are ample recreational opportunities.   Most of these places come with clubhouses and pools and running trails are often usually well laid out. The ones near natural areas tend to have hiking trails connected with the living areas. 

They are also reasonably secure.   The gates keep out troublesome people.  That sounds like a terrible thing to say, but most people really don’t want to open themselves up to all sorts of aberrant behaviors.  A city neighborhood no longer provides “defensible space.”  Everybody has the “right” to come around.   This is a problem.

I admit it.  I don’t like lots of street people around.   For one thing, they compete with me for places to lie around.  I like to run and at the end of a run, or just in the middle of a walk, I like to lie on the grass or on a bench in the sun, look at the clouds and/or take a nap.  This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do – unless you have lots of boozers or street people more or less permanently occupying the prime real estate.  They make hanging around a bad practice.   I suppose my specific habits are a little peculiar, but I think most people just don’t want to be bothered by weirdoes.   Beyond that, I don’t want my eccentric habits to be lumped in with theirs. 

Moon over natural area in Marana, Az 

We have be admonished by a generation of after school specials and public service announcements to be accepting of everybody.  This is BS.   A community – any community – is inclusive of members and exclusive to others.   Members must observe some basic rules of behavior and contribute in some way to the community.  We have obligations to our fellow human beings, but these obligations are not open-ended.  We are under no obligation to accept everyone on THEIR terms.  

Williamsburg VA 

That is why we need defensible social space and we need defensible physical space, places where we feel comfortable and secure.   When the greater society cannot or will not provide or even allow such space, people seek it in the form of gated communities.

Diorama of Indian village on the site of Montgomery, Alabama 

If you cannot defend your work and your community, you will build nothing.  That is the whole basis of civilization.  Even if it offends the romantic in us, property, compassion and civilization clearly go together. 

You cannot be generous until you have something of your own to give.  When the kids were little, we didn’t force them to share everything.  After they felt secure in their own stuff, they became generous on their own.   This applies to larger communities too.     

November 08, 2009

Movies Not to See

George Clooney is charming; Kevin Spacey is villainous and Jeff Bridges is funny. But don't go to "Men Who Stare at Goats".  You saw all the funny parts already if you saw more than one commercial for the film, so let me spoil the ending.  The "good guys" put LSD into the water and chow of American troops in Iraq and release a bunch of terrorists from jail to the happy sounds of 1960s style music.  Then the two main characters steal a helicopter and fly off. 

At the cinema, they also featured the trailer for another movie to avoid.  It featured Natalie Portman as the wife of a soldier who disappears in Afghanistan. She proceeds to sleep with his brother. The guy is found alive and comes back home and goes crazy.  It seems to me to be part of the usual crazy veteran movie.  Don't go.

So far, Hollywood has produced a steady stream of bad movies related to Iraq and Afghanistan. They don't make money, but they keep on making them.  "Men Who Stare at Goats" is a kind of stealth trashing.  You might not recognize it as such from the trailers or the television commercials.  I liked all the actors.  The idea of the movie is interesting and amusing. They could have just made a funny movie, but they chose to go with the tired old political crap. It sucks. Don't go.

October 16, 2009

You Can’t be Generous with Other People’s Money

Ruins of Roman colliseum 

I don’t begrudge the old folks that extra $250 … well maybe I do.   The cost of living actually went down this year.   That means that Social Security recipients will not get an automatic increase this year, since the increase is tied to the cost of living. 

The President proposes just giving everybody an extra $250, justifying it as a sort of second (or third) stimulus that will not come from the SS trust fund.  It is hard to be against this generosity.  It is great to be generous, but since we already are living on the national credit card the money will come from additional government borrowing.  That means that the younger generation will have to pay this back – with interest. 

$250 doesn’t seem like much money and it is not – until you multiply it by the number of times you are going to give it out.   But the problem is NOT this particular small money.  It is the whole principle behind the quick resort to pushing the gold out the door.  It shows how difficult it is for government to stand up to any powerful group.  Entitlements already make up 2/3 of the Federal budget.   All the wars, parks, roads etc are included in the other 1/3 and that % is ever shrinking (it used to be 2/3 only a generation ago) because politicians like to be generous, but they cannot be.  All they can do is take from some to give to others.  It is not even up to a zero sum transaction, since some significant percentage leaks out in administrative costs or plain waste.    

There is a long tradition for politicians to bribe “the people” with their own money. Roman politicians got themselves into bidding wars for the loyalty of the people.  They lowered the price of grain with state subsidies until they were giving it away for free and sponsoring ever more elaborate entertainment for the mobs of people hanging around the city of Rome. Gladiators killed each other.  Prisoners were killed by wild animals.  The people loved to watch the spectacle while being fed at public expense.  The famous “bread and circuses” corrupted both the Roman state and the Roman people. 

It was easier for Roman politicians to be generous with the public purse than it was to help create the conditions for jobs and prosperity.  In fact, having a bribable mob at their disposal was a positive benefit and a preferred outcome for many.   In other words, some politicians did their best to KEEP the people in a state of resentful dependence. The people receiving this “generosity” thought watching gladiators kill each other was better than working and it became a self-sustaining downward spiral that contributed mightily to the decay and fall of the Roman Republic.  Nero, Caligula and Commodus (the one featured on the movie “Gladiator”) are probably three of the best known Roman emperors today.  They were all very bad and spectacularly corrupt.   But if you look closely at the ancient sources, you find that they remained popular with “the people” because they made sure the bread was plentiful and the circuses exciting. 

There are lots of good things we have inherited from the Romans.   I have written many times about those things.  But we don’t have to take their bad habits with the good and maybe after 2000 years we should not repeat their mistakes.

The picture up top is the Coliseum in Rome, BTW.  Despite its impressive structure, it was essentially a place where the Roman mob was placated by watching mass slaughter.  

October 11, 2009

Showing Their Red Asses

All of what I know about baboons I learned from watching nature shows, so I am not an expert.  But I don’t like them.   They only good thing you can say about them is that they seem to be fearless, but that might be just because they are stupid and aggressive.  Beyond that, they seem to have most of our petty human failings, except worse.  Baboons are intensely social and hierarchical and enforce their social status by violence and humiliation.  Among their communications methods is displaying their big red asses to the lesser baboons.   This is the kind of nature we hope that culture and civilization will help us rise above.

But I have been in enough group interactions to know that we don’t always rise much above the red assed baboon, but there are particular situations that bring out the better or the worse in us.   When cut through all the fog, obfuscations and commentary, you see the key factor is the sense of objective truth, a goal beyond the particular personal preferences of individual group members.  W/o that, we are victims of popularity, personalities and ephemeral politics.

Think about some easy examples.   Working with engineers, scientists, farmers and foresters is relatively straightforward because you can point to objective results.   You can argue about how best to build the bridge but only within what is permitted by the constraints of topography rules of physics and the characteristics of materials.   Or consider agriculture.   A farmer’s work ethic and decision making is on display literally on the ground.  A flamboyant personality or wonderful aspirations don’t make up for not getting the seeds in at the right time.   

Now consider the opposite side of the spectrum: fashion and entertainment. In these fields of human endeavor success depend on almost nothing but personality or celebrity and everything is open to interpretation and restatement.  An aggressive personality is more important than core competence and winners are willing – often eager - to put down and humiliate subordinates and potential rivals.  Many of the most successful leaders in these fields seem to revel in this and have developed a kind of dark ethical system of insincerity and shallow coolness.  Speaking of “A-list” or “B-list” or even “C-list” celebrities is just a human equivalent of showing your red ass and the display has the same purpose as it does among the baboons.

I am afraid that our society has been drifting away from the tangible truth and more in the direction of power of personality as fewer and fewer of us work on task that yield tangible results and an even smaller minority can see long-term outcomes of their efforts.   It is no surprise if more people behave like selfish baboons.

I don’t consider myself a moralist or an example for that, but I understand that society must be based on transcendent moral principles that allow us to see beyond the problems of today or the personalities or proclivities of the participants.  There should come a bottom line where you can say, “that just ain’t right” or “this is what we have to do” w/o reference to who did it or who you are talking about.   

One of the practical benefits of a moral compass is that it makes life more predictable and helps protect people when their status in the group changes.  Among baboons, it is all about power and position.  Baboons have no objective morality.  Humans should. What the big baboon can enforce is the truth … until he can’t do it anymore.  We humans should be above that and I do say above in the sense of better.  Yes I am making a judgment about a moral position.  

Our experiences reinforce each other and color our judgments of the wider world. I know that my experience with long-term requirements of forestry informs my thinking on many ostensible unrelated issues and helps balance the venality of some of my public affairs work, where staging for today may be rewarded more profusely than building for tomorrow.  If we rarely anymore see the consequences of our ordinary daily choices, we start to lose the capacity to judge moral choices.  Everything starts to be relative and standards drop.  As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, we define deviancy downward.  The neutral – and wrong – way to put this would be that morality has been redefined to be more inclusive.

Moral decisions should be hard.  We are likely to make many mistakes and none of us can live up to our highest aspirations, provided our aspirations are set properly high. We often won’t make the cut and some people will never make it at all.  Put in traditional terms, we are all sinners and can never overcome our base natures, but we are constrained continually to strive to be better.   

Otherwise we are all just a bunch of red assed baboons.

October 08, 2009

Meeting Charles Darwin

Finding Darwin from Smithsonian

Alex and I went to see a Darwin interpreter at the Smithsonian.  It was very interesting, although not exactly what I expected.   Richard Milner did Gilbert & Sullivan songs about Darwin in between his story telling and interpretation.  

Alex was probably the youngest person in the room, by far.   I might have been in close contention for second place.  I bet the median age was around sixty.   Mr. Milner told lots of jokes that I understood but depended on cultural nuances from before Alex’s time. Jimmy Durante, Bing Crosby & Jack Benny survived into my time but even I know them largely through reruns of old movies.   This kind of thing worries me.  I also have trouble adapting new jokes.   There are humor generations and it is hard to bridge that generation gap.   Our references are just different.

I was crowd watching as much as performer watching.  An evolution audience is peculiar and the performer pandered a bit to their prejudices.  I don’t think there is any doubt that evolution explains our world, i.e. it is true scientifically.   I also believe that Darwin was the greatest thinker of the 19th Century and the only one whose ideas are still broadly useful today.  But I don’t partake in the Darwin hagiography and the kind of snooty superiority on display in this otherwise very polite and reasonable crowd.   Dare I say that they treat Darwin with almost religious reverence.

Crowd at meeting Darwin lecture at Smithsonian 

The Darwinism of the 19th Century, i.e. the original ideas, is wrong in many details.  This doesn’t really subtract from Darwin’s genius.   Almost all the science of genetics, much of statistical analysis and most of the archeological record of early hominids was unavailable to Darwin.   You can look at this in two different ways.   Accolades say that it shows Darwin’s prescience and genius that he could still get so much right even w/o all that science.   I would also praise Darwin’s skill, but say that he was very lucky in his guesses and made some seriously unscientific extrapolations that turned out well.  We don’t have to believe that man was some sort of superman.  We can still admire him.

Speaking of supermen, this is another problem with overdoing Darwin.   Darwinism is closely associated with scientific racism, Nazism, abusive eugenics and so called social Darwinism.    Darwin didn’t take part in this and he didn’t foresee it.   You could say that all these things are ignorant misinterpretations of Darwin, and you would be right.   

But when you look at something in totality, you have to consider what will become of it when it faces the grit and error of the real world.  Academics argue academic theories that are manifest nowhere in reality.  Reality matters.  The best example of how reality can turn a minor intellectual pathogen into a deadly disease is Marxism. In theory, Marxism is just kind of silly.  In practice it is deadly.   Darwinism was not like this, but it was abused in the service of politics.

Let me make one small note about evolution.   The common conception of it is … wrong and that is one of the reasons why the theory got abused.   If you look at the various charts and timelines, you think that evolution is moving toward a goal.   In fact, evolution doesn’t imply progress in any way.  Fitness means only that organisms have reproductive success.   In modern terms, the “Octomom” is the most successful and fittest human woman of our age and perhaps the most successful of any age.  She evidently has fourteen children with a good chance of surviving into adulthood.  Some sleaze who fathers a dozen kids out of wedlock is fitter than the childless Noble prize winner - kind of depressing.  The related wrong idea is that species evolve from each other with the idea of progress, so that a fish or a frog is lower on the evolutionary ladder than monkey or a man.   In fact, the science of evolution doesn’t have anything to do with this kind of idea.   The fish that successfully reproduces is more successful than a man who doesn’t.

Anyway, I take the pragmatic approach to knowledge.  We can never find absolute truth.  Science cannot give that to us, since science is in the process of becoming.  It is always in revision.  We can, however, achieve USEFUL knowledge and that is enough for most of us most of the time.  Just never get too enthusiastic about any particular ideas, don’t attribute infallibility to any human and don’t hold that lack of infallibly against them.  

Even a genius is wrong most of the time because to err is human.  And that is why I don't feel it is a contradiction to believe in both science and transcendence.

Sunset in Washington DC on October 8, 2009 

Above is sunset from my office window behind the construction of the Institute of Peace. 

BTW - I found a good article on this subject after I wrote this.  It is at this link.

October 01, 2009

You Can be a Victim of Public Policy or an Engaged Player in the System

Halls of Congress

Our Virginia Tree Farm delegation met with staff members from the offices of Jerry Connolly (my congressman), Mark Warner, Jim Webb & Eric Cantor.  The ATFS convention was held in Washington this year and they wanted to take advantage of the presence of hundreds of tree farmers in the capital (how exciting!).  We had tree farmers from most states in our nation's capital. I suppose our meeting with only staffers shows our relative lack of political clout.  Tree farmers are not a feared interest group. Two actual members took the time to meet with us personally: Robert Wittman & Robert Goodlatte. I was impressed with both, and not only because they were nice enough to talk with us.  

All politicians are charming.  That is how they get and keep their jobs.  In addition, however, these guys really seemed to understand forestry issues and were genuinely interested in protecting the environment. I suppose that is one reason they talked to us. I think it may also be because they both come from rural districts, where get some real experience with agriculture, forestry and hunting.  They were really on top of some of our esoteric issues, such as the use of woody biomass in energy and biosolids applied to the land.

And we are interested in some esoteric issues.  For example, forestry prefers a broad definition of biomass to include woody biomass. The woody biomass we are talking about, BTW, is mostly the branches, bark and odd pieces left after forest harvests.  Biomass is already used to fuel mills that make paper or process wood, but more could be done. The advantage of woody biomass is that it is produced widely and could be used in small plants.  This is also a disadvantage. It tends to be locally available and heavy to move. 

This is a bigger issue than it seems for the Federal government, because government picks winners and losers in the energy market.  Other sources of alternative energy get privileged by government money and programs.  Woody biomass makes a lot of sense for Virginia and the Southeast, where there are lots of forests and would be used more widely if other forms of energy didn’t get direct and indirect government favors and subsidies and/or if the government “help” was applied evenly.  Anyway, that was one of the things I explained.  I also emphasized that forestry in Virginia is sustainable, now and forever.   That is simple and true, but it must be repeated.

Most of the real work of the Congress is done by very young staffers and those are the kinds of people we met.  They are really smart, but I worry about their lack of experience.  Maybe ferocious intelligence coupled with lack of experience can actually be a disadvantage.  I don’t know.  They seem to do okay. They need the energy of youth to cope with their daunting schedule. You only have a short time to make your point and then get out.   It seems like a superficial way to get constituent input.   Of course, Otto von Bismarck warned that you should never watch either laws or sausage being made.

We also met the famous Joe Wilson. One of our colleagues used to rent a house from Joe Wilson in South Carolina so when we passed him in the hall, he stopped to talk.  It was a short meeting and I didn’t ask about the Obama comment.  He seemed a nice guy.  But, as I wrote above, all politicians are charming in person.  

IMO, politicians don’t get the credit they deserve. Most are smart and motivated - at least initially - by the desire to do good.  And it is a hard job, maybe a job that has grown too big as the reach of government has expanded into parts of our daily lives where it may not belong. Too many people come around asking too many things.  And if others come, you have to be there too. Even if you don’t want to ask anything directly from government, you have to have lobbyists to protect yourself from what others who have lobbyists asking government to do that impact you. 

One consultant told us that we could be either, "victims of public policy or engaged players in the system."  He implied there was no third option.  Pity. A citizen is free to the extent that he can safely ignore politics.  That sphere is shrinking.

I don’t know when politicians really have time to think, what with all the tight schedules and need to posture for the media. The wealth of activity has created a poverty of attention.  When good people don't have time to do a good job, maybe the system is overloaded, overextended and overreaching.  If you can't do more well, maybe it is best to choose to do less better and expand that sphere where citizens can ignore politics.  But thinking that could happen is probably the triumph of hope over experience. 

Anyway, we played our part.  We "deployed our talking points," so now everybody in Congress understands forestry, supports all our legitimate positions and will do the right things.  But I wouldn’t like to be a full-time lobbyist.  I couldn’t take the constant shallow dives.  I enjoyed the experience of doing it for one day. That is enough. The Constitution gives me the right to petition my government, but I don’t much like the drive by fashion such petitioning has acquired.

September 23, 2009

HWY 70, Holiday Inn & the Fall of World Communism

Fall leaves in Western Maryland on Sept 23 

It has been almost exactly twenty-five years since I drove on I-70, going the other way to take up my new job as an FSO.  We were living in West Lafayette, Indiana, where I had a very brief job as a market researcher at a firm called Microdatabasesystems (MDBS).  They made, as the name suggests, data base software.  Since I was the only guy in the marketing research department, I suppose I was the director.  Never trust titles. 

The firm had been founded by a couple of professors from Perdue.  They knew computers, but were not so strong on marketing.  I worked there a couple of weeks and learned the software only through the indulgence and kindness of the engineers who explained it so often.  Then the owners called me in and asked my opinion about their firm.  I was flattered and they were very nice and open.   I told them the truth.  That the software was wonderful in what it could do (for the time) but that it was too hard to use, maybe they should put in some menus or something.   One of the guys, very nicely but w/o attempting humor said, “If people are too dumb to use our product, perhaps they shouldn’t buy it.”  I am not sure of the exact words, but it was something close.  

I went back to my office and called the State Department. I had taken and passed the FSO tests, but they were doing a security check.   I asked when they would be done.   There was the usual pause while they looked up my stuff and then the woman told me that the security check was done and that I had been offered a job. I never saw the job offer.   It must have gone to my old address in Minneapolis. I was supposed to have responded by “yesterday.”  I asked for and got a one-day extension.   The next day I took the FS job and told my soon-to-be former employer that I was moving on.  I felt bad, but they were not that upset.  To my surprise, they asked me to stay as long as I could.   I don’t think I earned my salary, but if they wanted me to stay, I hung on for three more weeks.

So on a Friday, I finished work at MDBS and in the predawn darkness the next day got in the Toyota Corolla diesel (the first car I had ever owned) I had recently bought and headed down HWY 65-70.  Chrissy was still in Minneapolis finishing college, so I was alone.   The car didn’t have a radio.  Well, it had a radio but no antenna (don’t ask why) but it did have a tape player.  I had three tapes: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Linda Ronstadt’s County Songs and Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  Beethoven was on when the sun came up over the hills in eastern Ohio.   Michael & Linda got me through the darkness until then. 

It was worse in the 1980s than now 

When we think back to 1984, it all seems so easy.  But back then things were not so clear.  We were just coming out of a really bad economic time (worse & longer unemployment than today. Look at the chart.) and the pundits were telling us we would soon sink into something even worse.  Internationally it looked like the Soviet Union would last forever and they often seemed to be winning the ideological war.  I wanted to fight world communism, which I hated ever since Prof Artajani (I am spelling the name wrong) made me read Marx and I found out what a fraud the old fool was.  I think the professor thought we would be impressed, but any good and true son of the real working class can tell right quick that Marx stinks on ice.   I am pleased to say that within five years that benighted system was largely defeated.   I don’t know why it took others so long. The rest is history.

Anyway, I am staying at a Holiday Inn in Springfield Ohio and thinking about those times.   It features a “Holidome.”  I know that is so 1970s, but those are the times I became an adult and as far as I am concerned the Holidome is the ultimate in class, so I am content.  Tomorrow I will have breakfast in the Holidome before I head out to Wisconsin.

Pictures: the one on top shows turning leaves in Garrett County Maryland.  Fall comes early in the hills and seems to be coming early this year. 

rest stop on Hwy 70 in Ohio 

Above is a rest stop in Ohio.  It is nice to have a rest stop.  Many in Virginia have been sold because of budget cuts. 

September 21, 2009

Drop the Donut, Fatboy

Fat ass at Universal Studios 

Much of the growth in health care costs comes from lifestyle choices.   Being fat, not exercising, smoking, drinking too much taking drugs and lots of other choices make people sick or sicker.  The debate is whether or not lifestyle should affect health premiums. 

You get a familiar breakdown.  Believers in individual responsibility say that people should try harder.  Just say no to the donuts and yes to the walk.   Others respond that it is not their fault.  That some people cannot afford to eat right or don’t have the time to exercise. (IMO, if you can afford to be fat, you can afford not to be, since it tends to cost less not to eat as much.)

Let’s stipulate that we are not talking perfection.   Few people can be in top-shape for extended periods, even if we could define what top-shape means.  But most people can indeed eat reasonably well and exercise moderately.  If we could just bring the rate of obesity down to 1980 levels, we would be a lot better off.  This is not perfection.  It should be attainable by all or most.   It is also true that no matter what you do sometimes you will get sick, maybe seriously sick.  We need protection from that. Reasonable.

Another stipulation is that I hate the use of the passive voice in health care and the language of victimization.  When I hear someone say that he wasn’t “offered the opportunity” of a good lifestyle or – worse – when they say “it’s is not my fault” or “I was denied the chance,” I know I am talking to a loser.   

That is my prejudice.   Not everyone can be perfect but everyone can change their lifestyles to improve. 

So let’s strip down the debate.   We don’t have the personal responsibility crowd v the caring people.  What we really have is the incentive folks v the determinists.  If you believe that incentives can change behaviors, you tend to fall on the side of responsibility.  If you believe that large forces determine your behavior, you are a determinist.

A false moral argument is that we need to take care of each other and help to the “least fortunate among us” (another phrase I dislike). This argument is usually made with a cry in the voice and it is meant to stop debate. Don't let it. It is not really wrong, but it is incomplete.

I think we DO indeed have responsibilities to each other, but it should not be unconditional.  If you fall through the ice on a frozen lake, I should help pull you out.  But you should have shown reasonable care in not getting out on that lake and risking both our lives, and if you fall through too much, maybe we should let you make an ice cube of yourself.  We have a duty to help the sick and downtrodden, but if the sick and downtrodden have fallen into that position because of their foreseeable bad behavior, THEY have let down the team.  A person who becomes sick because of something like drug abuse, obesity or heavy smoking is probably more a perpetrator than a victim since he demands resources that could be used in better ways but for his misbehavior.

It is clear to me that big forces do determine many general directions.   But within those big directions, we have a lot of choice and we can and do respond to incentives.   Sometimes you have to “blame the victim” because the victim consistently puts himself in positions or places were bad things happen.  We do have to be judgmental and have the duty to stigmatize bad behavior and reward good behavior.  It does nobody any good to pretend that the obese person is a victim of society or that his/her behavior will not increase the chances of premature death and higher health care costs.

So we should all do our parts.  As in a good team, we don’t demand everybody make equal contributions, but we do demand that everybody do what they can.   There is no virtue in letting yourself become a victim through indolence, ignorance or lack of discipline.  Those people are stealing from those who get sick because of true bad luck or forces beyond their control.  

September 08, 2009

Revenge of the Geezers

Odd looking cat in Rome

I am getting to that age where I get annoyed when I think we spend too much time thinking about the youth.   Don’t get me wrong.   My children are young and I used to be young myself.  would be younger if I could. Youth has definite advantages.   But society is changing in ways that are leading us away from the youth domination of the recent past, which – BTW – may well have been a historic anomaly. 

Let me focus on the one area (other than physical prowess) where youth is supposed to enjoy the greatest advantage: technology. 

A funny thing has happened on the way to complicated technology. As technology becomes more complicated inside, its use becomes more transparent and as it gets easier to use, more people easily use it.  You see this in the evolution of connectedness.  Early adapters were young, cutting edge and tech savvy.  Today the fastest growing user segment of Facebook is retired or close to it, those with the least familiarity with the newest technologies find them no more complicated than using a telephone. That’s progress.  If I asked you to picture an avid user of the new technology, I bet you would come up with someone young, maybe looking like that actor who plays the Mac on the PC v Mac commercial. But as I mentioned above, this is less and less true.   In fact, the most revolutionary aspect of the new media will be how it engages older people and brings or keeps them in the mainstream of society.   Older people have long excelled at sitting at home.  What does a guy with a computer do most of the time?  

Ironically, old people tend to resemble young people in a couple of important respects: many don’t have full time jobs and they have time on their hands.   Increasingly, that idle time is being invested online in both groups.

Labor force participation by ageI am not the first to say this, let me be among the most energetic in repeating that this age wave, supported by new technology is already happening.   You will see a continued diminution in the relative influence of the young.  IMO, marketers and politicians are insufficiently aware of this, despite obvious signals, and it is already biting them.  Take a look at this Pew Study from a couple days ago.  Let me hit the key quote, “According to one government estimate, 93% of the growth in the U.S. labor force from 2006 to 2016 will be among workers ages 55 and older.”

Watch the news reports of those town hall meetings.   Almost everybody who attends - pro and con - is either a senior citizen or soon will be.   And if you dig a little deeper, you find that they were often energized, informed and brought there by new media techniques, such as Facebook and Twitter.  The same technologies that keep you in touch with your grandchildren and fishing buddies can be turned to political or business goals w/o significant modification.  Those with their eyes on the youth didn’t see this coming.

The new media has already spread widely and it will continue to do so.  Nobody can ever keep up with all the permutations of technology. You may not have to as use becomes simpler. The day of the geek is coming to the close as we greet the bright dawn geezer.      

The Downside of Gray Power

I am not entirely happy about the new geezer power, even though I am more closely aligned with the geezer than the geek segments of society.   The biggest challenge our country will face is the exponential growth of entitlements, including Medicare and Social Security.  Entitlements already take up 2/3 of the Federal budget, up from 1/3 a generation ago.  That means that all the military, roads, foreign aid, post office, science, national parks etc spend only take up half as much of the budget as entitlements.   At current trends, in around twenty-five entitlements will take up ALL of what we now spend in Federal dollars (and we already spend too much).

FDR was very clever when he set up Social Security.    He made the retirement age 65, when life expectancy in 1933 was only 63 and he sold it as a fund, when it actually is a giant pyramid scheme.   The system worked well when giant generation of baby-boomers was working to support the smaller generations of their parents.   But now the baby boom is hitting the old folks’ home like that lump in the snake.  My generation will have to accept relatively less from these sorts of government funds than our parents did.   Politically, this is going to be the hardest thing ever.

I hope my baby boom generation - the biggest, richest and most assertive generation in American history - uses its new media leveraged gray power wisely. We cannot take all we are "entitled" to; we have to leave something on the table for the next generation.  They are OUR children, after all.  They need to keep more of their money.  The trends look good for us to stay active.  We are healthier, sharper, more able and many are willing to work longer, as the figures I mentioned above indicate.  Maybe it is better if we work and save just a little bit more for ourselves, work a little longer and let the kids off the hook a bit.  Continuing to be productive is (or should be) the price of staying influential. 

Social Security has been a fantastic success and there has been a lot of progress in America.  Back when FDR created the program, most people worked at jobs requiring hard physical labor.  They were literally worn out after a life at work.  Most retired when they couldn't work anymore and shuffled off this mortal coil soon after.  Life has improved and so has liveliness of old age.  Yes, things have changed since the 1930s.

BTW - there is an interesting article about what might happen to assets as the baby boom retires at this link.   

BTW2 - people asked me about the cat in the picture above.  I just needed a picture and that is just a strange looking cat Alex and I saw in Rome.  We thought he looked a little like Hitler. 

August 30, 2009

Katrina plus 4: Move to Higher Ground

The news carries reports that some people are still living in FEMA trailers and many homes are not rebuilt four years after Hurricane Katrina.  

When a big tragedy hits, we feel the natural human desire to reach out and help the victims.   We certainly should.  But after the “first aid” and the flood waters have receded, it is time for everybody to get back to work as usual.  After four years, it is past time for the victims to be on the other side, i.e. willing and able to help others.  And it is not the government’s duty to offer indefinite help.  It starts to get abusive.   If my house burns down tonight, I don’t expect to be living in a FEMA trailer at all, much less still be there four years later. Beyond that, I learned that many of the victims were renters.  If you lose your rental home, you move and pay rent somewhere else.  The landlord takes the loss. 

I like to watch nature and science programs on TV. Going back many years, I have seen programs about the Mississippi River, New Orleans, global warming, sea level rises or all of the above.  They all said the same sorts of things.   Much of New Orleans is below sea level. Everybody knew that it was only a matter of time before a big hurricane would come and do what Katrina did.   And everybody knows it will happen again.  It is not “if” it is “when”.  And there is nothing we can do about it no matter how much we spend.  Those low-lying parts of the city should not be inhabited at all today or tomorrow and they should not have been occupied yesterday.  It was a mistake. The destruction of the wetlands to build these areas was a slow motion tragedy. The clock was set ticking a century ago.  We just didn't see it until the big one hit.  Actually, we did see it, as all the nature show programs said; we just didn't care, sort of like today. It gets worse. Global warming will cause sea levels to rise. Those lands currently below sea level will be even further below sea level.  Building/rebuilding is just a waste of time and a cruel hoax on anybody living there.

Let’s say it plainly. Start with the good news.  Those parts of New Orleans that are above sea level (including many of the historical areas) can and should be preserved. The port areas can be rebuilt and enhanced.    BUT New Orleans must become a smaller city. The parts of the city that are at or below sea level should not be rebuilt. 

The best use would be to make some of these erstwhile flooded neighborhoods, such as the 9th Ward, into wet forest or “walking” wet land used for agriculture. Letting these places return to a more natural state will serve to protect the salvageable and more valuable real estate.  There is really no other practical or ethical course. 

We should stop promising or implying that people will be returning to their homes on these once and future swamps, bayous and lakes.   It makes absolutely no sense from either the ecological or the economic point of view.   This goes beyond New Orleans, BTW.  

Decisions about where to build should be local decisions.   In most cases, I would not deny someone the right to build on his own property, even if I thought the choice was stupid.  But we should not help.  Much stupid development comes down to subsidized insurance.   If no private company will insure your new home, maybe there is a reason. The risk is too high. We certainly should not subsidize your bad decision.   W/o the unnatural public subsidy for  insurance to live on unstable places, most people would not build on barrier islands, flood plains, loose slopes … or below sea level in New Orleans.

We need to be realistic.   Some places are just not suited to some uses.   It is a tragedy if your house is destroyed by a flood … once.   If it starts to become a habit maybe you are just stupid.  Stupidity is not against the law and maybe you have a good reason to keep moving back, but stupidity shouldn’t receive government subsidies. 

The U.S has a lot of land.  We are not like Holland.  We don’t need to build billion dollar levees to protect hundred dollar real estate, nor should we sacrifice nature to our hubris.   We should help our fellow citizens in such situations, but we should help them move to higher ground.

There is an old joke about a preacher and a flood.   During a big flood, a preacher was trapped on the roof of his church.    A boat came by.   They said, “Reverend, get in.  It is still raining in the hills and the whole town will be covered.”  The preacher said, “I trust in the Lord.  He will save me.”  A second boat comes and it is the same.   Then comes a third boat.  The guy in the third boat tells the preacher, “Listen, this is the last boat.  Everybody else is out.  It is still raining.  Get in!”   The preacher just responds, “I trust the Lord.  He will save me.”    The last boat leaves.  Finally the preacher is up to his neck in water.   He looks toward heaven and says, “I trusted you to save me.  Why have you forsaken me?”   The Lord answers, “I sent three boats; why didn’t you get into one of them?”

Victims cannot always dictate the terms of their salvation.   Sometimes there are more important considerations. 

August 25, 2009

Nasty Little Losers

Demotivation posterI watched a rerun of Annie Hall. It has been around long enough that it evidently has become a classic; it was on PBS, so it must be classy. I mostly watched it for old time’s sake and as a kind of thought provoking commentary on a particularly shallow part of human nature. I used to like Woody Allen, but I now find his persona on-screen merely annoying.  

I would credit Woody Allen with creating a hateful character just to call showcase the flaws, but  his on-screen personality is evidently better than his real-life one, so he is just being a better version of himself.  And there are a lot of people like him, so let’s consider the real characters that Woody’s screen character represents. 

In one scene, Woody’s character complains that he cannot be happy as long as he knows that one person on earth is miserable.   He implies that this is somehow noble. Of course it’s just stupid.  But it is worse than stupid in many cases. Here’s why.

I have known many of those guilty types who claim to feel terrible about the world’s suffering. But they very rarely do much about it. IMO, they think that the fact that they feel guilty is a kind of penance that absolves them of the responsibly to do anything proactive. The Woody Allen character is a horrible human being, for example. He is selfish, unreliable, dishonest, weak and just a general shithead. He causes suffering in the people around him. BUT he says the politically correct things and he feels bad about the state of the world. This, in his opinion, buys him an indulgence. 

We sometimes mistake such attitudes as intellectual.   Of course, we have to recognize that intellectual does not equal intelligent, at least in the current conception. An interesting definition of a modern intellectual is that he loves all mankind, but cannot think of too many individual people he likes.  This is the Woody Allen character and unfortunately there are more. 

I wonder why I ever found this funny. I don't object to the sharp, cynical or even nasty humor. It is just that the wimpy perpetual victim is not funny or attractive. I guess I can make the excuse that I was a lot younger and less experienced. That kind of pseudo-wisdom appeals to the pseudo-educated and that was me back when Annie Hall came out. IMO, you have to pass through that stage, where you are a little selfish and cynical AND you think the rest of the world is that way too. If you are lucky, it passes quickly, although some, like Woody Allen himself, seem never to recover. It is sad really.

If everybody likes you, you are probably a kiss-ass w/o a strong personality or values. On the other hand, if nobody likes you, you are probably an asshole. It is unlikely that you are that seriously  misunderstood. It is not nice to "blame the victim" but sometimes the victim is to blame and some people are not only unhappy themselves, but they inspire unhappiness in others.  No good can come from being around them.  And since you probably already know how to be unhappy, you cannot learn much from them. Well ... I suppose you can learn by negative example, and maybe I should thank Woody Allen for showing me things I would never want to be.

August 21, 2009

Ignorant and/or Stupid About the Facts

The health care debate has spawned an unusually large number of articles saying that they are “fact checking” or clearing up “myths.”  Reasonable people will come to similar reasonable conclusions if they have similar facts.   And you can take so much smug pleasure in trumping (thumping?) an opponent with THE facts. It leaves him speechless. Not anymore.  Facts just aren’t what they used to be.

The concept of “fact” is closely tied to having a recognized arbitrating authority. James Burke made an interesting BBC program about this concept and way back in 1985 and anticipated the problem we would have as the concept of fact dissipated.   Extrapolating from what he said, shareable facts were possible only with the widespread introduction of printing.   Before that you had to rely on personal knowledge, faith and a lot of interpretation, since hand copied books were full of mistakes and oral history changes with the needs of the circumstances.  Most people didn’t know very much and much of what they knew beyond their personal experience was superstition, hear-say or legend.  They weren’t stupid.  It is just that w/o the kinds of recording tools we use today it was simply impossible for them to master a lot of information beyond what they could see, hear, feel AND remember personally.

I grew up in an age of fact.  The early 1960s in the U.S. might well have been humanities apex at the rational/science/fact culture.  We had faith in science and the certainty it could and would provide, if not today or tomorrow, soon.  We had reference books that could prove the facts and scientists who continually stuffed more facts into them.    I have written about this subject before, so I am going over some of the same ground.  Look at the previous post if you want, but indulge me in this one.  

The bottom line is that facts are not the same as truth and the truthfulness of a fact depends almost entirely on context of reference.   This is provided by the social and cultural environment.  Back when I was a kid, almost every reasonably educated person shared a reasonably common context.    We used the same reference books, read the same newspapers and watched the same things on television.   This context is weakened.   On the other hand, the power of opinion is vastly strengthened by the proliferation of cable TV, Internet sites and just by the vast numbers of experts talking and writing about everything.   We are back in the world of interpretations.   We still long for the certainty that we can no longer achieve and we still try to trump (or thump) each other with our facts, w/o comprehending that they no longer are THE facts.  

I started with the health care debate because it is current, emotionally charged and an excellent case study of the matters of fact and interpretation.  The health care debate is mostly about interpretation because there currently is no bill to debate.  The tentative proposals are subject to interpretation and they are fluid, which is even more problematic. There is a lot of space to read between the lines and to add or subtract whole paragraphs.  But it seems like it should be a matter of fact, since there is so much written and discussed. 

But the would-be fact checkers are deluding themselves if they think they can trump debate with their interpretation, which they call fact. The details of the health care bill are not only unknown, they are also currently unknowable because they have yet to be hammered out.   Even in the world of certainty, something needs to have happened before it can have a fact associated with it.     It cannot be a fact that John Smith landed on Mars on April 1, 2020 and it cannot be a fact what is included or not in the health care bill. Neither has yet happened. That is WHY we have a debate.

We need an honest debate to lay out the parameters of what we want and what we find unacceptable. Let's not try to shut it down too soon. This is a big deal and everything should be on the table. I wish everybody would stop saying that the other side is ignorant, depraved, greedy or stupid.   In fact, we are ALL currently ignorant on the subject, since the details are not yet manifest. Put in health care terms, ignorance is a treatable condition.  Presumably we are not all stupid, which you really cannot cure.   

August 20, 2009

Sh*t Happens Provoking the Wrath of Khan

Reagan National Airport looking out the window toward the Potomac 

A famous Bollywood actor, a Mr. Khan, was stopped at an American airport for that extra search.   He claims it is because he has a Muslim name.   Read this absurd article and look at some of the comments.   If it doesn’t annoy you, you might indeed be deluded yourself.

Khan and I have some things in common.  I got that extra search at airports several times, so did Mariza and Espen (when he was only 12).  If airports are profiling, I am not sure why I come up so often.  Maybe it is my Midwestern accent or my blue eyes.  I suspect it is my baldness.  Bald men suffer terrible discrimination. I still cannot explain Espen or Mariza, however.

This whole profiling thing at airports is BS.  Airport personnel are extraordinarily careful NOT to do it.  In fact, they go too far, IMO, searching grandmothers in wheelchairs at the same rate they search healthy young men.  Yes, granny COULD be a bad one.  But you have to go with the probabilities. 

Speaking of probabilities, nobody has ever been able to show a statistical probability of being searched at an airport  based solely on race or ethnicity.  There are lots of suppositions and innuendo but no facts.  Of course, there are other factors that sometimes correlate, but as we all learn in Statistics 101, correlation is not causality.   In my case I think I was "profiled" because I traveled several times to particular areas of the world and I was often traveling on one-way tickets.   These things are uncommon enough to raise a little suspicion.  But who knows?

It is more likely that simple random chance is the cause.  Random chance will NOT spread out evenly.  In fact, if you find perfectly even results, you can be sure that random chance is NOT involved.  It is counter intuitive but true. 

If airport security stops me, two Irish students, a couple from Milwaukee returning from Polish-fest and Khan, who do you think is being “profiled”.  If you answered “none of the above” you are correct.   But will any journalists reporting on this know or care?   Indeed, it will look wrong.   But sometimes we have to accept looking wrong when doing the right thing. 

Consider the amusing case of Bob Dylan.  He evidently is a complete unknown to many in the younger generation and somebody called the cops because he seemed suspicious as he walked around a residential neighborhood.  Was he profiled? I suppose he was based on his behavior.   The reports didn't mention any other sort of profiling because it wouldn't make sense, so we just pass it off.  It doesn't make any more sense to claim profiling at the airport.

We are not energetic  enough in defending ourselves against these accusations. There, IMO, are three big reasons.  

Most serious is that we don’t want to “look wrong” or seem intolerant, so we accept a hypersensitivity to perceived slights as natural.  We preemptively apologize and feel guilty for the operation of random chance.

The second is related to privacy rules. Government offices often CANNOT defend themselves because their accusers have privacy rights. I remember the frustration of trying to explain denied visa cases.  As a press attaché I would get calls from journalists saying that someone had been treated unfairly at the Embassy and what was my comment.  Even if I knew the particular circumstance, the person was lying or there was a really good reason why he/she didn’t get a visa, all I could do was quote the general rules.  His privacy rights protected his dishonesty and our “no comment” was seen as an admission of guilt.  

But the biggest reason we don’t properly defend ourselves is a simple misunderstanding of random chance coupled with a human tendency at infer patterns even where they don’t exist.  Kids play the game of looking for faces or animal figures in clouds.  Seaching for patterns is hardwired into our thinking. If I randomly choose ten people, each will come up with a reason – good or bad – why he/she was “singled out.”   And he/she will believe it, but it won’t be true.   

The “shit happens” argument is often valid, but never sounds very convincing. The fictional pattern is usually more interesting.  More nefarious in our litigious society if you can impose a pattern, you might be able to hit the jackpot with some kind of payout. 

Profiling makes for a good story. It sells newspapers and books. It provides publicity for upcoming movies.   It allows people to at once pose as victims and vindicators as they “stick it to the man.”   Sometimes it is even true, but more often there are better but boring explanations.

Bigotry and Racism

As long as I am ranting about these things, let me just give another example. This is from a story in the NYT.  I have put in a blank space to give you a chance to picture the kind of person who would make such a comment.  Tell me if you think that is racist before you look at the article.  If you heard a neighbor disparaging an ethnic or national group in those terms, what would you call it? Would such a blanket condemnation of a whole group ever be justified?  

"You should know that we hate all ____. From the bottom of our souls, we hate you."

August 19, 2009

Hateful Weirdoes at the Cemetery Gates

I have never before encountered anything like it.   As I rode my bike out of Arlington, I noticed about fifty cops and a dozen protestors.  One protestor carried a sign that said, “God Bless IEDs.”  I couldn’t believe that she knew what IED were, so I stopped to ask her. She said something about an IED being a blessed device that killed soldiers.  When I told her that I had been in Iraq and people I knew had been killed or maimed by IEDs, she told me that was a good thing and that I must be a coward for coming home alive. It was an almost instant escalation with all the weirdoes yelling at me, calling me names and screaming that I was going against God’s plan. They didn't specify how.  

When I asked what kind of horrible and vengeful god they worshipped, since I didn’t recognize the one they were talking about, they really went wild and threatened that he would strike me down. I noticed that they had started to tape the meeting (I may appear on the “Nutcase News tonight). 

I figured that they wanted a show, so I gave them one.  Doing my best channeling of Charlton Heston I theatrically spread my arms and challenged their false god to strike me down. I mentioned as a side comment that the true believers might want to stand back so as not to be collateral damage from the expected lightning bolt.  This didn’t amuse them very much.   They told me I was an “arrogant bastard” and that their god would indeed strike me down, only later. I guess he has been busy or just really lethargic, since he has not got around to me yet.  

I didn’t learn who these people were. They showed no desire to explain anything to anybody and fomenting hatred seemed to be their only goal. It worked.  I hate them and I know why there were so many cops around. Lacking the protection of the authorities, my guess is that these clowns - advocating the violent death of American military personnel while standing at the gates of Arlington Cemetery - would quickly get a beat down by decent folks.  I was sorely tempted to toss the first stone myself, but they probably would have enjoyed that too much. 

I am not a religious scholar but I am reasonably sure that if you go to hell, these are some of the people you will meet down there. It is amazing and frightening that such people exist.  I have seen lots of “peaceful” protestors, but never such that could be so appropriately labeled evil.   Maybe there still is some need for this striking down thing.   If I notice a thunderstorm forming over the Potomac I will assume their time of reckoning has arrived.

August 13, 2009

Spare Change

Business is down for the guy looking for spare change outside the CVS Pharmacy.   He has been there a long time and people are used to him, so I don’t think it is because people have become less generous or less tolerant.   I think the new self-service check-out stations are to blame.  

It used to be that I went in to buy a coke or some potato chips and came out with a pocketful of change and it was almost natural just to dump it into his cup.   When I use the self-service stations, I always use my credit card.  It is just easier and faster, so very often I literally do not have any change, “spare” or otherwise.   Most stores and restaurants now make it easier to pay by card than with cash.   This works out well for me, since I get one monthly bill, but it is hard on the spare change guys.   They may soon have to find another profession … or start taking credit cards. 

It is funny how little changes in habits and technologies can have knock off effects you just don’t expect.   Since I am on the subject of the spare change guys, I think there is an interesting connection between them and containerization.  Let me explain. 

Medusa Cement, where I worked as a young man, was “served” by the longshoreman’s union.  I guess because we were on The Kinnikinnick River and near the Port of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan.   My father was a long-time member and a lot of the people I knew in my work life at that time worked on docks, drove trucks or bashed metal.   They were good, hard-working guys who gave a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. 

The easiest job was the "fireman" on the trains.  As I understood it, they used to need a fireman to shovel in coal.  When the railroad converted to diesel engines, firemen were no longer needed.  But they had a strong union and so they stayed on the job.  

Most of the jobs didn’t require much in the way of thinking, which was a good thing for some of our colleagues.  Many were smart, but with levels of education you just don't see much anymore.  One my father's friends was called “Sitzinone.”  That wasn’t his real name.   It came from the way he would say “that is six and one” when shooting craps.  (Seven is the key to success in that game and shooting craps was a big deal.)  He evidently could not count beyond seven but didn't need to.  He recognized the patterns on the dice and had an intuitive understanding of the odds. Another of my co-workers, Lester, couldn’t read, but he had a great memory and could usually recognize also patterns on work orders. He drove the folk lift and loaded trucks by following familiar patterns. It worked most of the time.  

Then there was Tom, who worked the twelve-hour shifts and then went off to deliver pizza for a place called Pepi’s on Mitchell Street. Tom didn’t wash much and never brushed his teeth.  He bragged that he hadn't bushed his teeth since he was discharged from the army after the Korean war. I doubted him, but he smiled broadly and convinced me.  I used to like Pepi’s pizza, but stopped eating it after I got to know Tom.

They used to say that work was the curse of the drinking class and unfortunately many  preferred to consume their daily bread, potatoes and rye in liquid form.   It was easy to slip down that road to perdition.  The bars near the factories opened at 6am for the early liquid breakfast.  (I used to go to a place called the Nautical Inn for lunch.  They had good greasy hamburgers and I would usually get a couple of beers to cut the dust of the afternoon shift.  I had to stop doing it when I got to like it too much.)

Nobody works harder than a drunk sweating off a bender and as long as it was possible to get good paying episodic work these guys could be productive, even admirable members of society. This changed with containerized cargoes and general automation.   

Not only did containerized cargo cut the total unskilled workforce, it also required the remaining workers to be more reliable. Since they operated heavy machines, also excluded were the hard-working boozers, who tended to shake a little too much, not a good thing when running a crane with containers hanging off. 

This change coincided with closing of the flop houses.  If you watch old movies or old “Twilight Zone” episodes, you see guys living in dumpy one-room apartments.  Many of them were not up to code, but they were cheap and could be rented on short-term basis.  In the 1960s, they began to urban “renew” these kinds of places out of existence. These dumps had few champions, but they had provided cheap housing.  When they were gone, some people were left w/o a place to gJohn Matel in front of Medusa Cemento.

So unskilled episodic jobs disappeared at about the same time the cheap, if substandard, housing was improved out of existence.   Worse yet, the economy started to decline after 1972 and the damage caused by the upheavals and social experiments of the 1960s started to become apparent. Things fell apart.

Anyway, little seemingly unrelated changes and decisions can have big unintended consequences. Above is me in front of the cement company where I used to work.

August 02, 2009

Racism and Beer (& Brat) Consumption

Bratwursts on the grill 

Equality can sometimes debase into a type of leveling that is the enemy of real diversity of variety. That was clear in an article in the Washington Post on “The Racial Politics of Beer” decrying the fact that “American brewing was and largely remains a white man’s world.”   What a supremely stupid thing to worry about.   But it is even worse than ordinary stupid.  It betrays that leveling mindset that find discrimination and conspiracy in every human difference that makes life interesting and enjoyable.

None of us has the same culture as our parents, because culture is in a constant state of change, but we can see the persistence of habits & values.  It would be very surprising – and very bad – if everybody just reacted the same way to everything. The basis of true diversity is difference and when you get differences you get different results. Let me write that in a separate line.

The basis of true diversity is difference and when you get differences you get different results.

Let’s think about beer.   They say that the ancient Egyptians brewed a type of beer, but we are heirs to a beer culture that originated in Central Europe in the lands that used to be part of the Holy Roman Empire.  This includes Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands, along with parts of what is now Poland, France & Northern Italy.   The Germans even had a beer purity law called the Reinheitsgebot.  The English and the Irish also have a significant beer culture, as do the Danes and to a lesser extent other Scandinavians.   It tapers off from that home area.  What do you notice about the people living in these places?  Now people drink beer all over, but they still don't always do it the same way or with equal enthusiasm.  Beyond that, many consumers of beer are not really part of the culture of beer.

Beer culture was not merely a matter of chance.    Beer is consumed in between the places where they can easily grow grapes for wine and where it is too cold and people consume hard booze.  Europe traditionally had essentially three zones from south to north and from west to east from wine to beer to vodka.   Water was not consumed much in pre-industrial days because it was so polluted and carried diseases.   People, even children, instead drank beer or wine, although the daily beer was a weaker version – small beer.

I am from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which was a center for the American beer industry.  The other center was St Louis and there were significant smaller centers in Cincinnati and Western Pennsylvania.   What these places all have in common were lots of German immigrants. (I still drink beer.  I also eat bratwurst and liverwurst.  I guess that is just because I am priveleged.)

In the early part of the 19th Century, one of the criticisms against immigrants was in fact that they were beer drinking boozers.  Beer drinking was not always a cool thing to do.   It still is not.

If you analyzed beer drinking, I am sure you would find significant geographical differences.  I am sure you would also find big difference based on ethnicity.     Big deal.   These differences are based on different preferences.

If you look for them, you can find differences in everything.  This is the way everything is. If you believe racism exists everywhere, you can find it in all of life's variation and joy.  It is really true that people’s habitual view of the world is a confession of their own characters.  Maybe those who see crooks, racists, shirkers and idiots everywhere are just looking in the mirror.

July 03, 2009

Crap TV


When I was in Norway, one of the local television stations constantly played reruns of Ricky Lake and Jerry Springer.  I used to wonder what kind of image of our country these clowns created. They were bad enough, but now we have a whole slew of reality shows.    They show unattractive people being venal and selfish.  We live here and we have a wide variety of other impressions.   But I was imagining if I was to see something like “Bridezillas” w/o other context I might not want anything to do with the culture that produces such monstrosities. 

Americans are no more venal than people in other countries and our television shows are really no worse than other.   For example, the Dutch invented many of the reality shows, like “Big Brother.”   But most of these offerings don’t get distributed around the world.   The Brits seems to have developed the perfect television PR.    I have been to the UK and seen some of what they watch back home.   It is not very uplifting.  Yet in the U.S. and around the world, we get “Masterpiece Theatre.” 

I am not the only one to worry about the coarsening of America.  I don’t know how much television is reflecting changes in America and how much it is driving them.    I also am not sure of how people are looking the programs.   When I see people being selfish and demanding to be covered in bling, I look down on them.   Everybody needs somebody to look down on and the low-lives on reality TV provide an outlet.

There is an old saying that the bad man is a lesson for the good.  You can see what not to do.

But are negative role models enough?  Are they really seen as negative?  A lot of the bad people get what they want by being aggressive.   Maybe some people see that as good thing.

We should not underestimate the power of television.    Advertisers understand that a fifteen or thirty minute commercial can sell a product.   Maybe a thirty minute or an hour program can sell a lifestyle.  I watched a lot of television when I was a kid and I know that I consciously modeled some of the behavior and habits of some of the television characters.     It sometimes surprises me today when I watch an old show and see one of my traits in embryonic form.    Maybe I was just more impressionable than most kids, but I don’t think so.   I hear too many stories, jokes and tag lines from movies. 

Television characters help define the boundaries of what is acceptable.   For example, when did it become acceptable to call women “bitches,” much less use the word on TV?  But both things are now common.   How is it that the “poor” people on reality TV can afford and think they deserve fancy cars and jewelry?

I grew up on science fiction and westerns.   Both were common when I was a kid. They were actually very similar.   “Star Trek”, for example, was a lot like “Wagon Train.”   They travel through unexplored territories meeting strange people, with whom they alternatively cooperate and conflict.    And they all were morality plays, very simple and clear.   They seem very naive today, but they are certainly no more simplistic than “Bridezillas” and they have a better purpose.

I have to stipulate, however, that television has generally improved. The production values as well as the complexity of programs are much better than they used to be.  In addition, we have many fine productions on history, science and human affairs.   But this is a result of a general widening of offerings.  There is much more choice now.    You can choose to watch well produced dramas (like Law & Order), good news programs (Newshour on PBS), technology (Modern Marvels) or any of the great variety of history programs.   Or you can watch crap all day and night.

Choice is enhanced (exacerbated) by the ability to time shift and save programs.  At one time television united the country.  We watched the same things at the same times and that made us more similar.  Most Americans watched the evening news with Walter Cronkite.  Half the country tuned into the final episode of “The Fugitive.”   Now we all watch different things at different times.  I suppose that will make us all more different.  Unequal inputs produce unequal results.

May 24, 2009

Getting Old

John Matel cutting a path through brush on his tree farm in Brunswick County Va on May 24, 2009The old keep getting older and the young must do the same.  I am 54 years old today. Assuming that I live to be 108, I am middle aged.  I went running yesterday and ran my record worst time for a late spring run. I only measure the middle mile, so that it is not a sprint or a worn out finish. I used to run it in under six minutes.  Yesterday it took almost ten. Fat guys and women now sometimes pass me AND stay ahead. Running still feels the same.  Maybe my watch is defective.  Maybe all watches are defective. Maybe I will just leave the watch at home, since none of them seem to measure my running accurately. I still do ten chin-ups after each run. Since I never try to do more, I don’t know that I have become weaker in that respect.  I am pretty sure I have but since I don’t know I have plausible deniability.   

I am also not as quick as I used to be mentally. This is an interesting situation. I sense that my raw cognitive power has declined, but in compensation I have more experience so I respond better to some challenges. Emotional intelligence is higher, in other words. I am also better at judging situations so that I can do things I am better at doing and avoid the ones where I am weaker.

I read an article a long time ago about useful intelligence and how it develops over a lifetime.   Young people have more raw brainpower, but they lack the perspective and experience to make it useful in all fields.  The raw brain v experience makes the most difference in pure reasoning such as math.   If a person has not achieved something extraordinary in math by the time he is twenty-five, he never will. Achievements in physics come just a bit later and on it goes. In fields where experience and perspective make the most difference, older people do better.   Historians, statesmen and diplomats continue to get better.  They do their best work when they are fifty or more. That gives me a little comfort as I hobble down the the winding path.  The picture, BTW, is me cutting a path through the prickly brush on the tree farm.  The machine ran out of gas long before I ran out of brush to cut.  I suppose that is a metaphor for life.

March 25, 2009

Television These Days

An unforeseen outcome of my sojourn in the Iraqi desert was that I lost control of the television remote.   Now I get to see American Idol, Hell’s Kitchen and others, but you do get a different perspective when you don’t choose all your own programs.   If left alone, I would watch the variations of History Channel, Discovery and the News, along with reruns of "Bonanza" & "Star Trek".   I suppose some variety is okay and I can see what others are watching.

I really hate “Family Guy” and the boys know it, so they make a special point of coming up and turning it on. When I object, they claim that they are only seeking a family experience and something we can watch together.   “Family Guy” is clever, but very hateful.  It is an old comedy tradition to poke fun at society, but the writers of this show seem to hate everything about the way most people live.  Still, it provides a type of entertainment.   When the lead character, called Peter, does or says something particularly egregious, the boys look at me and wait for my ranting.  I don’t disappoint them. It is a family social event.

SouthPark episode re the economy

“South Park” is a show I started off disliking, but now generally enjoy.   It is very uneven.  Parts are horrible, but it there is some legitimate social satire.   The writers of this show don’t display the disgust I perceive in “Family Guy’s” treatment of our society.    The one today parodied the economic mess.  If you get a chance, watch it.

Chrissy likes the tournament style shows like “American Idol,” “Top Chef” and “Hell’s kitchen.”   We also get to watch “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”   I really cannot stand “Grey’s Anatomy.” The doctors are all ostensibly skilled, but rotten and selfish. They usually redeem themselves with an ostentatious show of some politically correct compassion or outrage.  It actually drives me out of the room.  I clean up the kitchen, which might indeed be its purpose.  Chrissy likes “Ax Men,” which I also like and we watched DVDs of “The Wire,” which was a great show.   We have now reached the end of it, however.    I used to like “The Office” but that is also starting to get on my nerves.

I guess you have to have an English accent to be truthful.  On “American Idol” only Simon Cowell tells the truth about the sometimes horrible performances.  The audience boos him for it, but I think most people respect his integrity.   Otherwise you just get that vapid praise.   Paula Abdul praises everybody, but doesn’t seem to be sure where she is or who she is watching, so it is not much value.  The terrible truth is that half of all people are below average and always will be, but that seems to be an unwelcome surprise. The other truthful guy is Chef Ramsey on “Hell’s Kitchen.”  Actually, I am not sure if he is truthful or just plain mean. He is constantly out of control.  Of course, they seem to pick a bunch of idiot savants as contestants. They seem to be able to cook, but lack all social skills and common sense.

Below - This happened near the Capitol. I don't think anybody got hurt.  You don't have to hit a car very hard to do a lot of damage.

Car accident near Capitol on March 24, 2009

We now have TViO, which means we can record shows for later viewing.   This is less useful that it might seem. We have lots of shows recorded but not enough time or inclination to watch them.   The only show that I record and actually consistently watch is “Modern Marvels.”   Recently they had episodes re how cheese and sausage were made, a history of pigs, oil refining, plastics and – my favorite – forestry technology.  I like it because you get the story with all its parts but w/o the social commentary crap that seems to have accreted to most things today.    For example, they talk about how pigs are raised and eventually turned into bacon and ham.   That’s it.  We don’t get the sad music or the criticism of modern eating habits.  I just want to know how things work.  I don’t need the help re how I should feel about it.

For all the criticism of TV, it really has improved and it is a great learning tool – if used properly.  You could get a decent general education from watching things like “Modern Marvels.”  “Nova,”  or the various History Channel Shows.    It also democratizes and fosters search for knowledge.  There are now a lot of people trying things out.  For example, there are whole cottage industries involved in figuring out how people in the past lived and built things by actually building them with the tools and techniques of the times.  

Of course, you could just spend your time watching reality shows.  They are popular, IMO, because all the losers watching can feel better than the even bigger losers on TV.

March 24, 2009

Popular Names

It is still a cool spring, but some of the trees are starting to bud out & flower.    Below is the Capitol on March 22 at about 8am in the morning calm and the soft morning mist.  You can see some of the trees are getting leaves.  

US captiol at 8 am on March 23, 2009

Below are a few interesting links. 

This one from the Economist talks about new dams.   Many countries need to develop more water storage.   Follow this link.

This one talks about the ancient Greeks & Romans.   The Greeks & Romans are a little out of style in the modern academia.     Many people now prefer to emphasize the contributions of the less well known or the less western civilizations.   The problem is that the reason we have revered the Greeks and Romans for so long is that they contributed so much to civilization.    The Greeks and Romans also had a viable literature.    This article tells more about it.

Finally, I happened on this name popularity page.   The most popular first name in the U.S. is still John.    And the most popular last name is still Smith.   You can put in any name and find out where it ranks along with a map showing the distribution.   I typed in “Matel,” which is not a common name.   Matels are relatively most common in Wisconsin.  I suppose most of those are some relation of mine.    There are also some in California, I don’t know if any of those are my cousins.  There is a Matel in Colorado.  I know at least one person there, Larry Matel is my relation. He contacted me via email a while back. I noticed that there is a John Matel in Duluth.    According to the Whitepages, he is ninety-five years old. My father was born in Duluth and his family lived there.  Maybe this is one of his cousins.

Map showing Matel listings in telephone book

You can play with the names in various ways.  For example, you can choose names from various ethnic groups and see the distributions.  Wisconsin is the home of many German names.   Minnesota has lots of Scandinavians.  I didn’t find anything unexpected, but I wasn’t looking hard.

March 23, 2009

Don't Get Fooled Again

It is probably a genetic maladaption.  My mother had all that kind of stuff -  vegomatics, cap snafflers – all those labor saving devices that make more work while ostensibly being labor saving.  I saw the “Slap Chop” on television and called in for one.  I got the Slap Chop and the bonus Graty for the one low price of  $19.95. Great.

Slap Chop

It does what it is advertised to do. It easily chops onion, potatoes, mushrooms and other vegetables with one slap.   It just isn’t worth the trouble. In this respect, it is a lot like the “Fry Baby.” It does what it is supposed to do, but you have to go out of your way to put it to good use.

Pizzaz Pizza Oven

The one good labor saving device I have is the “Pizzaz Pizza Oven.” I actually cannot take credit for this thing.  Chrissy bought it.  It cooks frozen pizzas to perfection. If you put a few fresh mushrooms (I suppose I could use the Slap Chop) on a Tombstone Pizza, it is as good as the average take out.   I have learned to put it first only on lower to crisp the crust and then do dual to finish the job. The kids eat a lot of pizza, so this thing make sense for us. It is more useful than a toaster.

Below - magnolias are flowering near the Smithsonian.

magnolias near the Smithsonian on March 23, 2009

I am still glad that I bought my hybrid car back in 2005 but on TV today, they reported that hybrid sales are down. Last year they couldn’t keep them on the lots. Consumers are fickle, but logical.  They respond very rapidly to one thing – the price of gasoline.  Everybody I talk to claims to be interested in saving the environment and concerned about our addiction to Middle Eastern oil, but their behavior tells a different story.

March 02, 2009

Loving the Suburbs (& the City & the Country)

So why not have it all together. 

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.

Barge traffic in Frankfurt on the Main River

I feel uniquely qualified to speak to this issue, since 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.

View of Frankfurt from top of bank building

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 musuems.  Who wouldn’t like that?   In many cities these days you cannot really walk around much. 

Boston street scene

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.

Iraqi village

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. 

Century Village in Londonderry NH 

Above was our home area in Londonderry, NH.  It was both suburb and country.  The picture below is about 200 yards away.

Road in Century Village in Londonderry, NH

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 the three 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.

Strawberry Bank in Portsmouth NH 

Above - people like old fashioned small towns ... in theory, but they demand the larger floorplans and conveniences available only in modern suburbs.  Below is a little too empty.  Some people think they want to "get away" but few really do.  They are nice places to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

Roadside in Navajo Nation in Arizona

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.  The cone headed intellectuals 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.   Read the articles, and I bet you will agree. 

Street in Brussels in September 2006 

Above - Old buildings are very popular with a small, but vocal, part of the population.  They have lots of nice nooks and great lines, but the plumbing tends to be bad.  Open markets (below) are another "must have" ammenity.  Unfortunately, they are often not economically viable, as the people who claim to love them shop elsewhere.

Open air market in Barcellona in December 2002

All things considered, we have lots of options and this middle class guy is feeling okay in the new and improved suburbs. 

Keene, NH in May 2004

The nicest places, IMO, are the garden cities that were popular in the early 20th Century.  This is a bit older, but has the open feel and modest opulence.  Below - good mass transit is a necessity to a nice city or suburb.  They have to be more convenient than driving for many people.  You can do this only by making it more difficult and expensive to drive.  If you provide enough parking and prevent traffic jams, most people who can will choose to drive and doom mass transit to a poor transport method for the poor.  It is a tragedy of the commons.  Everyone benefits if more people take mass transit, but each individual can make himself relatively better off if he can get himself into the car.  

Train station in Frankfurt

Below is that bad part of the suburbs - parking lots. Cars are overused.  We have too many impervious surfaces, too many roads, too much traffic and too many fat people because of our love affair with the automobile.

Parking lot near Arlington Bvd in Fairfax County

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.

Below is a sculture at the Hirschorn.  I don't know what it is supposed to be.  Maybe nothing - i.e. non-representative.  It looks to me like a little fat devil.  Or it could be a cow up on its hind legs.  One advantage to cities is you get to look at these things and be amazed.

Art at Hirschhorn on February 27, 2009

February 18, 2009

Too Much Health Care

I thought that I would need a root canal in at least one of my teeth.  I counted on that or some other health care disaster, so I put money into my FSA account, but no such luck.  My teeth stayed healthy and so did the family and we put too much into the health care savings account that I have to use or lose by March 15.  This has never happened before.  Maybe I should just get that root canal preemptively.  

Below is a decoration at the Air & Space Museum.

Sculpure at Air & Space Museum in Washington DC taken on February 17, 2009

The FSA is one of those heath savings accounts.   They are great.  They deduct money from your paycheck each week.  It is tax free, with the caveat that it be used only for certified medical expenses and that it be used by March 15 of the year following when it was deducted, or else they just take it back, so you have to guess right.  You can use it to pay deductibles, medicines etc.   My insurance doesn’t cover most dental expenses, so I pay myself for all that Coke and Hershey cars I consumed in my misspent youth.    Tooth fillings don’t last forever, and the ones I got when I was young are breaking down.   I don’t fear the pain of the dentist, only the price.   FSA spreads that out over the year.

Below is the National War College, T. Roosevelt Hall.  The building was started in 1903 and finished in 1907. 

T Roosevelt Hall at NDU on February 17, 2009

This is the first time I have put too much money into it.   Usually I don’t have enough and I get stuck with unexpected expenses, so this year I decided to be smarter.  It looks like smarter was dumber. I am sure that something will go seriously wrong on March 16 and I will be stuck again.  

I suppose I can stock up on aspirin, Pepto-Bismol and Nyquil, but you can only buy so much of that stuff before they suspect somebody is setting up a meth lab. It is odd to have this problem and it is better than the alternative, but I don't want to throw away the money.   I will figure something out.  I suppose I can pay for something in advance.

The thing about health care is either you need it or not.   It is not discretionary.   I generally dislike going to doctors and avoid them if I can.   My father went to the doctor only once between when he was discharged for the Army Air Corps in 1945 and when he died more than fifty years later.   I am not trying to match his record but we have done all the routine checkups, even the colonoscopy I should have gotten three years ago.   If medical visits can make you healthy, I am there. 

As long as I am on the subject of forfeiting heath related stuff, let’s talk about sick leave.   The USG gives me four hours of sick leave every two weeks.   We can roll the hours over at the end of the year and I have been saving it up.   I now have 2275.50 hours of sick leave saved up.    If you count in paid holidays, I could be sick for around a year and a half before I ran out of sick leave.   This is good.  It provides a de-facto disability insurance and I don’t need Aflac.   But the government, in its wisdom, has decided that it will just zero out all those hours when I retire.    This is the “new” retirement system that came into force the year I joined the FS.   Unused sick leave was added to your retirement in the old system.  Some in Congress are talking about changing the rules for the new one, but given the hard economic circumstances I don’t suppose anything will come of it.   

Frankly, this doesn’t bother me too much.  They can have the sick time back; I am just glad I never was sick enough to use it up.   But a significant number of people evidently view sick leave as just another form of vacation day and giving sick leave days an expiration date doesn’t encourage thrift or conservation, especially as so many employees are approaching their own expiration dates.   The first generations of employees in the new system are approaching retirement and absenteeism will no doubt rise among those in the new system within a few years of retirement.    

February 14, 2009

What is Art?

Below is the my regular Capitol picture taken at 7:45 on February 13. As I wrote, I am trying to take regular pictures through the seasons. It is getting warmer and lighter in the mornings.

US Capitol on February 13, 2009  

Beauty is all around us and all sorts of common things are interesting if examined. The beauty often lies less in the physical attributes of the things themselves than in the serendipity of finding them or in their  ephemeral nature, like the flower that blooms only for a day or the leaf that hangs an instant in the wind. Of course, people create and appreciate art.   

Patronage.  That was the whole basis of art until a short time ago and it was a good thing.   In the days before government grants, few artists had independent means so they had to find patrons.   Most of the world’s great art was made to order.  The patrons set the bounds and artists were not free to express themselves exactly as they wished.  In fact the tension between artists and patrons was one of the ingredients of masterpieces. The Sistine Chapel is great because of the tension between Michelangelo, who was doing the painting, and Pope Julius II, who was paying the bills.  Everybody needs boundaries.

Below is modern art at the Hirschhorn Gallery.  It is interesting, but not much.  It has no particular context.  I bet the government paid way too much for it.  I am sure the artist had fun making it and even more fun spending the money he got for doing it.

Sculpture at Hirschhorn Museum taken on February 13

The context determines the value. We all hold onto things that have meaning to us.   I have carried around the world a little statue of Caesar Augustus that my Aunt Florence gave me in 1965.   Objectively, it is worth next to nothing and it is poor art (It doesn't look like Augustus, more like Napoleon), but it has meaning to me on several levels. It is representational.  

Below is another sculpture on the Mall.  Also of limited interest.  I read the sign in front and didn't get any more meaning than you do from looking at it. It would be okay if they let kids climb on it, but they don't.

Modern art on Capitol Mall taken on Feb 13, 2009

I take sublime joy in just walking around the Capitol Mall.   The monuments and buildings have meaning to me as an American, a lover of liberty and as an individual.   I have “a history” with these things personally (25 years of knowing them) and for the larger reasons.  The monuments represent something bigger than what you see.  You can find out the names of the artists who worked on them, but it doesn’t really matter.  They don’t represent an individual’s narcissistic artistic ambition or personal vision.  They represent traditions, aspirations, sacrifices and triumphs of the American people. Of course, there is also the modern art pictured on this post.

Below is the Natural History Museum.  I like the traditional buildings better, but that is just my taste.

Smithsonian Natural History Museum taken on February 13, 2009

I don’t like art that doesn’t have greater meaning or is just an expression of what the individual artist wanted to say.   I don’t like the artists to challenge or try to shock me out of what they considers my complacency.   The artist has no more right to challenge me than I have to challenge him.   A lot of challenging art is just crap.   We have fallen into a kind of emperor’s new clothes trap, where all of us are afraid to express our own taste for fear of being seen as unworthy philistines.   But as Emerson wrote, “The picture waits for my verdict: it is not to command me, but I am to settle its claims to praise.”

Community gardens in Washington DC near Capitol 

Above is a community garden near the Capitol.  I think they started these things in the 1960s and there used to be more of them.  If is kind of interesting to see this little hippie farm in the middle of the monuments and monumental buildings.  This is a more meaningful art than those two modern sculptures above.

February 12, 2009

Making the World Safe for Auto Traffic

We create a lot of our own troubles by demanding standards that individually make sense but together make our world less pleasant.    Today I went to an urban forestry meeting where we discussed trees and roads.   It turns out that our policies are a big part of the reasons we do not have beautiful tree lined vistas, why it is scary to be pedestrians and why we don’t have the tree canopy in our cities and suburbs that could give us shade and help keep our water cleaner. 

Providence Forest a very wide street in Merrifield VA

Let’s start out with street trees.   I imagine the trees near the streets on that little belt of grass.  Today’s rules don’t permit that unless they can be several feet from the road.  Otherwise they are hazards to traffic. Usually there is not enough room on the grass strips, especially because our new roads tend to be way wider than they need to be. I understand why you don't want obstacles (like trees) along high speed highways, but city streets are different.   On the city streets having trees on the grass next to the curb is not only more attractive; it is also safer … for pedestrians.   I would rather the car hit a tree than hit me.   Beyond that, the speed limit on city streets should preclude the trees being a real danger.   Only a drunk or a manic would veer off a straight city street and hit anything on the side.   But it is clear that road designers see everything from the car point of view.

The woman explaining the rules told us that anything near the road has to be “breakaway” so that it is not a danger to a car that hits it.  Trees cannot be made break away, which is why they cannot be close to the road.  The thing that surprised me is that bus stop shelters are designed to be “break away”.    I think they should make an exception for bus stop shelters.  If a car comes careening across the sidewalk, I would hope that the bus stop can at least slow it down before it hits the “break away” pedestrian sitting in the shelter.

Rounded corner onto Gallows Road in Merrifield Virginia on February 12, 2009

The car point of view is also why they round the curves.   You can see an example above from  just outside my townhouse complex.  This very wide strip of pavement is supposedly a city street.    The speed limit is 25 and there are lots of pedestrians.   The cars should not be taking that corner fast enough to require the rounding.  Every time I cross that street at the place shown, I have to keep looking over my shoulder to watch for the idiot making a high speed turn while talking on his/her cell phone.  I would prefer that they have to slow down to make the squared corner.  Maybe put both hands on the steering wheel.

BTW - they are going to make the road above even wider.  It is one of those shovel ready projects that the bailout money will buy.  I am glad it will create a few jobs, but I don't really welcome the prospect of having an even longer jeopardy zone to cross.  It is like that old video game "frogger."

In a very good book about livable places, A Pattern Language, the authors studied patterns that people around the world like in the places they live.   People feel more comfortable with narrower roads with buildings and plants near the road.   Of course this is when they are walking or just living nearby.   Drivers like wide open roads with no obstacles.    We all impose suffering on each other by thinking like drivers when passing through somebody else’s neighborhood.    Our love of driving has destroyed the attractiveness of our cities. 

Utilities being placed next to Gallows Road in Merrifield VA on February 12, 2009

One reason our roads and the areas around them have to be so wide is that utilities are placed far from the actual road.   Suburban roads don’t have manholes and that is why.   The total road footprint is a couple of football fields wide.

Something we could use around here are traffic circles or roundabouts.  They work very well in UK.  Traffic moves through.  Drivers yield to the traffic already in the circle and enter and leave w/o the need of stop lights or stop signs.   We cannot seem to pull it off.  We don't even try to put them in real streets anymore.  The original design of Washington included circles, which now just confuse and perplex drivers.  The one in the picture is mostly decorative.  It is the traffic circle at our complex.  Notice even in this simple case they have to have a sign telling people what to do.  They also have stop signs on the sides.  Ruins the advantage.

Traffic circle at Providence Forest townhouse complex in Merrifield, VA on February 12, 2009

The tragedy is that all of us are making good decisions for ourselves but taken together they end up being bad decisions for all of us.    Most of us are drivers and we all like convenience, but we should consider how much it is really costing us.

February 10, 2009

Now is the Winter of Our Discontent

I suppose the economy will continue to decline for some time, with or w/o the stimulus package.   But I prefer to look to the things that are looking up.  

Below are the new homes near my house.  Now sold out.

New homes sold out near Dunn Loring metro in Vienna VA Feb 2009

While we were at Sears yesterday to get a new dishwasher, making our small contribution to the recovery, we noticed the help wanted signs.  There was also a help wanted sign at Safeway.   Construction around Washington has slowed but not stopped.    The new complex near my house, the one that had sold no lots last summer, is now sold out and the houses are almost done.   I don’t like the houses, but the evidently are what some people want, people with the means to buy new houses.

New homes near Dunn Loring Metro in Vienna Virginia in Feb 2009

Recessions aren’t all bad.   I read in the papers that people are saving more money, putting off purchases and being more careful about what they buy.   

Same place in July 2008 (six months ago)

Field with unsold new home lots taken in July 2008

This is the paradox of thrift.  Saving is a virtue, but if enough people save enough money during hard times, not enough money flows through the economy.

Below is condo construction near my house.

Condo construction near Dunn Loring metro in Feb 2009

Still,  until recently we worried that people were not saving enough, that houses were getting too expensive and that people were becoming to extravagant in their purchases.   It is not what you make but what you keep.   Real disposable income rose every month of the last quarter and the savings rate spiked up too.   Read about it at this link.

Cleared lots near Dunn Loring Metro in Vienna Virginia Feb 2009

I don’t want to minimize the problem.   I know people are suffering and I stipulate that I have a steady job so maybe I don’t feel the downturn as much as some others.  But I have lost money in the markets and my house is worth signifcantly less.  I would also point out that even with the recent jump in unemployment; almost 93% of Americans still have jobs too.  So my experience is not that special.  I think we are getting a little too worked up.  FDR famously said that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.  Maybe we should recall his wise words, uttered in a much more difficult time.  I think some of this passion we hear on the news is hyperbole.    As Ben Franklin said, “passion governs and she never governs wisely.”

I have been reading a lot about the Great Depression and I got a second-hand feeling for those hard times from my parents.  During those years, unemployment reached almost 25% and that number understates the problem in comparison to today, since there were many more farmers back then as a % of the population and many of them suffered hard times or even lost their farms but were not immediately counted as unemployed.    Beyond that, back in the 1930s many more families had only one wage earner.     

Below - we still have vultures.

Vultures near Dunn Loring Metro in Feb 2009

So let’s lay this out by the worst rates per decade.   According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rate in 1933 = 24.9%;  unemployment rate in 1949 = 7.9;  unemployment in 1958 = 7.5; unemployment in 1961 = 7.1%;  unemployment rate in 1975 = 9.0; unemployment rate in 1982 = 10.9%; unemployment in 1992 = 7.8%; unemployment in 2009 is 7.6%.   You might also take a look at the better times - 1948 3.4%; 1953 = 2.5%; 1969 =3.4%; 1970 3.9%; 1989 = 5.0%; 1999 = 4.2%;  and not long ago in 2006 = 4.4%.  (I graduated HS in 1973.  From 1973-1997, the unemployment rate never dropped below 5% and in many years it was above today's level of 7.6%, BTW.) 

We have hard times periodically and we recover.   During the hard times, we think good times will never return; during good times we think we have reached a new age when hard times will come again no more.  We are always wrong.  Things decline after they reach a peak and the come up after they hit a bottom.  That is the way is was, is and always will be.  It is a simple tautology.

Now is the winter of our discontent about to turn to glorious summer?

January 30, 2009

Privacy Ancient & Modern

Below is a statue of Admiral David Farragut.  He captured New Orleans in 1862, which split the Confederacy and virtually stopped the export of southern cotton.  His famous quote, "damn the torpedoes, go ahead full speed ahead" comes from the battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. In those days, they called naval mines torpedoes. The harbor was mined but Farragut ordered it forward anyway.

Farragut Square in Washington on January 29, 2009 

It is only embarrassing if you don’t talk about it. I had my first colonoscopy today and I am happy to say that I don’t need another one for ten years.  The actual procedure is very easy. They use general anesthesia and it is no more uncomfortable than an afternoon nap.

The preparation is the hard part. You have to drink about three liters of some chalky stuff.  It is really hard to drink that much of anything and this stuff is harder than most. You also cannot eat anything the day before. This was not as hard as I thought.  

Modern medicine is wonderful.  Things that used to be hard are now easy. They are very careful legally, however. I had to sign lots of forms and they told me lots of things about privacy. They worry too much.  I think we should expect reasonable - not absolute - privacy.  

Absolute privacy, the privacy where you were really unknown, is a thing of the past. Hanging onto this old fashioned privacy illusion is silly and counterproductive.    While some people are busily reinforcing the front gate with ridiculously stringent laws and regulations, they are eagerly tearing down the back walls, by putting all sorts of really personal information on Facebook or their cell phones.  Internet has got you anyway. The only way you can hide from Google is to have a really common name. Chrissy (Christine Johnson) is immune to Google search.  Most people are not.     

It doesn’t bother me if somebody can find out my buying or travel habits.  I voluntarily share information with Amazon, Safeway, CVS or Marriott, among others.    I don’t mind if this helps them tailor their offerings to my tastes, although I am mildly annoyed that some computer program can fairly predict my behavior by extrapolating from my previous choices.  As a Federal employee, I give the government the right to monitor my office computer use.  Frankly, I find this a type of protection from scammers etc.  Privacy?  All I want is that people cannot compel me to do things or buy things.   They can offer all they want. 

Below is the National Portrait Gallery, one of the most interesting museums in Washington.

National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC on January 30, 2009

Generally, I figure anybody who wants to find out about me can do so but they will soon get bored and go away.   I do, however, like to be unconnected.   I don’t own cell phone and I don’t use the one the government gives me if not on duty.  When I go down to the woods it is very hard to find me.   We can still get lost.  This is the kind of privacy we can still choose, but it is the kind of privacy most people don’t want.  They want to be connected all the time.   I hate it when those clowns talk on the phone when they are driving.   Few things are so urgent that you really need to take a call when driving … or doing most other things for that matter.  

But you don’t need details about everything.  That is why I included only the unrelated pictures in this privacy article.

January 28, 2009

Slothful & Indifferent

“Being yourself” is overrated and it is terrible advice to give a young person.  Much education and virtually all professional training is specifically designed to teach you to be different – and better.  Most success in life depends on your ability to play the proper roles.   This is as it should be.  John Matel in 1974, age 19, back when he knew everything

On the left is me when I was 19 and knew everything.  I actually had hair back then.

People left to just be themselves will often behave with slothful indifference, or worse. Doing the right thing is hard work that requires significant discipline and preparation.  Those doing the wrong things often rationalize away their failings, since the wrong thing usually results from the sin of omission rather than commission.  People neglect preparation or lack reasonable foresight and then find themselves in an untenable position.  Portraying themselves as victims, they plaintively ask, “What else could I do?” as circumstances "force" them into some questionable actions.

Random chance – luck – is an important factor in any result, but the chronically unlucky are probably making poor choices, often by what they are choosing NOT to do, as I discuss above.   

Below is a picture of my father (the guy w/o the hat) back in the summer of 1941, when he was 19 and knew everything. Even from our distant time, we can feel the joy of care free youth.  The Great Depression was ending.  Young men could find jobs. Later that year the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  By the next summer, my father was in Europe at the request of his Uncle Sam.John Matel Sr in summer of 1941, when he was 19

I am a natural procrastinator.  I have known that since I was a kid.   I compensate for this because I am a quick study with a significant talent to “think on my feet” or “wing it.”  I don’t say this to boast, but rather to point out the mixed blessing.  These skills allow me to get away with insufficient preparation and even when I pull off a success, it may not be the best I could do.  Because I recognize the problem, I can fight against the tendency, but I will forever struggle against the tendency to “be myself.” 

We are our own first creation.  We demonstrate who we are by what we aspire to be, by the choices we make and by the roles we choose.  My “self” is defined by my family, my forests, my diplomacy career and various long term habits such as reading and running.   I doubt anybody would have predicted this for me when I was born.  The things are do now are not the default option; I am not being my "natural" self,  but I am certainly being “me” – the me I have chosen, the one I want to be, not the one I was stuck with.  Sure glad I didn’t try too hard to be myself when I was younger.

My advice to the kids is don't just be yourself; be better.  It will be more satisfying.

January 27, 2009

A Little Snow in Washington

Below is from the Smithsonian Metro stop looking east toward the Capitol, which is hidden by the fog and snow.

Looking toward the U.S. Capitol through the snow on January 27, 2009 

It doesn’t take much snow to paralyze our nation’s capital.  Even this little bit you see on the Capitol Mall was enough to shutter the local schools. It has been a cold winter (by Washington standards) but this is the first snow that has stuck to the ground.  The biggest snow storms come usually in February & March.  The sun is warm and the snow doesn’t last long, but they tie up traffic in this city of southern efficiency and northern charm.

When I was a kid they almost never closed the schools.   We had to walk miles through mountains of snow – up hill both ways.   When you reach your anecdotage, the hardships of the past are magnified in relation to the wimpiness of the present.    It has always been thus.  My father told me tales too.   Of course, things actually were hard for him in the Great Depression followed by WWII.  Those who compare our easy times to those years have a not studied the history and/or did not have a parent to tell them about it.

Below is the view from the Smithsonian Metro looking west toward the Washington Monument.

Looking west from Smithsonian Metro stop toward Washington Monument on January 27, 2009

But we had hard times in the 1960s & 70s too.  This was mostly related to having to listen to the hard times stories of our elders, but decade from 1973-82 really was bad.  What we fear MIGHT happen now DID happen then, with double digit unemployment and double digit inflation. 1979/80 was the worst time of my life so far.  Not only did we suffer the economic malaise, but the environment was much dirtier than it is today.  The Ayatollah had grabbed the hostages; the Soviet Union was expanding all over the world; Central America looked like it would go communist; the debt crisis was crushing the developing world; interest rates were high and gas prices were higher. There was no way out.

My father told me that the 1930s were much worse, but I didn’t live through those worse hard times, so I feared the contemporary fall was forever. Ten years later, the Berlin Wall fell; the economy was expanding; gas was cheap and interest rates were coming down.  The boom that started in 1982 would continue with two minor shocks (1991 & 2001) until 2007.  Nobody would have believed that back in 1979.   There was a whole industry of doom and gloom books, predicting the imminent replacement of the U.S. by Japan, the collapse of the free market & the triumph of the Soviet Union.  Hard to remember now and you cannot find many people who will admit to believing those things, but they did and the experts were wrong.

America is never really down.  We are just resting before going on to our next success. 

But returning to the snow, it was indeed colder during the 1970s.   Earth has cycles.  The 1930s were warm years.  It returned to “normal” in the 1940s, so that the Battle of the Bugle occurred during the coldest winter in 15 years.   The 1950s were a bit warmer again, and then we had a cold decade from the middle 1960s until the middle 1970s.  That is the weather I remember as a kid. 

They didn’t close school unless there were a few feet of newly fallen snow.  Conditions have changed, however.   Most of us went to neighborhood schools and we walked to get there.   You might slip and fall walking to school, but a fatal accident is unlikely.  Today most kids are bussed to school.  It is dangerous to ride in a bus on icy roads.  That is the weak link and that is why they have to close schools more often today for smaller accumulation of snow and ice, that and the liability exposure.  Our culture has changed and so has our adaptation to the weather.  I was not at tough as my old man and my kids cannot be as tough as I was.   We won’t let them.

January 26, 2009


Dead trees girdled by vandalism on C Street SW.  Picture taken on January 24, 2009 

A homeless man killed the trees in the pictures.   I saw him carving on them with a pocket knife a couple years back.   He moved on when I asked him about it, but he came back.   The police can't do anything about these kinds of incidents and they discourage citizens from even giving the miscreants a hard time.   I have not seen the guy around since I have been back from Iraq.   I hope he is gone for good, but maybe he is taking the winter off.   How many trees he killed all together I don’t know, nor do I have any clues on the motivation.  Maybe he was just bored.   Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.  There are dozens of dead trees about the right age in the neighborhood, but there are other possible causes.   

Dead trees on C St SW killed by vandalism

There are a lot fewer homeless around here than there used to be when I first moved to Washington.  I don’t know if they are gone or just gone someplace else.  There used to be a guy called Mitch Snyder, who ran a local homeless shelter. He deployed the homeless around the Washington area with the expressed purpose of making a kind of political statement.  I moved to Washington during the heyday of his activities, so I suppose some of my impression of the time was part of his street theater. 

I think it was back in 1999 when I was running near the Lincoln Memorial and noticed an unusual number of street people.   As I turned toward the Korean Memorial, I ran into a television production crew.  They were filming for a TV show called “West Wing,” with Martin Sheen playing President Jed Bartlet.  The guys lying around on the ground were ersatz homeless – i.e. actors. I watched the episode they were filming later in the season.   It was about the homeless in Washington. It was ironic that they had to hire their own homeless TV props to create the visual image they wanted.   Homelessness dropped a lot, and we have better responses than we did before, but it doesn't take very many homeless to make a problem.

There is a legitimate argument about rights. All citizens have the right to use public spaces, but the public has the right to expect each individual to behave in a reasonable way. A homeless man is both a victim and a perpetrator. As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan commented, we defined deviancy down and learned to accept that people either w/o the ability or motivation to control their weird behavior could dominate our public spaces.  Bad behavior feeds on itself and engenders worse behavior. During the height of the homeless epidemic during the 1980s, many public parks were rendered unusable for ordinary citizens.  Kids couldn’t use the playgrounds.   A stroll in the park was like running a gauntlet of beggars.  When you lose public space, you lose public spirit and weaken the community.    

It is better now.  The homeless are fewer, but it is frustrating when one guy is responsible for thousands of dollars of slow release vandalism that deprives future generations of shade on hot summer days.  Sometimes we tolerate too much.

December 23, 2008


Respect is a complicated and apparently internally inconsistent concept, with tinges of love, hate, fear and admiration all at the same time.   It is precisely because of those complications that respect is a key element in human relations.  

Niccolo Machiavelli, the father of realpolitik, reasoned that it was better to be feared than loved based on his assessment of human nature that, “... they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you.”   I am not quite as cynical as Machiavelli, but you can see this pattern over and over in politics and foreign affairs.  The colloquial American phrase is “What have you done for me lately?”

Machiavelli avers that it is indeed better to be BOTH loved and feared when possible.  This describes being respected.   You earn respect by being consistent over the long term.  If people know you will be consistent and will act with integrity, they will often accept what you do, even if they don’t like the things you are doing.   And I have been repeatedly surprised how quickly acceptance can turn to support.   Success matters.

That is why you cannot give up when you hit opposition or try to run your affairs like a popularity contest.  Public opinion is indeed fickle and despite what people tell pollsters it is usually based more on impressions than on facts.    

People who don’t respect themselves have trouble respecting others.  That is why we have some much trouble with some people and places.  The proper response is not to lower the bar for these guys, but rather demand more from them. 

How much more insulting is it to imply or say outright that some people are unable to reach the higher standards we set for ourselves, so we will create a kind of ethical junior varsity for them.

I was moved to think about this by the guilty verdicts for the five immigrants who planned to attack Fort Dix and murder American soldiers.  Actually, it was not the verdict itself, but the subsequent gnashing of teeth about what this would mean to the “Muslim community.”  When you read carefully, however, you see that most of the teeth gnashing is done by the professional victims, who don’t speak for the community they purport to represent.  Actual people involved want to be treated with respect AS Americans.  One Albanian immigrant said, "I don't know what they were thinking. They were just out of their mind and they should be put away for life. The Albanian community is nothing like this. We come from a country that has a reputation for religious diversity and tolerance. To go against the American government _ that's unacceptable to our community."  Got it - respect. 

All immigrants have revealed by their actions that they prefer the U.S. to wherever else they came from.  America is the land of their choice.   Many of us have forgotten this simple truth so we let the malcontents speak for “the communities” and don’t give or demand the proper respect from everybody else.   Treat each individual as a human being, not a member of a group, and we will all be better off.  It is the principled choice.

As for those five clowns who betrayed the country that welcomed them, they seem to be getting the justice they deserve.   These were stupid young men who were misled by all that holy war BS.  It is a pattern we see too often.  I always felt sad when I saw detainees in Iraq.  The pattern was you would see around ten stupid young men, who really didn’t think clearly about what they were doing and one hard eyed bad guy who had led them to hell with his hatred.  The purveyors of that poison are complicit, but the young men evidently were determined to kill innocent  for no reason we can ethically accept, so let’s not waste too much sympathy on them.  

December 17, 2008

Flying to Doha

Another post out of chronological order. 


I dreaded the flight to Doha.  When I got to the ticket counter, they couldn’t find my reservation.   I had a momentary feeling of guilt mixed with relief that I could avoid the trip.   It would not really have helped, however, I would just have to go the next day and meanwhile it would have been a lot of trouble.  They found my reservation, but not my seat so I got an exit row with a lot of leg room.  Sometimes it pays to be oppressed and forgotten.   I got better than I expected.

I was listening to an audio book re expectations.  People enjoy more things that are more expensive or harder to get.  The placebo effect works because of expectations.  People get real fake drugs because they think they will.  And they get better relief from more expensive placebos because they perceive higher quality.  You get what you pay for.  Maybe it will never be possible to get really cheap drugs because people may get the relief they expect and they expect less when things cost less.

The mind makes it so.  I was telling Chrissy re conditions in Iraq.  As I described the sand, snakes, scorpions, heat, hardness, fumes, bouncing and hazards, I realized how objectively it was horrible.  But it was not that bad.   All these bad things were balanced by the sense of purpose, friendship, the experience and the fact that I chose to do it.

The interesting distinction is that the hard parts are all objective.  It is hot, or not, sandy or not etc.   The things that mitigate it are all subjective.  Within broad bounds, the actual physical experience is a lot less important than how you chose to react. 

Doha 1:  Arabs Like America (When They Actually Experience It)

I talked to a young guy called Josef on the plane.   He is native to these parts but currently attending Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.    He confirmed some of what I heard about Doha.   He proudly told me that the natives all get things like free health care and scholarships.  Many attend university in foreign countries as he did.   They get this with the added benefit of not paying taxes.  All this largess is made possible by the hydrocarbons created by plants and animals in the days of the dinosaurs and before.   Talk about the luck of the draw.  

I am glad, BTW, that he brings some of this Doha money to Virginia paying out-of-state tuition.   It is still a good deal.  Education is a big deal of us in the U.S.   Last year we had more foreign students than ever in the U.S.  and the U.S. hosts more foreign students than any other country.    We had a little dip after 9/11, because of visa problems etc.  but we made up for it. 

Josef told me that he loved America.   Since he started the conversation and seemed so enthusiastic, I will accept that he didn’t say that only for my benefit.    Personal experience trumps the statistical study and he said that Americans all over our country (he travelled a lot) were nice to him and welcoming.   Now if we could just get all those other billion people to have a similar experience with real America, we wouldn’t have an image problem.

Doha 2:  Caste Systems

 It is an odd mix.   All the stewardesses (there seem to have been no men) on Qatar Airlines are Asian.   I think they were Indonesian.    All the people doing construction looked like South Asians and there people from the Philippines crowded the airport on their way to work as domestic laborers.    The population of native Doha people is small and they don’t seem to take part in the everyday work of the country.   

It is not so strange that immigrants do the less attractive jobs in a country as rich as this, but it is odd, IMO, how there seems to be such complete national specialization.    

I understand that my observations are limited and I should not extrapolate to the general condition from the small sample I have seen, but I have never seen anything like it.   It is all very neat.  I don’t know if it results from a plan or is just self organizing and auto correlated.   Both things must be at work. 

I thought re alternative histories.  What if WWI had not sapped the power of the British and they had held onto their empire for a longer time.    Given the general trends, it probably would have developed into something more integrated and you may well have others from the empire making their way up the social and political latter.   It happened in the Roman Empire, as full citizenship was extended until it encompassed the entire empire, so much so that people from the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor, speaking Greek still called themselves Roman a thousand years after the German barbarians kicked out the last emperor in Rome itself.

Anyway, in the age of imperialism, a place like Qatar or the oil rich and easily defended deserts of Arabia would be controlled by some imperial power.   I figure the Brits would have it, but given the evolution mentioned above, it might be actually run by Indians, citizens of a British Empire with an increasingly Indian accent.   That integration of Arabia with South Asia may yet happen.   If they keep on coming, there will be more of them than the ostensible natives. 

December 16, 2008

Trails Around a Featureless Camp in a Featureless Desert

The dates of these posts are out of order.  I didn't have Internet.  I could not take pictures of the buildings in camp or the running trails, but imagine a parking lot paved with crushed stone surrounding a maintenance facility and you got it.

Below is the hall outside my quarters.  This is how it looks day or night. I am on the second floor.

stacked cans in Doha, Qatar 

Yesterday and today I ran around the trail that follows the perimeter of the camp. It is five kilometers long.  (Although I doubt the veracity of that claim since it is obviously taking me too long to run around it). The surface is good for running and the terrain is phenomenally flat. It is not a hard run, but it is boring. You can only tell how far you have come by looking at your watch. I suppose after a while I will notice differences.  Maybe not, since I am running at night. Actually not night, but it gets dark at around 5pm. The trail is well lit, so there is no unusual falling hazard or chance of smacking into stationary objects. 

The full moon was out today, which made the run more pleasant, as far as it is possible. It gets warm during the day, but is nice and cool in the evening. The weather has been great. If the place was more interesting, it would be really nice. Compared with this place, however, Al Asad is paradise. Well, maybe not paradise but much nicer.  

Below is my room.

John Matel quarters in Qatar

My discomfort is exacerbated by the jailhouse conditions of the cans. We are in a warehouse stacked on top of each other, literally. There is no connection to the outside and the window has the perpetual dull glow of artificial light. You cannot tell the nighttime from the day w/o looking at your watch. I like to be able to see the natural light.  I saw a Sci-Fi movie with Sean Connery. I think it was called “Outland” about a mining colony on Io, one of the moons of Jupiter. It is that kind of place.

December 15, 2008

Oh Sleep, it is a gentle thing; beloved from pole to pole

have given up sleeping, or put more correctly I don’t sleep much during the nights.   I still have not adjusted to the jet lag and the conditions.   I wake up during the night, impatient for the dawn.   Today I got up at yesterday I got up at 530 and went running.  Today I got up at 330 and wrote on the computer.   Actually, I went to the MWR where they have a wireless internet connection, which is why I can post this entry. 

This sleeping problem is unusual for me.   I am usually more adaptive.   But this is a weird place.  If I had to mention one problem it would be the air conditioning.   You cannot turn off the vent.  Cold air blows in unremittingly and there is a steady draft, more like a 5 mph wind, throughout the can.

Anyway, I have been sitting here for a couple of hours.  I have written some entries which I will post when I hitch them up with pictures.  

Later today I have to make a presentation.   Despite my fatigue, I am confident that it will go well. I am ready to go.   I feel tired all the time but not acutely so.  I can easily make it the next couple of days.   I will be glad to be out of here.  

I should leave the Middle East to those more in tune with its idiosyncracies.  I don’t understand its politics or habits.  Who builds a ski slope in one of the world’s hottest places?   It is unnatural in the most basic sense.  The pleasure palaces are like Las Vegas on steroids.  Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.  There is a problem of unearned wealth all over, but there is so much more of it around here.  It is the classic rent seeking behavior.   The locals provide little of the management and almost none of the labor or technology that produces the resource.     

Wealth w/o effort is a moral hazard and the easy flow of oil explains lots of the troubles.   This is the only region of the world w/o any real democracies.   If the rulers can live off revenue pumped out of the sand through the efforts of others, they don’t have to consult the people who might actually produce something.   The wealth can  be used to placate or out flank opposition.  Even more perniciously, such easy wealth destroys initiative and honest work.   Why should anybody work for chump change when he can jump on the oil bandwagon of at least live off its droppings?

There will be momentary pinch now that the price of oil is falling off from it unsustainable highs, but we will not learn the lesson.   The low prices drive out alternative fuels and bankrupt innovators.  Then the price of oil goes up again.   We need a carbon tax and now is the time to put it on.   We have to take the pain in the short term for a better future.  

Well these are the extent of my predawn thoughts after the days and nights of poor sleep.  I believe I will wander over to the chow hall.  It opens soon for breakfast.  My IPOD has just begun playing "Hotel California."  Fitting.

December 08, 2008

Selling Them the Rope

It reminds me of that old horror movie where the babysitter calls the cops to ask for help with a stalker who has been making threatening calls.   When they manage to trace the call, however, the find out that it is coming from inside her house. 

My search for the root problem of America’s image abroad has brought me right back home. That some of the most scurrilous attacks on our values & institutions come from within our country will come as no surprise to anybody who has seen a Michael Moore movie.   Yesterday night I was watching “American Dad” with the boys.   It is simply horrible.   This episode could have been funded by Al Qaida.   It portrayed American officials as torturers who liked to do it so much that they would sponsor a telethon to raise funds to continue it.   Unfortunately, this is not an anomaly.  Much of the Sunday night lineup is like that.   “American Dad” is preceded by “Family Guy.”  This one has some very funny vignettes, which are the Trojan horses that get the propaganda through the gates, but the overall theme is that the average American “family man” is a selfish, stupid, pervert who thinks only in terms of his own short term gain, short term because he is too dumb to plan much beyond tomorrow anyway. 

People accuse me of being an old crank when I complain about these things.   Some even imply that I am against free speech.  This is unfair.  Free speech is useful because it allows us all to judge the good from the bad.   Free speech means that people have the right to voice their opinions, whether they are reasonable or stupid.  But not all speech is equal.   We all have the duty to assess the contentions of others.   I would not censor those things I mention above, but I do think intelligent people have to point out how stupid, misguided and harmful they are.   It is not just good fun and it is not just satire.   These are consistently hateful and misguided attacks.  Just because we have to tolerate it doesn't mean we have to like it or support it.

People usually claim more sophistication than they manifest.  Most don’t pay attention to the news and few people in the world could pass even a simple multiple choice test about American foreign policy.  American cultural products, however, sell well overseas.   We export a lot of good quality material.   But it comes with a heavy leavening of the sort of crap that coats our television sets so many nights and what do you think gets the higher ratings?   It is not hard to understand why a lot of people worldwide would dislike us if their media images of ordinary Americans come from “American Dad,” “Desperate Housewives” & reruns of “Jerry Springer.”   We Americans presumably have real world comparisions to counteract the media images, yet we still harbor prejudices about Americans from different places.  What about people who don't know Americans in person?

Perception is reality.

Imagine if you watched a television series made by the cultural elite of another country that consistently portrayed their leaders as horribly corrupt, bigoted & vicious, and their ordinary people as stupid, shallow and dishonest.  Imagine if all the false and pejorative stereotypes you had heard were confirmed by their own media ... repeatedly.    What would you think?   Defenders of this trash say that you would be really impressed that our hypothetical foreign friends were so open that they welcomed this kind of attack on themselves.   Would you really?  Does holding the tolerant high ground make you immune from real world ridicule?  Or does it just invite offense as the next insult tops the previous?  If your spouse ridiculed you and pointed out all your faults in front of your friends every time you went out, would that improve the reputation of your family?  The best you could get is someone who calls down a plague on both of you. 

It is like the story of the drunk who smashes into his wife's car parked in the driveway and comforts himself with the idea that the other car is as wrecked as his. 

A good test of fairness, BTW, is substitution.   Watch one of these "satires" and substitute for the American any other nationality, ethnic group or affiliation.   How long would an Arab "Famly Guy" stay on the air?  Is it still funny or is it just plain mean and bigoted?

December 06, 2008

Hard Times & Rich A-Holes

The economy is in unmistakable decline and it is astonishing how fast perceptions change.   Although my investments have tanked like everybody else’s, I have to caveat that my personal exposure to the downturn is not immediately significant and  while I suppose the value of my forests has declined, land endures and gives you a feeling of secure permanence not possible with paper assets.

Below is Penagon Mall in Arlington.  Nice food court.  Still crowded.

Pentagon Mall

I have some prejudices that I should also state up front.  I don’t like ostentatious displays of wealth and I observe that the culture has coarsened in the last few decades.   People are no longer self conscious about bragging about their wealth.   There are all sorts of programs on TV where rich celebrities brazenly show off their riches.   Nearer to home, the Northern Virginia countryside is studded with giant houses with expensive cars parked outside.   I am glad that affluence has spread so widely in America, but the spread of opulence is not so welcome.     It is even worse that much of this opulence was bought on credit.   I don’t know if we are at the end of the long economic boom that started in 1982, but after twenty-five years of good times (with tame downturns), we have forgotten what hard times look like.   The long run of good times has also decoupled wealth from work in a pernicious way. 

Rock stars, and their equivalents in the corporate, sports or entertainment world, make such piles of money so quickly that it degrades the hard work of ordinary people.   Add to this a capricious legal system that can reward someone for his own stupid behavior or bankrupt a prudent person and you have a really noxious cultural stew.   Rock stars, big bosses, big payout plaintiffs and millionaire sport stars are rare.   But they cast a long shadow and their influence is enhanced by a media that loves them while exposing all their flaws and weaknesses. 

It bothers me that entertainers can do drugs and treat the people around then like crap and still be admired for their ability to bring in the money.  Need I mention executives in private jets going to ask Washington for a hand?  I find it offensive that sports stars can literally be criminals and still rake in the big bucks.   (Green Bay’s great halfback, Paul Hornung, was suspended at the height of his career for betting relatively small sums on football games.  He also, BTW, earlier had to do his service in the army and play football while on weekend passes.)

I don’t object to people having money in general.  In fact, I support it. Making money is a laudable goal.  If you are earning money you are probably producing something other people need or want.  But those who earn the big bucks should be circumspect in what they do with it and how they behave in public. 

The irony of today’s conspicuous consumption is that it is to some extent based on the egalitarian idea that we are all the same.   Greater wealth, whether that comes from money, talent or just good luck, SHOULD bring greater responsibility.  But if we are all the same, those who just happen to have more have no special responsibilities. There was never a golden age where the rich & famous behaved in a really responsible way, but it has indeed got worse.    

Below - Rowing practice outside GWU in Washington.

Rowing practice at GWU in Dec 2008

I recently read a biography of Dean Acheson.   He traveled in some rich and privileged circles and the book gave me some insights.   In those days, students at the best universities lived in relative simplicity.    The established rich to some extent hid their wealth and played down their consumption.   There was a general acceptance that young people should experience some sort of Spartan-like upbringing.    The good man taught his son that he was special and had a special responsibility.   If this was often hypocritical, at least is was the acknowledged norm.

Hypocrisy, after all, is the tribute vice pays to virtue.   In our lifetimes we have elevated hypocrisy and judging to the level of major taboos.   We want people to be genuine and be themselves.  The problem is that when people only aspire to be themselves, they set their sights way too low.   We should all want to be better than we are and this means that we are not as good today as we hope we will be tomorrow.  It also means that some people are not as good as others. We can make distinctions.  We must make distinctions.

We need to be more judgmental because our non-judgmental ethic has let the a-holes off the hook.  It has allowed crass low-lives to assert that they are just as good – better – than most others because they have cash.  Tom Arnold said of himself and his then wife the attractive Rosanne Barr, ‘‘We’re America's worst nightmare: white trash with money!”  YES!  That is a nightmare and it has become much more widespread.  Let's wake up from this nightmare. I expect that when you get more than others you also take on more obligation to act responsibly.  If that is an elitist idea, I embrace the concept. 

Since the onset of the current economic crisis, we have heard more talk about thrift and prudence.   It is no longer considered clever to have borrowed and deployed money you couldn’t pay back.   I hope that people will soon come to look down on and judge negatively huge displays of wealth and so devalue them.  In hard times people should be ashamed to parade their good fortune.  There are better things to do with your money than buy bling and attend gatherings of the rich, famous and beautiful.  I have no illusions that such things will go away, but I would be content to have it less in our faces. 

November 23, 2008

The Eternal Present of Cable TV

It was cold outside today so I spent the day productively watching TV.   Of course, I grazed and in true omnivore fashion I didn’t stick with any one program for more than a few minutes and I took advantage TVio to time shift.   It used to be that movies, televisions shows, plays, even books and music  had their time and then fell into the memory hole.   Some like Gilligan’s Island or Star Trek became ubiquitous in reruns, but most emerged rarely.  Today everything is available in a vast chaotic mélange that defies time and genre, language and space.   Too much choice dulls the senses, but who would want to let somebody else decide what to limit?

Watching TV on Nov 23

On the cerebral side, there are a lot of good programs on history and science.   It has become a true marketplace of ideas, but there is significant chicanery and manipulation.   A picture is worth a thousand words and a reenactment can do even better than that.    The producer has the power to manipulate interpretations.    Propagandists have known this ever since movies were invented and even before.   Many theatrical productions were clearly meant to highlight versions of the past that supported the power of the present.   Shakespeare’s history plays are prime examples.   George Orwell famously warned that "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future." 

I don’t think that there is a conscious attempt at propaganda in the historical productions on cable TV, but they do exacerbate the historian’s tendency to attribute too much to conscious choices and plans.   A half hour program contains fewer words than a short pamphlet.   It must compress characters and events.   It must also make sense and a story out of disordered events.   Sometimes it is not a matter of conflicting plans but simply somebody forgot, didn’t know or didn’t care.   The story we tell is usually more logical than the reality.   The reality is that shit happens and sometimes there is no good explanation. 

If you don't find it on TV, you can always look on I tunes.

computer with Modern Marvels

I don’t think that TV producers are (usually) trying to propagandize at least when you get more than a couple of decades before the present, but they do have proclivities that create a systematic bias.     Producers like action, so there is a bias toward agency.   They also like underdogs and rebels, so they tend to overemphasize pirates, bandits and small groups of dissidents.     I have seen at least three separate documentary dramas on the Briton’s warrior queen Boudicca, for example.   The British forces killed a lot of Roman civilians and did manage to ambush a Roman army, but the Romans cut them to pieces once they became fully aware of the situation and there was never any question of the final outcome.   For the Romans it was  just a local affair in a faraway place. 

In the study of history it is always useful to see who is still standing at the end.   It is easy to exaggerate power, numbers and importance in descriptions, but if at the end of the day one gives up and the other doesn’t, you can be pretty sure who really prevailed.

Producers also suffer from a bias toward new and tenuous explanations.  Both the scientific and the historical methods require hypotheses to be tested with evidence.  Lots of hypotheses are not supported by the evidence and these tend to be the most interesting ones precisely because they are new and often weird.   They also have the advantage of being perceived as insider or hidden information.   I think that was one of the attractions of the “Da Vinci Code,” which didn’t actually purport to be anything but fiction, but was taken as factual by the credulous.   I have seen a few of the documentaries on that subject.   The same was true for myths like the Bermuda Triangle and Chariots of the Gods from my youth.

Below - picture from Old Tucson where they filmed many westerns.  We visited in 2003, so this is an archival photo.  The entry from that time is at this link.

Old Tucson 2003

Returning to my original subject of what’s on TV, there were lots of interesting things on.  I used the remote a lot, so I watched none of these full time or to the end.  It is a sort of TV multitasking.  Sometimes you don't have to watch the whole thing.  

There were some episodes of Iraq Diary on the Military Channel.   It brought back some memories, good and bad.  They talked about the heat and the dust and getting dusted by the helicopters. I remember.   One of my favorite programs is "Modern Marvels".  I had a saved episode re superhighways.  I watched the History Channel on the Spartans, the Battle for Rome and one about our Civil War.   I got a few snippets of “The Longest Day” and “Highlander.”  I don’t remember which channel they were on.  “South Park” was funny.  It was about the Goths.  The eWest channel had John Wayne movies all day and I watched the end of “The Man from Utah” made in 1934.   The interesting thing about old movies is that they were made with real sets and actors, not computer enhancement.   I also watched part of “Rooster Cogburn,” the John Wayne movie made forty years after “The Man From Utah.”   In between was “The Horse Soldiers.”  I didn’t have to watch that, since I still recall it well.  It was not a very good movie anyway.  I still like to watch “Bonanza”  Sundays on TVLand.   It is not so much that I like the show itself anymore, but it gives me a kind of peaceful, easy, nostalgic feeling.   Little Joe, Ben, Adam & Hoss seem like old friends when they ride up with Lake Tahoe in the background.  Bonanza was on Sunday nights when I was growing up.   

I remember the Cartwrights were on the night when the Beetles premiered on the Ed Sullivan Show.    We were at a party at my Aunt Florence’s house.  My cousins Mary and Barbie were very enthusiastic about watching the Beatles.   I would have preferred to watch “the Scarecrow” on the Wonderful World of Disney, but I was outvoted.  Just as well; the Beatles were historical.     Funny how memory works.  That was almost forty-five ago and I was only eight years old.   I don’t remember what songs the Beatles sang.   I wasn't paying attention.

November 19, 2008


John Matel giving talkThe post below is the core of my talk that I gave yesterday to a group of young engineers re infrastructure in Iraq.    Chrissy came along and took the picture you see on the side.   I think the talk went okay.    I did not have too much to write today but I wanted to put up the picture of me at work.  I enjoy public speaking as long as I don’t have to stick too closely to the text.   I like the give-and-take, not the formal talking at the crowd.

I cannot decide what I like best.  Speaking is one of my natural environments.  I like to talk to groups of people, but then I really like to be in my woods by myself. I am lucky to have the lifestyle that lets me indulge many of my peculiar preferences.  Forestry is not a common hobby among FSOs. 

Espen and I were watching TV and on came a commercial for Bosley hair restoration.   He asked me why I didn't call. I told him that i not only don't mind being bald, but I actually prefer it.  It is much easier to take care of and I pity those hairy fools who have to waste their money and grooming products and throw away their time using them. 

I also am happy with the beard.  I can groom that once a week and otherwise not think about it.  No more shampoo and shaving.   Mornings are easy.  

I figure this is probably my most inane post, but sometimes you have to be inane.

As I walked around tonight, I noticed the Capitol.  It is pretty at night and – to my surprise – my camera got a decent picture.  It is amazing what a cheap digital camera can do.  Of course, I had to take five to get this one w/o too much shaking to make it blurry.

Capitol at night

November 12, 2008

SW Washington & Ft McNair

Ft McNair housing 

Above is housing on Ft McNair, the home of National Defense University (NDU). 

I went back to work today at IIP/P.   My job will be interesting since my group is supposed to act as an incubator, take ideas and then spin them off for others.   That suits my preferences.   My strength is that I am good at innovating, but that comes with a corresponding weakness that I am not great at doing things that require me closely to follow established procedures.  

Most strengths have corresponding weaknesses and if somebody tells you what he is good at doing you can often guess where he has troubles.  The trick is work with your strengths.  You really cannot eliminate your weaknesses, but you can deploy your strengths in such a ways to minimize them.   

Marshall Hall NDU

Above is Marshall Hall at NDU.  

But I found out that the job will be different than I thought, at least at first.   In the first months, I will be working down at NDU.   I have to take the green line to waterside mall and then walk about a mile down to NDU.   

Below - apartments become condos.  We lived in this building when it was Oakwood temporary housing.

Oakwood now condos

I lived around there in SW when I studied Norwegian back in 1988.  It was kind of a strange mix.  Some of it was very nice and some very bad because it sat on the edge of the gentrifying district.   In the last decades, the nice part has expanded.  It still retains some of the seedy parts, but it is not scary as it was in 1988.   Of course, 1988 was still the time of Mayor Berry, when Washington in general was a scary place.     Things have really improved.  Of course, some of the improvement is just making up for earlier attempts at improvement. 

SW street scene Washington DC

Evidently in the 1960s, SW was – in the parlance of the times – blighted.   Using Federal dollars, they drove out the inhabitants and built those 1960 style structures we all love so much.  It is hard to believe this is what they WANTED to accomplish.  In the 1960s, our country and much of the world seemed to have lost its good taste.  Were any attractive buildings constructed during the 1960s?  The worst part of the area is L'enfant Plaza.   I will have to wander down there and take some pictures for a future blog.

Construction in SW

On the plus side, they did a good job planting trees and so after forty years there are lots of nice big trees.  Even better, many of the 1960s buildings are being torn down and replaced.   When we lived in SW, we used to go to Waterside Mall.  It was a sad place.  In 1988, there was a CVS (I think still called People’s Drugs), a Blimpie, Roy Rogers and some record stores.   Outside was a Pizza Hut and a Safeway.   Over time, everything flickered out, until finally only Safeway and CVS remained.  I used to go down there sometimes and get a salad at safeway.  The Mall itself provided a shortcut to Safeway and had a bunch of "outdoorsmen" hanging around outside, but was otherwise abandoned.  Sometime in the last year they tore down the Waterside Mall.  Safeway is still in business outside, so there is no real loss, except now you have to walk all the way around the block.   Now that there is a metro stop, the neighborhood is improving. 

Waterside Mall construction

Above - the former site of Waterside Mall. 

Parking sign 

Above - parking costs.  I guess this is a good deal.  It is "special" after all.  

November 03, 2008

Gas $1.97 a gallon and Falling: Not so Good

Below - unrelated to my post below is a picture of my thinned pines, a food plot and the tall trees from the SMZ in the background.

I bought gas at BP in Petersburg, just south of Richmond and paid only $1.97 a gallon.  That was below the price I saw advertised on the electronic board at Pilot.  They were offering regular at $2.03, but when I passed going home around nine hour later the price had dropped to $1.99.   I have never seen anything like that before, but it is not all good.

High prices encourage conservation and alternatives.  Low prices do the opposite.   We had a chance to do the right thing in the 1990s and we blew it.  The right thing, BTW, is to raise taxes on gasoline as the price goes down.   We need to keep the prices high to put a floor under conservation and alternatives and to drop the floor out from under despots and potentates who control much of the world’s oil.    I know that I could never run for political office with a “raise the gas price” platform, but it is the right thing.  

Countries like Venezuela, Iran & Russia depend on high oil prices to fund their adventures.  It is probably better if they don’t get them.   I am not enthusiastic about any sort of taxes, but gas taxes serve the salutary purpose of dampening demand for oil.   There is no painless way to a more independent energy future.  We use oil for a very logical reason: it is cheap.  But the price we pay does not reflect the price of sending cash to despots in the most unstable parts of the world.  Nor does it include the mitigation of the greenhouse gases it puts into the air.  

It gets worse.  Not only does cheap oil keep us from a more independent energy future, it also leads – paradoxically – to high energy prices.   The oil despots, IMO, drop prices periodically in order to drive alternatives to bankruptcy and make conservation look like a dumb idea.   I know this sounds like a silly conspiracy theory and it is the only one I suspect might be true.  The solution is simple, but not easy.

I drive and I use gas.  That is how I know the prices.  I understand that we will be using oil for a while to come.  I am not advocating quitting cold turkey, but it would help to get the incentives right and price is one of the biggest incentives I know.   Of course, I can say all this because I won’t be running for office.

pines on Matel farm

November 01, 2008

SAT, College Admissions, Achievement & Fairness

Below - I drove Espen over to Falls Church HS to take his SAT test.   Sorry for the dim.  It was just before sunrise.

Espen at SAT test

The SAT test is an annual ritual for HS seniors.   College admissions have gotten harder and more complicated over the years.  Some families are hiring consultants to get them through the experience and many kids take various SAT course to improve their scored.  I have very little confidence that the process has gotten better for its new intricacy.  In our quest to make everything fair & equal (often mutually exclusive goals), we have mostly made it capricious. 

Standardized tests were designed more than fifty years ago in to create fairness and give poor but smart kids a chance to compete with the sons and daughters of the rich and well connected.  They worked.  That is one reason I like them. In interests of full disclosure, these sorts of tests revealed my hidden talents and abilities and helped me jump the socio-economic divide.   W/o the Foreign Service written test, I never could have gotten a job like the one I have.   The rich and privileged can help their kids by massaging their resumes and using their contact networks.    Working class kids don’t even know they are playing that game until they have already lost.  Standardized tests are less subject to manipulation.  They level the playing field.

I am convinced that many educators and politicians dislike standardized test because they actually do work to differentiate fairly among applicants, and fair doesn't mean equal - something they really don’t want.   Standardized tests are also difficult to influence politically and they stubbornly fail to produce politically correct results.    No test is perfect and opponents attack from that angle.   They abuse the reasonable argument that we should not overemphasize one measure and try to devalue to whole judgment process.   They point to the exceptions that prove the rule. 

We should use multiple criteria, but let’s not pretend there are no valid criteria or that some criteria are not better than others.   If a kid has high grades and high test scores, he/she is almost certain to have the ability to do well in college.   If a kid has bad grades and bad test scores, he will certainly be challenged in school.   That does not mean he/she cannot eventually excel at school.  It just means it will be a stretch and the odds are long.  It definitely does not mean he/she will not be a success in life.   Success in school and success in life are not the same.   It is possible to be an educated fool and not everybody finds his best self at university.  But among those who are college-bound, the kids we should find most interesting and give more consideration are those who have poor grades and high test scores or the reverse.  This is where the testing has value. 

I object to the “whole person” concept in college admissions.   It is in fact a way for admissions to introduce bias into to process.   The combination of grades and test scores provide the necessary useful information.   When dealing with eighteen-year-old applicants, with virtually no work history, additional information will not provide valid basis for decision.  There are some exceptions, but they would be rare.    The only case I can think of off-hand is when a kid has a unique talent that shines through an otherwise mediocre record. 

IMO the rejection - proponents would say the broadening - of criteria is just a way to cheat.   The rich and privileged are unhappy that objective criteria weaken their influence, so they make a tacit alliance with “the underprivileged.”    That helps account for the statistical anomaly that elite universities have lots of rich kids and a good representation of poor kids but not so many middle-working class kids, relative to their representation in the actual population.    These are the ones who would provide the real completion to the privileged.

At my first post in Porto Alegre I met a woman who hated me.   She was the American wife of an expatriate banker.   I couldn’t figure out how I had provoked such a strong reaction in someone I hardly knew.  Finally, I asked her.  It turned out that she didn’t like me, or my colleague the Consul, because of what we were.    Both of us were from working-class backgrounds and both of us had gotten ahead through the standardized Foreign Service test.   As it turned out, her brother wanted to be a diplomat.  He had taken the test on several occasions, but was unable to pass.  

She explained to me that her ancestors had come to America on the boat right after the Mayflower and that her family had been leaders and diplomats ever since.   It was only in the most recent generation that they were pushed out of their ancient redoubts by upstarts like me and those darned standardized tests that breached the walls.    People like me, she said, didn’t really deserve or appreciate the exalted jobs we had.   I am not saying her argument was completely w/o merit.  I am sure her brother came with all those social graces that I had painful and imperfectly to learn. He knew what jacket to wear and what fork to use, but we were smarter, or at least had a better memory for tests.    It depends on what traits you value most.  The “whole person” approach to recruitment would have preferred him.

Bay View HS Milwaukee, Wi

Above is Bay View HS where I went to school in Milwaukee.  I got a good education there, but as far as I recall nobody ever mentioned FS as a career option.   I think if someone had asked me if I was interested in a career at State Department, I would have asked "State department of what?  Roads? Parks?"  BTW - the school was badly damaged by another "fairness" social engineering - bussing.  That was one of the dumbest ideas ever, unless the goal was to destroy neigborhood schools, but that is another story.

October 31, 2008


I think that it is cute when little kids come around in costumes and it is a community building ritual when we give them treats.   Most of the kids this year visiting my house were Asians with a mix of East and South Asians.   Our neighborhood is in constant ethnic transition.  A couple years ago there were a lot more Hispanic kids.   Not many of the kids ringing my doorbell look like mine.   Those neighborhoods are a little farther out into the single family home suburbs.    Our town-house complex has very few kids in general.  Most of the kids we see around here come from the garden-apartment complex next door.   It is evidently a first-stop for ambitious immigrants, who seem to move out to homes as soon as they can, hence the transition.  That was the experience with the friends my kids knew from there when they were smaller. 

When college kids celebrate Halloween it is usually a fun party.   I remember the big parties on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin.   The one that made the biggest impression on my memory was a guy who dressed up like a man taking a shower.   He carried with him the whole apparatus, the shower and model of a bathtub.   It was hard for him to move through the crowds.

However,  this holiday has become way too big in the last couple decades.  It is, after all, a kids' holiday, unless you really believe in it, in which case it is a vestige of dark-age superstition.   

When people well-past college age take Halloween too seriously it is a little pathetic, but I heard on the radio that the slightly past prime crowd is where the growth comes in the sales for costumes.  People who evidently have too much money and no kids through whom they can have the vicarious Halloween fun are the biggest holiday revelers.   It is maybe not that there are so many participants but they spend bigger bucks on costumes, sometimes hundreds of dollars to dress up for one night like ghosts, goblins etc, according to news reports.  A fool and his money are soon parted.   With the economic downturn I suppose many of these guys will be dressing up like bums next year.

October 27, 2008

Crap-Shoot (Leadership Seminar Day 4)

diceIt doesn’t mean that you just give up but sometimes you have taken the data as far as you can go and you just don’t know.   In those cases the best idea is probably to use probability and random chance.   I felt foolish saying this at our leadership seminar and I know that advocating a throw of the dice  amounts to apostasy among most decision makers, but it makes sense when the information available provides no reason to come down on either side.

I have thought about randomness in decisions for some time and did some reading on the subject.   I even made up an Amazon list of titles that I read.  My position is easily caricatured.    I know that.  What comes to mind is monkeys throwing darts or sequential games of rock-paper-scissors to decide really important issues.   But think about it for a more than a minute.  If you really have no basis for a particular choice, using randomness is the most efficient way to get past the dilemma and the only way to guard against systemic unconscious bias.    Why pretend to have more wisdom than you have?

Our leadership seminar produced a good example.  We broke into four groups each with the goal of choosing a fictional DCM for a fictional country.   We were given a situational analysis and brief bio/descriptions of five candidates.    The exercise was meant to let us practice negotiation and communication but the results were interesting for a different reason.     

All of us are reasonably intelligent and successful people.  We all actually have participated on similar selection committees in real life.   We took the exercise seriously and spent forty-five minutes each discussing the issue.   There were five candidates and four groups of us trying to decide.   Despite all our expertise and experience, none of the groups chose the same winner.   Beyond that, the one candidate that my groups eliminated first as the lowest performer was the top candidate for one of our colleagues’ groups.   Who was right?  Who knows?   I don’t want to read too much into this lesson, but the results of all our serious deliberations were no better than random chance and could have been produced by a random process in seconds.   So what can we do?          

Using randomness to break a tie or resolve a situation with no firm direction from the data is not the same as being disorganized or relying on chance in all situations.    Having a diverse portfolio of skills, stocks etc. is a way of acknowledging randomness.  If you were dealing with certainty, you would just put all your eggs in the one BEST basket.    A smart decision maker sets up his/her affairs to take advantage of probabilities.    You diversify because of randomness.  We all know that any hard decision is made in a climate of uncertainty and randomness will affect us in unpredictable ways.    Underneath all the planning, analysis and carefully crunched numbers lurks a random wildness we just cannot figure in.  The recent financial meltdown is a good example.  

I have my own example and a suggestion.    Good universities have more qualified applicants than places in their classes.    A qualified person is one who can do the work.   You don’t want mere qualification; you want to get the best qualified, but how can you do that?   You can assess their academic records and test scores to determine basic qualifications.   Many schools spend lots of money and time trying to go beyond that to find out the total person.   This is something they really cannot do.   There is not enough information available on the eighteen year old applicants to assess the total person.  Most kids this age have not finished developing into the "whole person" they will soon become and none of them have had enough time to create the kind of track record you would need to make an informed choice.   I advocate a threshold requirement to determine whether or not the application could do the work.   After that, I think we should go with random chance.   It is not a wonderful solution, but it is the best we can do.   Random chance has the auxiliary benefit being unbiased.    It doesn’t and cannot discriminate on the basis of race, gender, creed, color or national origin.

Most students apply to several universities.   It is a crap-shoot for them anyway.  If we did it my way, at least they could be assured that they were playing with honest dice.

It takes courage to admit what you don’t know and even more courage to recognize that there are some decisions that you cannot make as well as random chance.   But if you know your limitations, you can extend your abilities.

October 20, 2008

Useless Activities & Useful Idiots


The Pacific Northwest is blessed by nature with great fisheries, fertile soils, ample resources and a moderate climate.  People are drawn by that and by the natural beauty you see everywhere you look.  Living is good in the Northwest and it has been that way for a long time.  The Indians of the region were prosperous.   It didn’t take much effort to gather nuts & berries, hunt or fish in such a rich place and the inhabitants developed a fascinating custom called the potlatch.    The potlatch was a big feast where the host gave away, wasted or destroyed his possessions.    

Anthropologists have studied the phenomenon.   I first heard about it when I studied Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class.”   He used it as an example of a wasteful custom practiced by rich people to show their status.   According to the theory, the rich demonstrated their status by wasting what others don’t have. 

They are actually doing more.    The individual consistently doing the giving uses his ostensible generosity to establish dominance over the habitual recipient.  That is one reason why chronic recipients are often not very grateful for the largess they receive.   The potlatch demonstrates this too.   The rich chiefs made great public shows of generosity but they kept control of the productive assets.   The potlatch was a perverse variation of the old saying “give a man to fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for life.”  The fat-cats gave away fish but carefully kept the fishing grounds.   In a society w/o good storage facilities, giving away nature’s surplus bounty was about as generous as a tree shedding its leaves in fall.  

We find the same thing in today’s society.   Rich celebrities make big deals of their generosity, but they usually don’t change the equation.   There are exceptions.  The late Paul Newman was clearly a good man and it seems to me that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are really trying to do the right thing, but very often the rich assuage their consciences and demonstrate their status by holding high powered fund raisers and concerts for politically correct good causes.    It is more than ironic when they hold a million dollar gala to fight world poverty.

Useful Idiots

Useful idiots

Back when some people still thought communism was a viable alternative to the free market, Kremlin leaders used to call them useful idiots.  They were people  in the West who went along with their communist aims w/o really understanding them .  In the current American context you have people who act as foot soldiers in the various anti-whatever demonstrations set up by radicals.    

The good thing about Portland is that it is tolerant and easy, but that also means that it has more than its share of listless young people with no visible means of support or obvious places to be.  They hang around the center of town and beg for money.  They even do this listlessly.   One woman complained to Mariza that she would be working but was being prevented by the Republicans.   I saw a lot of these sorts of young people gathering to protest against the war in Iraq.   I started to talk to a few of them but soon gave up.   They just don’t have the capacity to understand the nuances.   I felt like the character in the movie “the Time Machine,” the original one from the 1960s.   In one frustrating scene the guy tries to ask some questions and talk about serious issues but the vapid people of the distant future are just interested in their hedonistic pursuits.   Everything is provided to them and they have no idea where it comes from.

hacky sack players

Most of the kids (a few of these "kids" BTW are still left over from the 1960s) hanging around the streets are probably harmless most of the time.   It is sort of like a “big Lebowski” club.   They don’t really do much of anything that smacks of effort besides Frisbee and hacky sack.   Mariza and I got a cup of hot chocolate at a local Starbucks and as we drank it watched a couple guys play hacky sack.  They were good.  You know that skill at hacky sack is inversely related to success in life.  Think about the time it takes to get good at something like that.   The same thing goes for lots of those sorts of things.   I had a colleague once who was the best player of minesweeper that I had ever seen.   She was not promoted.

October 09, 2008


I recently was asked about how I adjusted to life in Iraq.  State Department even has a course we have to take when we get back re adjustment.  They worry about our mental health in a high stress environment and they want to figure out how our experience can help the next group.  I don’t know how much my experience can help others.  Each experience is unique and I was lucky in my timing and my place.  I arrived in Anbar just as the violence was ebbing.  Given the extreme pessimism and scary stories in the media, I was ready for a horrible experience.  Instead there was steady improvement and strengthening peace.  It is much easier to adjust to better than expected conditions than the opposite.

Luck was also on my side in my decisions and the couple of hard decisions that turned out well.  For example, after a few successful attacks against Coalition Forces in Anbar and another PRT that resulted in deaths, some members of my team were feeling a bit skittish about all the travel we did outside the wire.  I determined that the successful attacks were just a statistical cluster and did not represent an actionable trend, so I put on the mask of certainty and told my staff that we would trust the ability of the Marines to keep us secure and continue our activities w/o pause.  We kept up our busy schedule and nobody got hurt.  Now we all feel brave and it was the right decision, but if it had turned out differently it would have been hard to take.  I respect my military colleagues, who often must make decisions that WILL result in people dying.    

There were not many heroic decisions I had to make.  Mostly I had to deal with the more prosaic problems of dirt, uncertainty and discomfort.   A lot of the same problems we have everywhere else, we have in Iraq.   I think being away from family and familiar surroundings is the hardest for most people.  It was hard for me.  There is a special sort of isolation in a place like Iraq.  I felt doubly away from home because there were few trees.  Everywhere else I have ever been I have always found ways to walk in the woods.  It is how I relax.  Not in Iraq.

You are reading one of the best things I did to adjust to isolation.  Keeping this blog and sharing my experience kept me feeling in touch and helped me in concrete ways. I could give my blog URL to people asking questions about Iraq.  Writing also helped me keep my own experience in perspective.   You take a different role when you try to explain something in writing to others. 

When reading the biographies of great individuals, I am always impressed by how much information there is about them in the form of letters, diaries and journals.  I am beginning to think that the relationship is casual in both directions, i.e. people who do important things keep journals and because they make the writer think through his ideas, journals help make people important. I have always kept journals, but never regularly.  I started to keep the blog because I thought that my experience in Iraq might be important enough for others to want to see.   I found that it helped me a great deal in the way I mentioned above and it made my thinking clearer and my actions more effective.   I recommend it to all.

I did other things experts recommend, such as keeping regular habits.  I would advise anyone living in a climate like Iraq’s to wake up at or a little before dawn during the summer months.  That is the time of the day when the weather is pleasant.  I like to run.  At 0530 running is good.  By 0800 it is already too hot and somebody who woke up at 0700 and did not get moving until around 0800 would only see experience the blistering heat and have that impression of Iraq.   You are smarter to change habits in winter.  In December it is cold in the morning, but nicely warm in the afternoon.  In that season it makes sense to wake up a little later and do your outdoor activities later in the day.  Actually nature gives you the directions.  The sun comes up later in winter, so if you just get up around dawn all the time, you have a good general schedule.   Iraq does not have daylight savings time, BTW. 

You don’t have to be in Iraq to be TOO busy.  Many people are too busy.  They brag about it, but it is no virtue.  I hate it when people claim to be too busy to read books or exercise regularly.  Nobody is that busy on a consistent basis.  They are just bad managers of their time.  I am not saying that there are not periods when you have to just work constantly, but if you do that too often it is like trying to sprint through a marathon race.  It is a losing strategy.  In Iraq, as everyplace else, I have carved out time to read and run.  People who don’t read don’t learn.  They end up wasting their time because of their bad judgment.  And people who don’t exercises slow down and/or die young.  Reading and exercise are investments, not expenses.  “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” calls such activities sharpening the saw.  It is harder and more effort to cut wood with a dull saw.  Taking a little time to sharpen saves time and energy. 

Finally, I think it is important to find the good and the fun in all situations and to learn from them.  There were so many interesting people & things in Iraq, so many things to experience, that it almost had to be an enriching experience.  Much depends on your attitude.  I always pity people who are too anxious to get away from or get to something.  They think that if they can just get somewhere or something different everything will be great.  This is rarely true.  No matter where you go, you have to take yourself along and if you are not happy with that who you are it won’t help to change your scenery.  In other words, if you are unhappy you probably should work on yourself before you work on other people or things. 

Anyway, what I said from my first days in Iraq remains true.   I am glad that I volunteered to go to Iraq and I am glad to be finished.  Both things were and are true.   I will add that right now I am glad to have the free time (State gave me fourteen working days of home leave) but I will also be glad to get back to regular work.  Nothing too much. 

October 06, 2008

Risky Business

NPR featured a story this morning about a couple of people who were bitten by a non-poisonous snake at the Renaissance Festival in Maryland.  Stop the presses!  Unfortunately, this kind of “news” is becoming more common.  I suppose it is a kind of human interest story, but it feeds the general impression of the world as a dangerous place. 

I went down to the farm a couple of days ago.  I picked up lots of chiggers and got stung by a hornet that managed to get under my work glove.  I killed the hornet  and scrapped off the chiggers.   In the spring, I often pick up ticks.  I read in the paper that you are supposed to save the tick and show it to your health care professional.  Who goes to the doctor for a tick?  I would have to go every week and he would have a complete collection of ticks.  Are hornets, chiggers, ticks and snakes dangerous and annoying?  Yes, they are.  But you elevate them to the level of a major risk, you cannot do very much. 

When I was a kid we used to play in a swamp in back of Nordberg and Pelton Steel mills.  This was not a natural swamp.  When we followed the stream to its source, we discovered it issued from the factories.   I suppose by today’s standards, we were playing in the toxic waste dump.  That explains why the water would burn your skin a little.  We were too casual about those things back then.  But we have overcompensated and overreacted now.   Today if somebody finds a little battery acid they cordon off the area and men in moon suits go in to decontaminate it.  They evacuated a local high school a while back because somebody broke a thermometer and some mercury spilled on the floor. 

Poison is defined by the dosage.   Most life enhancing medicines and vitamins can harm or kill you if you take too much, which means that most – in the wrong dosages – are poisons.  Many things have threshold levels.  Below a certain level, they are harmless or even helpful; beyond it they are dangerous or deadly.  We too often make the error of extrapolating that if something is dangerous in quantity even a little must be harmful.   This is wrong. For example, arsenic can occur naturally in spring water.   Arsenic is a deadly poison, but you can drink this water your entire life w/o suffering any consequences.  If you really analyzed it, almost everything we eat and drink is full of poisons.  Plants evolved with them as a means of defense.  We tolerate or even benefit from all those chemicals found in apples or pears. 

As our ability to detect risk has improved, we have become a little hysterical about it and have begun to avoid low probability risks to the extent that it impacts our fulfillment in life.  Ironically, our risk aversion creates a whole new set of risks.

 German playground

I took this picture in Germany.  They still have the old stuff sometimes.

Take the example of playground equipment.   I don’t see how kids can have much fun at the playground anymore.  Everything is low down, easy to climb, slow paced or stationary.  I remember the high metal slides that burned your ass on a hot day or those merry go rounds that you could spin so fast.   Teeter totters?  They are gone.  So what happens?   Some kids push into even riskier things.  Most just learn to sit around and get fat playing video games.   In the long run, you are a lot better off breaking a leg when you are eleven than staying fat your whole life.  Which risk would you prefer?  There is not risk-free option.  Some problems just take a longer time to develop.

I assume snake-bit couple will make a full recovery.  Now I am sure our society will take added precautions to make sure such a tragedy never happens again.

October 04, 2008


Below is the cresent moon over the Wal-Mart parking lot in South Hill, Virginia.

Wal-Mart parking South Hill VA

We figured that it was more economical to have only one car and rent one when we really needed another.  This was good logic and over the past year we probably have spent less than $200 on rentals versus the thousands it costs to own a second car.  But now that Espen got his license we now have five drivers (Mariza doesn’t have her own car and uses ours); we probably need a second vehicle.   Next week we are getting a Ford Ranger.   Tony, Jerry and Andy have Rangers and like them.  They know about these things, so that is what I am getting.

I had to rent a car to drive down to the field day and farm visit.  Alex needed ours.   I am always a little paranoid about rental cars.  I take special care not to lock myself out, but I did.   I went to Wal-Mart in South Hill to get some necessities: beer, peanuts and a pair of work gloves.   I tossed these things in the trunk of the rental car, along with the keys I had in my hand and closed the trunk.  I checked to be sure I had my keys in my pocket, but my good habit was ineffective as I misled myself by finding the keys to my Honda.  Not surprisingly, those keys didn’t open the door.  It was kind of embarrassing.  I had to call the sheriff to help me.  A deputy came by a few minutes later.  He opened the door; I popped the truck, showed him the rental agreement to prove my bona-fides and we were both on our way.   

It is shocking how fast and easy it is to break into a car.  The sheriff’s deputy told me that a real crook would be even faster, since he wouldn’t bother to unlock the door, but would simply break the window.   Maybe you would be better off just leaving the door open. 

Back in 1988 some guy broke into our car in Washington.   He didn’t steal much.   In the glove compartment was one of those glow sticks, a Norwegian language tape and a motivational tape, ironically talking about the need for high ethical standards in business.   The crook took those things.  He must have been disappointed; maybe that accounts for the large number of highly motivated Norwegian speakers in some parts of Washington.  The loss of the goods was inconsequential, but the cost of replacing the window was significant. 

September 29, 2008

Disastrous Predictions Exceeding Disastrous Predictions

Now that I am back from Iraq, where we succeeded despite the dire prediction, I see that we are now having the same sort of scare re the economy.  People think it is wise to be pessimistic.  They are just silly. 

The good thing about the terrible predictions we constantly see and hear in the media is the most of them don’t come true.   The bad thing is that we usually don’t hear that part.  Somebody makes the big-bad prediction and then when it doesn’t happen, just moves on. 

We are now hearing the warnings of economic Armageddon.   This is not the first time we have heard it.  Remember the big industry in decline and doom books during the 1980s?  How about the S&L disaster that was supposed to pull us all to hell around 1990?  Do you know the government actually MADE money on the S&L bailout?  That contributed to the prosperity of the 1990s.

We have to go through adjustments.  Systems tend to get out of whack.  It is nobody’s and everybody’s fault, but we always have to look for the guilty parties.  Politicans make their careers out of leading the virtual equivalent of a mob of torch and pitchfork bearing peasants against the "monster castle".  Remember the old Frankenstein movies?  Now we do it online and through the media.  There is always plenty of greed and stupidity to go around, but that is rarely the cause of the trouble.   We will get through this if we don’t overreact and try to solve the wrong problem.  Some of the early programs in the New Deal actually deepened the Depression.  Strong action in the wrong direction is worse than none at all.

It is useful to remember that the property boom started in the 1990s and it didn’t start in America.  Places like the UK, Australia and Spain saw property values rise before we did, and they have fallen even more in some other places.  That property values could rise and fall in so many disparate places with such different  regulatory regimes indicates that it was not a particularly American problem.  That the boom started in the middle of the 1990s indicates that it is not merely a problem of the most current administration.   

We should also remember that Freddie and Fanny were doing what their masters in Congress asked them to do – push loans to low income people.  There is something about low income people that makes it harder for them to get loans.  What could that be?  Oh yeah – they don’t have much money.  They tend to default more often.  That is why Congress has to push lenders to put their money there.  Why does this surprise anybody?   Much of the problem is not in SPITE of the best efforts of government, but BECAUSE of it.

Despite all the gnashing of teeth and the real response that are required, prudent people were not much hurt by the swings.   If you bought your home before 2005, it is likely still worth more than you paid for it.  Maybe you felt richer last year, but you had paper profit.  If you sold you house, it would have cost you more to buy a new one.  Now both your house and the one you might want to buy are cheaper.  It is a wash.  If you didn’t take money out of your home with a refinance or equity loan, your payment is lower in real dollars than it was when you bought the place.   Over the long run, home prices rise not much faster than inflation.   In the short run they fluctuate.  That is why smart people don’t speculate. 

Many people have been living beyond their means.  It is not a bad thing to bring them back to reality.  This is not only natural, it is useful and good.   I understand that the government needs to stabilize the markets, but they should avoid the moral hazard of rewarding greed & stupidity.  That goes for the big guys who lend money to bad credit risks AND to the bad credit risks who are currently defaulting.   The only victims in this whole thing are the good people who lived within their means, didn’t buy what they couldn’t afford and now have to bail out the deadbeats. 

Remember the tale of the grasshopper and the ants.  Unfortunately, in modern times the grasshopper gets a bailout, but let’s not feel sorry for him.  He is still a deadbeat, not a victim.

BTW – for all the gloom re the U.S. consider this:  The United States accounts for 40 percent of total world R&D spending and 38 percent of patented new technology inventions by the industrialized nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), employs 37 percent (1.3 million) of OECD researchers [full-time employees], produces 35 percent, 49 percent, and 63 percent, respectively, of total world publications, citations, and highly cited publications, employs 70 percent of the world’s Nobel Prize  winners and 66 percent of its most-cited individuals, and is the home to 75 percent of both the world’s top 20 and top 40 universities and 58 percent of the top 100.

I won’t say, “don’t worry; be happy”  but the world will not end next year and we will still be #1 for a long time to come.

P.S.  Take a look at this article.   It seems the better things get, the more people complain.

September 28, 2008

Ghost Busters

This is the first of the out of sequence posts from Frankfurt.  I will dump them in, but please look back a few posts when you come on these.

My sister believes in ghosts and she has what she purports to be a picture of one, so when I noticed the interesting – almost three dimensional – play of the light, I had to take a picture.  Maybe I can sell it to “National Enquirer.”

Ghost in Goethe's house

The picture above is from Goethe’s house in Frankfurt.  A believer in ghosts might well say that this was Goethe’s wife or maybe a serving girl.  It seems a little small, but I suppose people were smaller in those days, or maybe you shrink when you turn into a ghost.  You can easily imagine it as a woman in 18th century costume in profile.  What do you think? 

Who ya gonna call?

September 23, 2008

Almost Out

I am in Baghdad completing my check-out and getting ready to fly back to America.   I don’t expect ever to be in Iraq again.   I actually do have some fond memories of the place and I expect that they will improve over time, as the hardships fade and the good times are enhanced.  The mind works that way.   I made lots of friends in Iraq and I will miss them.  Already I am thinking how fast the year went.  I remember not thinking that at the time, but that is also the way the mind works.

It is quieter in Baghdad now, or maybe that is just my impression.  It may be because whenever I have been here before it has been part of some kind of conference, so there were always other transients around.  I have the luxury of a “wet” trailer (i.e. one with a bathroom) but I sort of miss Al Asad. With its Marines and its austerity, Al Asad is like Sparta.  Baghdad is more like Babylon.   

Frem og tilbake er like langt, but it really does make a difference which way you are going.  Last year when I was going into Iraq, I was a little fearful and apprehensive but excited.  Now that I am going out, I feel satisfied that my part of the job is done but still vaguely apprehensive.  

For almost a year, my life has been ordered by the mission and the interesting conditions of being in Iraq.  We worked every day.  I often forgot the day of the week.  I lived and worked with the same people.  We shared a purpose and a duty.  All that is finished.   

I return to home to an America that has largely forgotten about Iraq.  The economy is issue # 1 in the election.  I don’t think it should be.  The economy is a big deal, but the decisions of the president have limited impact on the economy.  

Graph of median income

If you look at a long term graph of economic factors, you see the waves are long and the incumbent president makes not much difference.   (This chart is ADJUSTED for inflation, BTW, and it is the MEDIAN, so it doesn't show that just the rich got richer.)  An economic upturn began in 1982 and more or less continued until today.  The terrible conditions of the 1970s are forgotten and we have not suffered anything like the turbulence of the decade following 1973.  The economy went down a little in 1991 and recovered in 1992.  GHW was president for both.  It grew a lot in the 1990s and turned down in 2000.   Bill Clinton was president for both.   It recovered in 2002, grew a lot 2003-7 and then turned down last year.  GW Bush was president for both.   What did the presidents do to cause these things?  Not much.  They reflected worldwide trends.  

Presidents don’t manage the economy.  They just get credit or blame.  And the candidates mislead the American people about what they are going to do; like roosters promising to make the sun rise, if they crow long enough eventually they are right. 

What happens in Iraq, on the other hand, depends on presidential decisions to a much greater extent. Foreign & security policy is where presidents have a dominant role.   That is how our system works. Maybe it is better that people don’t think so much about Iraq.  They usually get it wrong.  They either think it is a terrible meat grinder or a place we can just leave at our choosing w/o consequences.  Not many appreciate the work and sacrifice that brought us this far and the danger that all could be lost.   They even think this result could have just happened by itself.  People have their own affairs and I cannot really expect anything else.   I will answer the questions of anybody who asks, but try not to impose on the others.  It will be a challenge.   You can see how hard it will be.  I started to talk re being in Baghdad and drifted to this.

Anyway, I have not taken part in any of the luxuries (i.e. beer) available in Baghdad.  I figure I will wait a few more days until I clear Iraq.  I have a layover day in Frankfurt.  I bet I can find some good beer there so I don’t need it here.  And back home I can engage in the world’s ultimate luxury – being an American in America.

September 09, 2008


I suffered from Red Sky, which prempted my trip for a bridge opening in Baghdadi, so I was just thinking about and remembering times past and people gone.  It can be a little melancholy, but remembering family gatherings also brings along many good memories and some interesting insights.  At my family gatherings, we always had lots of beer.  I don't suppose that comes as much of a surprise in a German-Polish Milwaukee family.

Family photo

Drinking Beer is a tradition in my family.  I have been drinking beer since just a little before it was legal for me to do that.  (BTW - in those days Schlitz was the leading beer.  It soon went downhill as they fooled around with the brewing process.  Now Schlitz is owned by Pabst and they are bringing back the old Schlitz formula.)  As I travelled around, I learned to appreciate different sorts of beer.  The Germans have a superb Beer culture, but the Belgians have a wider variety of beer and the Czechs are the world's most dedicated beer lovers.  I even learned to like English beer served at room temperature, which, BTW, is not warm.

Beer connoisseurs generally have little love of American beer.  Paradoxically, American beers are among the world's top sellers.  In fact, this paradox is easily explained and doing so help s explain the general paradox of American culture, which is simultaneously coveted and reviled.

Major American beer brands developed in a large market with lots of diversity, choices and competition.  Like other producers in such a market, beer makers had to appeal to a variety of tastes. Beer drinking is usually a shared-social event.   The beer consumed must appeal to everybody in the group. It is a kind of consensus system that leads toward a lowest common denominator.  The beer that everyone accepts will tend to be preferred over one that a couple people love but others cannot stomach.   The more diverse the group in question, the less extreme the choices are likely to be.   Five guys with similar tastes might agree on a very dark bitter beer; a hundred people from diverse backgrounds will not.

For example, most people find Budweiser (the King of Beers from St Louis) inoffensive, although few love it.  Some people love Budweiser (from the Czech city of Budvar), but most people find it a little heavy and "skunky".  Beer lovers might object, but most casual beer drinkers prefer American Budweiser, which is even making inroads into the European beer market. 

America is good at producing products with mass appeal, which annoys those who consider their own tastes better than the ordinary people’s.  This means that many intellectuals and artists disparage the U.S. and its consumer culture, even as they live off its largess.

Adding insult to the injury they perceive, as the global mass market develops, the world is becoming more like America.  This does not mean that people are copying America in all or most cases.  It just means that the large mass market that helped shape American tastes and habits is now acting on people worldwide.  In the beer world, for example, we see the ascendancy of Corona, which follows the same pattern as innocuous American mass brews.

BTW - when Corona executives took their beer to be analyzed by a chemist, he told them that their horse had diabetes. 

Beer connoisseurs and lovers of distinction in all fields are encouraged by the counter trend, ironically made possible by globalization and new technologies made possible by the mass markets.  It used to be called mass customization.  In a very large and rich market, especially with the help of computer technologies, it is possible to assemble market worthy groups for all sorts of things.  Maybe a million people would like to drink some dark and heavy beer, but if they are spread across the whole U.S. they were so thin on the ground that nobody could afford to cater to them under the old paradigm.  Now there is more choice, as the marginal costs decline for producing variety and marketing it widely. 

We have passed through the mass undifferentiated market to a mass customization, with more choice and more variety.   The cooler of even local beer outlets now has a dizzying variety of brews.   The days when it could be technically accurate to say "When you're out of Schlitz, you're out of beer" are over.  The scary regimented socialism of the 1960s Sci-Fi never developed.

I am not sure we need all that choice, but that is not my choice to make.  That is the way its going to be for beer and everything else.

August 04, 2008

Vanishing Iraq Coverage

I wrote the following letter to the editor of American Journalism Review.  Please follow the links for the original story and this link for the original letter to the editor.

I read your story "Whatever Happened to Iraq?" (June/July) because I am trying to figure out the same thing. Why did the news from Iraq disappear about the time the situation here started to change? I think the problem might be that the American success in Iraq doesn't fit the earlier defeat-and-destruction narrative that you mention in your story.

I don't think it is a conspiracy, but it is a syndrome. Journalists like stories that fit their narratives. Once they have found a narrative that other journalists consent to, they are loath to seek disconfirming evidence. My complaint is that the lack of news now has frozen American perceptions in the bad old days of 2006. So much has changed since then. I have seen it in my 10 months here; Marines who were here in 2005 and 2006 tell me that the change is simply unbelievable, which may be why journalists don't believe it.

The fantastic story, which will probably be told by historians and not current journalists, is that we faced down an insurgency in the center of the Middle East, in a place (Anbar) that al Qaeda had declared the center of its new caliphate. We have driven them to virtual extinction in the course of about a year and did what the pundits and many American politicians said could not be done. Why is that not a story?

Instead, it is big news when the odd bomber gets lucky and kills a bunch of civilians. It is a case of journalists truly missing the forest for the trees.

John A. Matel
U.S. Department of State
Western Anbar, Iraq

July 31, 2008

Bubblers & Civic Virtue

I went down to Washington to meet Chrissy for lunch and took advantage of being there to see some of tLincoln Memorialhe memorials.   

Washington is a truly beautiful city.  There is a lot to see and it is all free. I corrected a German tourist who I overheard saying to a fellow European, “Americans have so little history that they have to make a bigger thing of so short a time.”  I pointed out the truth that we Americans enjoy the OLDEST continuous government in the world after only the UK.   We have not had a radical or violent overthrow of our government since 1776 and we have lived under the same Constitution – never suspended – since 1788.   I asked him just to think about it.  

I didn’t point out that Germany was not a country until 1871 and that it went through some interesting changes after that.

Below is the new office building where I will work in 2009, although I bet I won't get a good view of the Potomac.

New state annex

Below is the same building in April.  They are making good progress.

New State annex in April

Many Europeans have a different and, IMO, mistaken view of history.  They fix on places and traditions instead of people.   Some people live close to old things but no “people” or culture is older than any other.   My mother’s family left the new Germany soon after Otto Von Bismarck's unification thing in 1871.  My father’s family left Poland (then subject to the Russian Empire) soon after.  I am glad they did.  When they came to America, they didn’t just set back the human clock to zero and start over.  They added to America’s in a shared heritage.  I have been to Germany.  We make better sausages in Milwaukee, but they still make better beer. 

BTW - I hear my great-grandfather used to imply that things were better in Germany.  This made him unpopular during World War I.  Of course he was not telling the truth.  ALL immigrants think that America is better than the places they left, otherwise they would be there and not here.  It is true even if they don't want to admit it.

Below - Washington still has many big and beautiful American elms.

American elms in Washington

There is no such thing as a culture outside its human carriers.   It is not resident in old buildings, the land or anything else non-human.  Parents pass their culture on to their children and some cultural traits can be astonishingly long-lived, but each transition produces an imperfect copy.  This is great.  Otherwise the culture would be as dead as a rock.  No two individuals have the same understanding of their culture.   We talk about culture as thought it was something palpable, but it really is just a chimera and a very ephemeral one at that.  Better to adapt the best things you can find rather than stick only with the adaptations that worked for your grandparents.  Even the best things must be adapted.  Living people adapt and so do living cultures.  I think America does this well.  I love our traditions and still feel a kind of excitement when I walk around the Capitol Mall, even though I done it literally hundreds of times.  On the other hand, I would not want to be limited to the skills of Washington’s dentist.

WWII memorial from behind

Above is WWII memorial from behind.

Of course, I didn’t bore the European tourists with all that either.  Germans usually have good teeth. 

WWII & Lincoln Memorial

I thought of change and persistence as I walked past the World War II memorial.  It is a new memorial, but it is so very well done and fits perfectly into the Mall that you would think it had been there forever.   It commemorates the courage of my father’s generation.   Each year there are fewer and fewer of them.  Their courage is something worth passing along.

WWII memorial Wisconsin

There is one simple tradition that seems to be disappearing – bubblers.   There are still bubblers on the Mall.  There used to be lots of bubblers around generally, now not so much.   I suppose they are trouble to maintain.  Vandals break them or put gum in the spigots.  But I think the culture has taken a small wrong turn in not keeping those things around.   A bubbler is an obvious symbol of civic virtue.  Everybody gets to have something everybody needs and it is available to all.  The symbolism is one of the reason that separate bubblers were so offensive during the time of Jim Crow.   Now people sell bottles of water.   Everybody carries a bottle of water around to “hydrate”.   I would rather have the bubblers.

bubbler at National Mall

*Drinking fountains to people not from Milwaukee

July 16, 2008

Quiters can be Winners

Chrissy and I were talking re our kids and friends and quitting.  It is always easy to advise people to just keep on going, don't quit.  But is that good advice? 

Below is the family at four-corners way back in 2003.  There is one in each state (Az, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico).

family at four corners

 It is both generous and smart to leave something on the table when negotiating.  It makes sense to quit while you are ahead.  It goes against some of the popular wisdom, but maybe quitters can be winners.

The effort involved to achieve returns in most enterprises follows a predictable “S” curve.   It usually takes a lot of effort to get started.   Then at some point it gets easier and you get into a sweet spot where you get a lot back for the effort you put in.   As you get closer to 100% solutions, it gets a lot harder again.  When the going gets really tough, the smart person quits and moves on to something easier.  Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?  But it is true and well known among those who study these things.

The reason is the cost of opportunities.  You only have so much time.  The time you spend doing one thing is time you cannot spend doing another. Is it better to achieve 99 points in one place (99) or 90 points in ten places (900)?  It is often harder to get the last 1% than it is get the earlier 90%.  So just say no to perfection and yes to diverse opportunity.  

There are two inflection points on the curve.  The first is where you are moving from the difficulties of start up into the sweet spot of easy returns.   This is the place where loser-quitters usually throw in the towel.  The second inflection point is where returns drop off.  This is where winner-quitters wisely withdraw and move to greener pastures.

So what is our advice? The best is usually not that much better than the very good.  It usually just is not worth the trouble.   AND those always pursuing the best almost always end up with the second rate.  Do lots of things.   Moderation in most things is the best advice.  Quit when the going gets tough if you have other options; hang around if you don't, but don't complain.

July 09, 2008

Hypocrisy is the Tribute Vice Pays to Virtue

Below is the flag at Mt Washington, New Hampshire

Mt Washington NH flag 

At least that is how it used to be when Matthew Arnold wrote those words more than a century ago.  I am speaking only of my own observation but I have noticed a change in society.  I can recall when people doing bad things pretended to be good because they were rightfully ashamed of their bad behavior.  Today many celebrities and athletes revel in their horrible behavior with apparent impunity.   Being bad is now cool.  It is something akin to the radical chic.  Good people feel a little shy of admitting that they are not bad and cool.  It is strange.  We have in many ways reversed the earlier formulation.

When I talk to my colleagues in Iraq, both civilians and military, it is clear to me that most people are here for good reasons.  They came to do their duty, to serve their country and to try to make the world a better place.  Of course there are also other reasons, but duty is the dominant, the predominant, motivation.  It is the sine qua non of why we are here.  My new team members feel a little reticent about admitting that.  I did too.  Why? 

The Marines really believe all that stuff they say about patriotism, duty & commitment and being around them has been both refreshing and liberating.   I think we underplay the call to duty in our lives.  Most people are looking for meaning.  True happiness comes from doing what you should do.  It need not be heroic or dangerous and it will be different for every person, but doing what YOU think you should do is what makes you happy.  That means happiness cannot be found, bought or given; it has to be earned - too bad for rich heiresses and morality-challenged sports & movie stars.  

I am going to change my introductory talk to new team members to emphasize this a little more and give them more opportunity to feel good about what they are doing.  Maybe I can use some variation of that speech John F. Kennedy gave re going to the moon, we do these things "not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…"

Or is that just too un-cool for today's ears? 

March 28, 2008

Bright Light Curses the Darkness

The profound darkness disturbed me when I got to Al Asad.   At first I didn’t like it, as I stumbled around looking for my can in the blackness, but after awhile I got used to it.  I liked the moonlight and the stars.  I developed a muscle memory that got me easily home in the dark and walking home in the dark became a nice way to unwind at the end of the day. 

Now they have installed a big light that pierces the darkness and shines in my eyes, making it hard to see the moon and the stars.  Beyond that, the less you can actually see of Al Asad, the prettier you can imagine it to be.  The stark chemical light against concrete barriers is not pleasant.

It is surprising how well you can learn to see in low light.  I recall skiing at night in Norway and how that had a special magic.   Al Asad is not like that, but I have learned to enjoy some aspects of the Iraqi night.  Funny how things grow on you.  At first you may dislike it; after awhile you accept it and then miss it when it is taken away.  Walking home in the dark, I noticed the phases of the moon and the contours of the clouds dimly illuminated in the moonlight.  On several occassions there was a haloed moon. Of course, I could see and enjoy the stars.  This was good.

January 28, 2008

Maybe Best to Avoid Promotion

You should always be careful what you wish for.  I am happy that I got promoted, but it is expensive.  Because of the peculiarities of the Iraq package, my promotion is costing me almost $300 a pay period.  

Yes, I get paid that much less AFTER being promoted.  It is worse because I am figuring based on the pay w/o the raise that (almost) all Federal workers got in January.  So the bottom line is that I take get almost $300 less than I did BEFORE the promotion took effect and probably around $400 less than I would have if I got the usual raise w/o a promotion.  

Luckily the Senate was unusually dilatory about confirmng our promotions, so I didn’t get the big kick until three months after my promotion was announced.

I get paid the big bucks anyway and I know complaining will do no good, but I have to grumble. Over the course of a year, that is a significant pay cut. 

All in all, I prefer the promotion for the honor of making it to Senior FS and the promise of better things to come, but nobody can ever accuse DoS of enhancing morale of its guys in the field. We got a cable just a couple of days ago saying that we would no longer get Business Class on flights more than 14 hours, as we did when I came over.  It is hard for a medium tall oldish guy to sit in an economy class seat for more than 14 hours, but ...

Maybe that retirement plan was not such a bad idea after all.   Anybody got a job for an ex-PRT leader and part time forester?

Just kidding.

October 31, 2007

To My Overwrought Colleagues

Munch scream 

Sorry to post twice in one day, but I just finished reading this article. 

To my vexed and overwrought colleagues, I say take a deep breath and calm down.  I personally dislike the whole idea of forced assignments, but we do have to do our jobs.  We signed up to be worldwide available.  All of us volunteered for this kind of work and we have enjoyed a pretty sweet lifestyle most of our careers.

I will not repeat what the Marines say when I bring up this subject.  I tell them that most FSOs are not wimps and weenies, but I am ashamed of my crybaby colleagues.  I will not share this article with them and I hope they do not see it. How could I explain this?

Calling Iraq a death sentence is just way over the top.  I volunteered to come here aware of the risks but confident that I will come safely home, as do the vast majority of soldiers and Marines, who have a lot riskier jobs than we FSOs do.

I wrote a post a couple days ago where I said that perhaps everyone’s talents are not best employed in Iraq.  That is still true.  But I find the sentiments expressed by some colleagues in the article deeply offensive.  What are they implying about me and my choice?  If they do not want to come, that is okay.  Personally, I would not want that sort out here with me anyway.  BUT they are not worldwide available and they might consider the type of job that does not require worldwide availability.  

We all know that few FSOs will REALLY be forced to come to Iraq anyway.  Our system really does not work like that.  This sound and fury at Foggy Bottom truly signifies nothing.  Get over it!  I do not think many people feel sorry for us and it is embarrassing for people with our privileges to wrap ourselves in the cloak of victimhood.  

We all know that the FS will step up.  Most of us want to do our duty.  We should not let ourselves be judged by the fools who cry at town hall meetings.

If anyone wants to respond privately, my email address is

February 12, 2006

Teach a Man to Fish; Don't Make Fish an Entitlement


It is as blessed to receive as to give. Giving w/o some expectation sets a man down the road to perdition & too much self-esteem destroys self-respect. If we are going to do welfare and charity, we ought to learn to do it right.

Americans are the most generous people in the world both in absolute terms and per capita. Some see this merely as a failure of government. Charities, they say, must step in where the safety net is frayed. This misses the point. The act of charity is beneficial for both the giver and the receiver. When the government steps in with its coercive power, it often destroys much of the good because it neglects most of the aspects I mentioned in the introduction.

I never give anything without the expectation of getting something from the recipient and I think anybody who does is craven. My motivation is sometimes altruistic; sometimes not. If I give something to an individual, I expect that he will become a more productive citizen and maybe do something for someone else later on. If I give to a charity, I expect some useful and desirable result.

You can show no greater contempt for a person than to believe that he cannot in some way repay a gift you have bestowed on him, no matter how poor. You are doing him no favors if you just fill his stomach, better to let him hunger physically than to break his sprit and self-respect. When government programs have really worked to alleviate poverty it is usually because they came with stings attached. Take the GI Bill, which successfully brought lots of poor people into the middle class and was probably the single most successful government social program in history. The government provided help in return for good behavior, first by serving the country and second by going to school and studying. It was not an entitlement that you got because of who you were. It was a benefit you earned by what you did.

Charity (in both the original and modern sense of the word) is transactional and always has been. When Jesus saved the adulteress from the mob he told her to, “Go AND sin no more.” In the parable of the candlesticks, the Bishop tells Jean Valjean to become an honest man. There would have been no redemption if they had talked about victim status and made no demands for behaviorial change.

One of the most successful development schemes has been the Grameen Bank, whose founder Muhammad Yunus recently won the Nobel Prize. The bank LENDS money. The loan recovery rate is 98.85%. It does not give it away, although the recipients are certainly poor and downtrodden enough to "deserve" it. If it gave money it would be another worthless giveaway that destroyed the sprit of the people it was meant to help.

Our government once understood this concept too. Most of the New Deal programs, including Social Security, required some contribution from the individuals involved. They were based on behavior, not membership in a group. We lost sight of that during the 1960s, when we found victims everywhere. We were supposed to feel guilty for their plight. Guilt is a foolish emotion which makes people do foolish things and too many people assuage their guilt at the cost of someone else's self-respect.

I say self-respect and not the more PC self-esteem. A lot of losers have high self-esteem. They think they are worthy and entitled. Most abusers enjoy very high self-esteem. They will not accept any insults or slights. What they lack is self-respect. They know they are rotten and hollow inside. That is why they demand outside respect.

Government is learning the lesson. Welfare reform explicitly took behavior into account. It went against 40 years of PC orthodoxy and it worked. We are also experimenting with self help/government support mechanisms such as the earned income credit, thrift savings plans & IRAs, as well as health savings accounts. The Lord helps those who help themselves and government should take the hint.

When the history of charity in our times is written, they may say that we lost our way for a while and let the government behave like an indulgent parent, ensuring physical comfort but neglecting character. For nearly a half century, we let guilt and foolishness dominate our relationships with our less fortunate fellow citizens. But I hope historians will also record that we came to our senses and remembered to care for the sprit as well as the body.

PS - Speaking of being poor, take a look at the growing list of necessities. We can never overcome poverty, since it is a moving target.

PSSS - Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and all he will want to do is sit out on the lake and drink beer.