May 29, 2009
Truth & Contexts
Public affairs professionals rightly advise people in crisis to be open, honest and transparent. While honesty is the best policy most of the time, it seems that the dishonesty and dissembling works too.
I read a couple of articles recently that made me think about that. The first one was about a German police officer who shot a student protestor in the 1960s. The protestor was called the left wing’s first martyr and the story and famous photo that went with it was one of the sparks that set off the massive student protests and the terror movement that swept Europe during the late 1960s and 1970s. It turns out the cop was working for the East German communists. His action may have been provocation. Okay, it comes out, but it doesn’t change forty years of history. The bad guys got what they wanted. Another article talked about the Russians sanitizing the communist era. It may become a crime to equate Stalin with Hitler. I wrote my own article about Katyn a couple days ago. What is truth?We like to think the truth comes out, but sometimes it doesn’t or when it does it has lost its context or just doesn’t matter anymore. Once a story line is set, subsequent revelations might have little effect. The world has always been full of all sorts of horrible regimes and people. Many have diligently stonewalled on the historic record or manipulated it. Think of that horrible murder Che Guevara. People still wear his image on T-shirts. Historians know about his sadistic ways, but his image was protected long enough that now the general public no longer cares. The Soviet and the Chinese communists killed tens of millions of their own citizens. They denied it and made investigations difficult. Much of the detail is lost forever. Once again, historians know about mass terrors, but it often ignored in the general consciousness. We in the West take the opposite tact. We sometimes seem to reveal in the revelation of our faults. Sure, we should hold ourselves to the very highest standard and you cannot learn from mistakes if you don’t identify them, but doing this w/o context can lead to the wrong conclusions and let some real bad guys off the hook. In geometry it takes two points to define a line. You need context.
Most of life’s achievements are graded on the curve because nothing can be properly defined except in relation to other things. We do not serve the cause of truth when we loudly confess and even exaggerate our own mistakes, while implicitly or sometimes explicitly allowing others to downplay or obscure theirs. Turn that around and consider what it would be like if we only bragged about our own achievements while denying the opportunity to others. We suffer from a massive availability bias, in that we overemphasize information that is nearby or easily obtained and overlook that which is hard to find or actively hidden. The commitment to truth requires that we seek it in ourselves and also demand truth from others. We should always ask the “compared to what?” question. In our personal life it is bad manners to put others on the spot or catch them in a lie, but in the public sphere the pursuit of truth requires occasional truculence.
May 27, 2009
When one of my computers crashed a couple years ago, I thought I lost a whole set of pictures from trips to Istanbul and Rome, as well as a good many Warsaw photos. Well … I did back them up on a disk, which I came across today. I have been having a good time looking through the slide show.
When I thought I lost the pictures, I tried to write up the lost memory. The text is below, but now I have included some of the formerly lost pictures.
We lost the computer memory that included my pictures of the trip Alex and I took to Rome in February 2002. I enjoyed looking at them from time to time. I had a really good time with Alex that time. He was interested in learning and enthusiastic about Rome.
Maybe a picture is worth a thousand words and I can write that much about it.
The flight down was not bad except that we sat next to a woman who seemed to have a cold. We did not get sick, but it was unpleasant to sit next to her. Coming down into the airport, the thing you notice is umbrella pines. I was hoping to see a little of Rome, but the airport is far away.
It was hard to find our way around from the Rome airport. We finally got our bearing and took the train to Rome. I remember the train was very comfortable. We went past a lot of rural slums. Lots of gypsies lived along the tracks. They had little trailer villages surrounded by garbage. I was surprised how warm and kind of desert like it was. It was a little like S. California or maybe even some of the less arid parts of Arizona.
Our hotel was out of town. We took the train and then a taxi. It was a Holiday Inn Express and it had a free shuttle to the subway. Next door was a big supermarket, which was good to have for coke and snacks.
On the first night, we walked to this commercial area where there were shops and restaurants. It was very lively and the weather was warm, very different from February in Poland. Restaurants were not open in the early evening. Italians don’t eat until late. As I recall, we had to eat at a Chinese place, since that was all that was open.
We got up early the next day and caught the subway into town. It was dreary and gray. The subway was depressing and crowded. It seems like the start of a bad day. It wasn’t. As we came out of the subway station, the sun came out with that fresh look after a rain and we saw the Coliseum, behind was the Forum. It was a magic moment. Alex was excited. I had pictures of him at the Coliseum and in various places in the Forum. He is skinny and wearing my red coat. It is too big for him.
That day we also went to the Circus Maximus and the Palatine and Capitoline Hill. The Palatine is where the emperors had their homes. Now it is park like around ruins. We walked a lot that day.
The next day we went along the Adrian wall and downtown. The most interesting was the Pantheon. I had a picture of the sunlight coming in though the hole in the top of the roof. We also saw Hadrian’s column. There was a nice picture of Alex in front of it. The Tiber is a small river, but it is nice nearby. Lots of sycamore trees.
We walked all along and came to the Vatican. It is very clean and neat. There are lots of things to see. The Vatican museum has many of those famous works of art that you always see in books. We also saw the Sistine Chapel. There were big crowds. We went to St. Peters. I had various pictures. It is an impressive place. It rained hard that day. My Goretex did okay. Poor Alex was soaked worse, but he didn’t complain.
The next day we went to outskirts of town. Very nice gardens. We also went to the Via Appia. It is very pretty with interesting ruins all along. This was the major highway to and from Rome and the the road where Jesus met St Peter as he was fleeing Rome during Nero’s pogrom. Peter asks Jesus Quo Vadis (where are you going). Jesus said he was going to Rome to be with his people. Peter went back to Rome where he was martyred by being crucified upside down.
A large part of the Roman road is a park available only to foot traffic. Unfortunately, it is truly scary getting there on foot. The road is narrow and cars zoom along. It scared the crap out of us. Never again should we do something like that. But once you get out of town, it is quiet and quaint. One thing I like about Euro cities is that they end. In the U.S. you would have endless suburbs.
We caught a bus back to town. That was our last day in Rome. I really don’t recall much about catching the train back to the airport. I remember passing the Gypsy village again.
I am sad to lose the pictures of Alex in Rome. It was one of the happy times of my life and I hope of his.
Oh yeah. We shared a room. That boy can snore. I had to stuff rags into my ears to be able to sleep.
May 26, 2009
About 10% of the Polish population was murdered by Nazis or Communists during the war. The Soviet’s massacred at least 22,436 Polish prisoners at Katyn forest in 1940. It was not a random selection. The Soviets were trying to wipe out Polish leadership. They chose the best and the brightest they could find. They turned others over others to the Nazis, with whom Stalin still had friendly relations. The Nazis themselves were working hard to wipe out the vestiges of Polish national feeling by wiping out the people most likely to be able to carry it on – teachers, professors, officers and civic leaders.
The Katyn massacre was particularly noteworthy to the extent that it was premeditated and personal. The Soviet questioned the Poles for months to determine who to kill. After Hitler attacked Stalin and the Nazis took over Katyn and discovered the crime, they publicized it. This put the allies in a tough position. Churchill suspected that Nazis were mostly telling the truth in this particular rare case, but chose plausible deniability. When you have to work with one horrible tyrant (Stalin) to defeat another horrible tyrant (Hitler) it inevitably entails some moral compromises.
The Soviets kept an official lid on the story until the fall of the Soviet Empire around fifty years after the event. Everybody knew about during that time, but there was no official record or confirmation. Worldwide lefties gave the Soviets the benefit of the doubt they didn’t deserve and it was convenient to blame the Nazis, who were responsible for so many other atrocities and were the default villians of the period. After the truth came out, there was lots of talk about it in Poland and memorials went up worldwide But the Katyn Memorial in Baltimore was a surprise. I just didn’t expect to find something like this here. I guess there is a large Polish-American community in Baltimore.
May 24, 2009
The 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.
May 20, 2009
The Dot.com Bubble All Over Again?
It is starting to look like the dot.com bubble. Nobody has really figured out how to monetize Web 2.0 and most of the current value of Web 2.0 companies comes from expectation of future value. There is great excitement about building online communities, but it is hard to get these communities to do very much except be communities. There is no doubt Web 2.0 has already changed how people communicate and how they do business. But how can we really use it?
There was a South Park episode last year where one of the kids became an internet sensation in hopes of making a pile of money. When he went to collect, he was told that his great fame had indeed earned him millions of internet bucks, but that they were not exchangeable into real money. In PD 2.0 we are not trying to earn money, but we are trying to achieve sustained changes in attitudes and behavior in fields important to U.S. policies. What if we reach millions of people only to find that our internet influence is not exchangeable into anything that matters to us?
What about the holy grail of Web 2.0, going viral? Some top viral videos are at this link. Many of the things that go viral are just silly, like a cat flushing a toilet. But I question the effectiveness even of the serious contenders. It is great to get exposure, but what is it good for? I remember a study of the “Clio Awards.” Those were the academy awards of commercials, where the funniest and most artistic commercials were chosen by the cognoscenti of commercials. The problem was that the winners were not particularly good at selling the products they represented. In fact, they were below average. People often loved the commercial, but didn’t care about the product and sometimes they couldn’t even tell what product was being advertised. Many of the viral videos are like the Clio award winners that get lots of attention and even critical acclaim, but don’t do the job.
There is also no reliable way to predict if something will go viral. Studying successful viral videos is not much use. We can identify – in retrospect – what they did right, but when we compare this to the millions of others that didn’t make it, we find that they also did many of the same things. It is a type of survivor bias, like attributing special skills to the winner of a very long and multi-round game of Russian roulette. The guy would probably write a book. He and all of us would think that his astonishing success must be due to something other than random chance, but we would all be wrong and we should not be enticed into the playing the game with his “proven” method.
The lesson is NOT that we stop exploring new media. Rather it is that we should not fall in love with it or with any particular aspect, platform or technology. It is easy to be beguiled by large numbers and exponential growth rates but we should be persistent in questioning HOW we can use it in PD. Some things will be very useful, but maybe not always or everywhere and others might just be exciting w/o payback. It is good to think about the differences.
Remember pets.com during the dot.com bubble with that sock puppet? Everybody loved the marketing. They even bought a super bowl add featuring the sock puppet. They were defunct less than a year later. I could never figure out how most of those companies could make any money; after a while, neither could anybody else.
May 19, 2009
How Strategic Communication Helped the Surge Succeed in Iraq
Colonel Patrick Malay, my friend and colleague from Iraq, is coming to Washington and together we will make a presentation at the Strategic Communication Network (formerly known as Fusion Team) on May 29 about the importance of strategic communication in Iraq and how the Marines and the ePRT worked with the people and leaders of Anbar to help create stability and relative prosperity. Below is more or less what I plan to say.
Every move you make conveys a message and actions often speak louder than words. This is especially important in a disrupted and dangerous place like Anbar province was in 2007-8. But the words and how you express them are also important. You need a combination of talking and doing and that is what we were lucky enough to have in Western Anbar when the Marines, the State Department and other parts of the USG worked productively with the Iraqis to make the place safer and more prosperous.
I thought and wrote a lot about it at the time and I recommend you look at my webpage from the time. The passage of time has strengthened my conviction that we achieved something special. But I don’t think it was something unique and I do believe that the lessons of Western Anbar have meaning in other places and times.
All Necessary; None by itself Sufficient
As with many successes and most failures, it seems easier to see the causes when you look back than it was at the time of the events. We had a fortunate combination of factors. None of them alone would have been sufficient to achieve success, but each of them was necessary.
The most obvious is that the people turned against the insurgents and the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The insurgents and AQl, it turned out, really were bad. When their promises were replaced by the reality of murder, mutilation, rape & destruction, the people of Anbar realized that letting them get established had been a mistake. Unfortunately, standing up to the terrorists was dangerous and often fatal, not only for the brave individuals involved, but also for their family and friends. Early opposition ended up headless in roadside ditches. AQI would often even go after anybody who tried to remove the bodies. This was an example of AQI’s strategic communication. A headless body makes one hell of an impression, especially if you think you might be next.
Terrorism indeed created terror that paralyzed opposition. So the second part of the puzzle was needed – the surge.
The surge was more than just an increase in coalition troop numbers. It also coincided with a change in strategy. In Anbar, it meant that Marines protected the people locally and went to live in Iraqi communities among the people they were supposed to protect. They trained police & security forces and held the ground, but their most important strategic communication message was just being there. For civilian populations in war zones, the perception of safety is crucial. The perception of safety creates real safety as more people go onto the streets, interact with each other and begin to get the confidence to stand up to the bad guys or at least help others do so.
The supporting strategic communication message the Marines sent was consistency. The people needed to know that the Marines would be there for a long time. If the population suspects that coalition forces will leave and the bad guys will be able to return to chopping heads, nobody will cooperate. The only way you can create the perception that you are there for a long time is to be there for a long time and have the reputation for keeping your word. Marines stayed and established a reputation for honesty and persistence.
So we have two necessary parts of the puzzle. The people have turned against AQI and the greater numbers of coalition forces are making it to be both openly against the terrorists and alive at the same time. Both these things are necessary and probably in that order. But we still need something more.
Although basic stability always precedes prosperity, stability cannot be long maintained if the people are miserable and have no meaningful economic activity. Stability and prosperity are symbiotic and mutually reinforcing. This is where our ePRT came in. A PRT certainly cannot create prosperity, but we could help create conditions where the Iraqis could build, or rebuild, their own prosperous community.
We did this by emphasizing the structure of a civil society. These are the things that are so ubiquitous in our own society that we rarely even notice them anymore, things like a functioning court system, protections for private property, transportation, clean water, distribution of goods and a reasonable functioning financial system.
Let me say again that we did not, we could not, create this kind of thing. We could, however, help the Iraqis do it for themselves. We could and did make grants of money. We sponsored training. We (and even more the military) physically built things like schools, roads and bridges, but I content that the thing that made all these activities into a successful whole was strategic communications. There is really not much we did for the Iraqis that they could not have done for themselves. But the fact that we were out there encouraged them and paved the way for progress.
It is Better to Light a Single Candle than to Curse the Darkness
Let me give one example. It is not the most important example, but it is the one I like the best. I called it the “String or Emeralds”. You can see more about it at the String of Emeralds Link.
Iraq is an arid country, plagued by dust storms and drought. But the dust storms and drought are not completely natural. Some is caused by humans and livestock destroying the natural vegetation cover by bad farming methods and overgrazing. This has been a problem for 4000 years and our PRT could not solve it. But after 4000 years, we have learned something about soils. Our PRT’s agricultural attaché was an expert on rehabilitating irrigated dry soils damaged by salinization (salts deposit is a big problem in dry Iraq). We also took the lessons from our own dust bowl of the 1930s. Planting trees serves to slow the wind and catch some of the blowing dirt. I looked for opportunities to help and I found some. The Iraqis understood the need for this too, but the effort had been neglected under Saddam Hussein and collapsed utterly during the war.
We went to some of the oases and raised the profile and that encouraged the Iraqis to think more about it too. The strategic communications lesson is that when someone in authority just shows interest, things can happen. There is no real magic to it. It just takes effort. The trees will grow and the future will be better than the past.
This is my Western Anbar progress report from about the time I left. You can get a better idea if you look at the sections.
When does strategic communication work? The short answer is when it is embedded in other things that are working. All the talking in the world could not have made Western Anbar safe if not for the Marines & our brave Iraqi friends. But communications enhanced and spread the good news. And by spreading it and making it believable the perception of security started to become more real. Telling the right stories creates a reinforcing loop, a virtuous circle or just plain success.
May 18, 2009
The Fault Lies Not in our Stars, but in Ourselves
I have been talking to leaders of technology firms in Brazil and it has been very interesting. While it is not appropriate to post details, some of the general thoughts are applicable across a wide spectrum of endeavors and I will share them here.
One of the problems I have wrestled with has to do with the nature of knowledge and how to pass it within groups and organizations. I find that this is a common problem and nobody seems to have developed a really robust solution. I don’t think there is one; at least we cannot create a system that will take care of it. Knowledge cannot be separated from its human carriers. We like to use the term “viral” and it really fits here. Passing knowledge just takes commitment and work by smart people. Too often, organizations try to outsource their brains by giving the job of thinking and analyzing to consultants or computers. Well, the buck stops with the decision maker. He/she certainly doesn’t need to be an expert on all things. Those consultants and computers can help inform decisions, but they cannot make them. I was thinking about these things during our discussions.
Let me start by making a distinction between information and knowledge. The two are synonyms and often used interchangeable, but in the deeper meaning information is the raw material that becomes knowledge when it is when it is understood and integrated into thinking.
Many management challenges are common to both public and private business and one of the most persistent is the difficulty of passing reliable knowledge and experience within an organization. One of the most confusing circumstances is when information passes w/o the knowledge to make it meaningful or put it in proper context. It is confusing because the recipients of the information may not perceive the problem. They may feel satisfied that they are “informed” but remain misled.
This is an age old problem. As any organization grows beyond the size where frequent face-to-face contacts are common and easy, information sharing and knowledge production become an acute challenge. It is especially true today in the fast changing and multifaceted environment created by the new media. Information is held by specific individuals who may have very deep knowledge in a particular specialty, but not know how it fits into the bigger picture and may be unaware of the significance of what they know in other contexts. In an information rich environment, the problem is how to arrange it to make it useful and how to tap into tacit knowledge that people may possess but be unable to properly express. A learning organization is one where the total knowledge and expertise available to the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This condition is easier to aspire than achieve.
Technology provides some help. One way to address the challenge is through a wiki where everyone can contribute as well as see, consider and enhance what others have contributed. In theory, a wiki can tap into the wisdom of the group. It can be made available only to particular groups, to the entire organization or even to a more general public. A larger group will create greater management problems, but will likely tap into a more diverse set of talent and knowledge. Remember that no matter how good you and your colleagues are, the smartest people on any particular subject probably don’t work for you. Your decisions will be better if you can think of a way to bring them in.
The amount of openness is a management decision. However management cannot really decide if individuals in the organization will enthusiastically contribute. Enthusiasm cannot be mandated, but it can be incentivized and those incentives must come from a true commitment at the top. Good contributions must be recognized and the inevitable good-faith errors must be corrected but not punished.
The new media allows and requires many choices. The mix of tools changes depending on the situation and they change over time. Yesterday’s solution is often today’s problem, but that does not necessarily imply that any mistakes were made. Employees have to be confident that their good solutions that solve today’s problems will not be held against them when the situation changes tomorrow. It takes a long time to build the kind of trust that lets people stick their necks out and months or years of work can be dissipated by one serious breach. Leadership cannot indulge its emotions or look for people to blame when sound decisions are overtaken by events. These are pernicious breaches of trust.
Another important aspect of knowledge sharing is to have the knowledge available to share in the first place. Diverse and dispersed world-wide organizations tend to have information but it is often not translated into useful knowledge. One tech fix is to make everything is available online in “the cloud.” Groups working on particular tasks may not be near each other geographically or even in the same time zones, but they can be virtually side by side. We have talked about this for many years, but technology has only recently made it practical, since real collaboration requires good connections and a lot of bandwidth.
We have a great opportunity. There is a lot of low hanging fruit and that we should take advantage of new technologies and interested participants right away. Opportunities are out there. It is there for us. The most important obstacle is our own inability to take them and make them work. We have to work to create learning organizations. It is a steep hill to climb, but not beyond our ability.
Evaluate AND Take Action
They also emphasized the need to evaluate AND prune dead wood. Sections are evaluated every six months to see what is working and what is not. An organization in this competitive world cannot allow itself to hold on to programs and platforms that are not performing, no matter how many people work there or love them. The less performing sections are cannibalized to support the ones that are doing better.
This creative destruction is a challenge in government. Private firms are not really better at anticipating the future than we are, but they are a lot more effective at getting rid of things that are not performing. They just cannot afford to keep or pour more resources into the programs that are losing money.
The title of this post is a paraphrase of a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Let me end with another one that applies. “There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads to fortune.”
May 17, 2009
Brazil the Country of the Future
I am back in the U.S. after my week in Brazil. We took the overnight flight that left at 10pm. The plus side of flying through the night is that the day is free, so we spent our last Saturday in Brazil looking around Sao Paulo. It was a great day: cool and clear. I had not been back in Brazil since 1988. No surprise that a lot has changed. The roads are better. There is less air pollution. People are interested in protecting the environment. People are running in the parks. I didn’t get to Porto Alegre, so I am basing my opinions only on Paraná and Sao Paulo. I knew those places less well.
They always said that Brazil was the country of the future. Looks like it has arrived. Anyway, I have some short comments and pictures that together are enough for a post. They are below.
Below is feijoada, a bean, rice and meat dish. It is very filling. And below is a local pharmacy, unrelated to the beans, but maybe not.
Below – any place that has good beer is civilized.
Below is the monuement to the Bandeirantes. They were a mixture of explorers, pioneers and bandits, who explored and settled southern Brazil.
Below is the monument to Brazilian Airforce pilots from World War II. Brazil was the only South American country to send fighting troops to support the allies. They fought bravely in the Italian campaign. They also patrolled the S. Atlantic and hosted bases.
Below – runners in Sao Paulo
Below Cesar and Tim. Cesar was my colleague back in Porto Alegre, lo those many years ago. In the background are rips roasting at the churascaria.
Below – the last picture is not in Sao Paulo. It is me at the falls in Parana. Brazil has a lot of variety.
May 15, 2009
Sao Paulo is the biggest city in Brazil and the third largest metropolitan area in the world. It is a nice place to visit for short time, but I would not like to live in this mega-city. I have to say that it has improved a lot since I was last here. The air is less polluted and there are some attractive buildings, but it still is a paradise for lovers of concrete and cinderblock.
We are staying in the Marriott Renaissance in the Jardim section of town. I found some pretty places including a park that features a small part of the Atlantic forest in the middle of the city.
We had some very good meetings with technology leaders. Brazil is an exciting place for new technologies will be or already is a leader in social community systems. I will write some general comments about what I learned later. Suffice to say that our Brazilian friends have done impressive things and will be major players in the new media.
Street Scene in Sao Paulo
May 14, 2009
Agriculture, Silvaculture & Ordinary Culture
Land use patterns reflect history and cultural priorities. Physically Parana looks a lot like the piedmont in Virginia or the Carolinas, but land use patterns are very different. The southeast U.S. is dominated by relatively small holders, who practice mixed agriculture. The average sized farm in Virginia is 181 acres. Renato told me that farms of less than 1000 acres were uncommon in Parana. They are actually more agribusiness, often run by professional managers using paid labor. Forestry is even more professionalized than standard farming. Valor Florestal is a good example.
There is some convergence between the U.S. and Brazil. Our agricultural enterprises are becoming larger and more professionally managed too. But we have a long way to go before we have a similar pattern. Land patterns reflect history of settlement. South of Parana is the State of Santa Catarina. It was settled by immigrant families from Germany and Italy. The farms there are smaller and more diverse.
Ownership patterns affect how incentives work and how land is managed. A forest owner who also raises hogs or drives truck is more likely to put off harvests in times of low prices or be flexible with investments. Virginia forest owners also are closer to their land, usually literally, than investors or big owners. Hunting is common in the Old Dominion and many, if not most, Virginia forests are managed for wildlife as well as timber. I see advantages and disadvantages to each form of ownership. Professional management will produce more timber per acre and employ the latest scientific technologies. On the other side, owner operators who live on or near the land, who walk across it themselves, have greater incentive to look to a bigger picture.
Churassco & Churches Along the Brazilian Highway
You get to eat several pounds of really good meat and I taking full advantage of the opportunity in Brazil. We now have some churrascurias in the U.S. The most famous is Fogo de Chao. But in the U.S. these are upscale restaurants. They have to be because of the price of good beef. In Brazil they started off as feasts for the working man and in most places they have kept that mission.
We passed dozens of churrascurias on the road from Sao Paulo to Jaguariaivia in Parana. Most were associated with gas stations, which fit with a kind of truck-drivin’ feeling. We finally stopped off at one called Fontana. We got there at the end of the rush hour and the place was still full of families having a boisterous good time. They quickly identified us as “not from around here” and everyone was very friendly. English was not common and my Portuguese had atrophied almost out of existence, but we easily got by. A couple of young people stopped by to inform us that they were studying English, but did not attempt to pursue the conversation beyond that.
Brazilian roads have improved a lot since I last drove on them and I didn’t feel in imminent danger most of the time. Cars have improved too, so you don’t get that combination of very slow junk heaps blocking traffic and testosterone charged me in muscle cars anxious to pass them. Slow trucks still remain a problem, but the better roads and extra lanes have turned them into more a nuisance than a menace.
It was actually a pleasure to drive most of the time although expensive. Brazilian cars run on alchol, which was not too expensive, but the major roads are leased to private firms. They maintain them but the price is high. We probably paid around $70 in tolls. If the choice is free, public, dangerous and bad versus good, expensive, smooth and safe, I suppose I choose second option. But it could be a little less expensive. My guess is that a lot of the local traffic is pushed onto secondary roads, which remain as they were.
We rented a car from Hertz and paid the extra $15 for GPS. It was worth it. I don’t think we could have gotten out of Sao Paulo w/o it. It tried to mislead us a few times, but on balance was good. It is amazing how far technology has come. You no longer really need local knowledge. In the old days, we didn’t even have good maps and we spent a lot of time asking locals for directions. They often did not really know the answers, but they were polite and told good stories.
Jaguariaivia is a pleasant little town. The thing that struck me was the number of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. There were dozens along the road and in the city. Brazil has been almost an exclusively Catholic country for centuries, but I am not sure that they are any longer the majority in Parana and certainly not the majority of the enthusiastic believers.
May 13, 2009
Outlawing Sustainable Native Forests
The Parana pine is not a true pine. If you look closely, you will see that it doesn’t have needles. But it is a conifer native to the southern cone of South America and it is sublimely beautiful. I have enjoyed them since I first saw them a quarter century ago. There might be more of them if not for well-intentioned laws.
The Brazilian government makes it illegal to harvest a native tree like the Parana pine. The law is meant to protect them, but what it ends up doing is making the trees practically useless. Nobody can develop sustainable forestry with these species because even if you plant them yourself, you can never legally harvest them. The best way to protect anything is to make it practically useful. The loblolly pine is in no danger of becoming rare, for example. Why is that?
Sustainable forestry should be the goal of anyone truly interesting in protecting the environment. There are many flavors of sustainable forestry, but all of them require some management of the land which means cutting some trees. We really do not have a zero option. Humans are present in the world and affect all aspects. It is better to recognize our responsibility than to neglect our duty by pretending we can just do nothing except make nice sounding laws.
Sustainable forestry would be possible with native species, but for now that is illegal. Instead the law almost requires the use of non-native imports. You often get what you reward, even if that is not your intention. In most cases the result counts more than the good intention. The road to hell, after all, is paved with good intentions.
Conservation, Preservation and Remarkable Productivity
The Brazilian State of Parana spreads across region where four biological regimes meet and mix: the Atlantic forest from the east; from the north tropical species; the south provides a sub-tropical temperate mix, while the west is represented in more arid, seasonal rain vegetation called sertao.
All four are represented in the Vale do Corisco in the pictures above. The valley is a unique ecological zone because of the mixing of species and it is very beautiful. The water falls about a hundred meters straight down. You can hear the loud splashing miles away, about as close as you can get since no roads or even good paths lead to the base of the falls, and none are planned. Even getting to this distant overlook requires a drive over dirt roads and a key to a gate on private property. The falls creates its own, much moister, sub-climate. When we passed in the morning, the whole valley was completely obscured by a heavy fog. Valor Florestal owns this valley and they are conserving/restoring it to its natural state.
As impressive as the falls was, the trees on the surrounding plantation were equally remarkable. Valor Florestal manages more than 100,000 hectares (significantly more than 200,000 acres) of forest. A little more than 60% is in productive commercial forests. The rest, around 40%, is in ecological reserves. Foresters in Brazil are like their cousins in America. They want to produce wood, but also protect and conserve natural areas to provide wildlife habitat, maintain native species and protect water resources.
Loblolly pine grows well in Brazil, but various species of tropical pines grow even better. These tropical pines are replacing loblolly and slash pines everywhere where frost is not a factor. In this respect, microclimates are very important. Sometimes a few meters of elevation or proximity to a body of water of an open field can make the life or death difference. But where the tropical pines grow, they grow big.
I could not believe it when Renato told me that a stand of pines that I would have guessed were at least seventeen years old, were only six. A picture is worth 1000 words so look for yourself. A sixteen year old or even a fourteen year old stand is ready to harvest for saw timber. The fastest growing trees seem to by a central American pine (pinus maximinoii) but three varieties of Caribbean pine (caribaea bahamensis, caribaea, & hondurensis) were also almost growing fast enough for us to watch them. Some of them are ninety feet high by the time they are seventeen years old. Valor Florestal is in the lead in developing these species and the tests are looking good in the first generations. It looks probable that loblolly and slash will be replanted only in places where frost hits. Below you see a sixteen year old stand of p maximinoii with Renato to show the scale.
It was with some sadness as I watched the last stand of a thirty-two year old loblolly forest. Renato told me that we would not see this again in Brazil. They will be going with a shorter (22 year) rotation for loblolly. The tropical pines may be significantly faster. Below is a thirteen year old p caribaea and Tim for size comparison.
Such high productivity is very good for the environment. It allows the production of wood that societies around the world need to be sustainably grown on smaller acreages in less time. This is what allows the conservation of the more sensitive natural areas I described above. The truck below is driving past a SIX year old stand of Caribean pine.
Nevertheless, while I am impressed by the speed, it takes some of the satisfaction out of forestry. I like to think of a forest as the living organism that links our past with our future. I like the idea that I am benefiting from the work of previous generations while I am planting for my grandchildren. If the rotation becomes fast enough, it will just be another short term crop. I guess I like the forest part of forestry more than the business part. Maybe I should start growing oak trees. Take a look at the falls one more time.
May 12, 2009
No pines are native to southern Brazil, but it seems to be the world’s best place to grow them. (The beautiful trees you see above in the front are “Parana pine,” but they are not a true pine.) Timber cutting is an old tradition here and most of the native forest was cleared more than a century ago and converted to pasture for livestock or large scale farming, but good forestry is relatively new.
It was only about forty years ago that a lot of people became aware of the great local potential to grow pine lumber. The first species introduced on a large scale were our own loblolly and slash pines. These were natural choices, because of their proven record in commercial forests in the SE U.S. and the many years of good silvaculture had developed around them.
They grew even faster in Brazil, since they left most of their pests such as the southern pine beetle behind them and southern Brazil’s moist and moderate climate. The pines you see above are thireen years old and the logs below are from a thirty-two year old stand. Nevertheless, the loblolly pines I saw at Valor Florestal in Parana State were not that much bigger than similar aged pines in the U.S. Parana has other advantages, both natural and social.
An important advantage is the endless growing, harvesting and planting season. The practice in Parana is to harvest, prepare the site and plant the next generation within the same week. I saw pines planted essentially in the wake of the harvesting machines. All they do is wait for a good rain, which comes with certainty, even in the so-called dry season, and plant right after that. Below you see the clearcut in front was cut a couple days ago and is already being replanted. The trees behind are only six months old.
Site preparation consists of rolling and sometimes cutting a furrow with a plow pulled by a tractor. Renato, a forester from Valor Florestal, told me that they never use fire, almost never need herbicide and do not fertilize. The State of Parana has practically outlawed the use of fire, and Renato says that they don’t need it anyway. Natural decay is so rapid in this environment that the slash left on the ground quickly is returned to the nutrient cycle. Fertilization has so far been unnecessary, but Renato thinks that they may need to begin soon. The quick rotations are taking a lot out of the soil and they are studying biosolids and inorganic fertilizers to put it back.
There are some disadvantages to plantations in Brazil. One is rapid growth itself. Pine from southern Brazil is used in plywood, fiberboard and molding, but it is not dense enough for structural timber. Some pests attack trees. Monkeys are an unexpected problem. Those cute monkeys that you saw on “Night at the Museum” or the not so cute on “Outbreak” strip the bark off pine trees and they tend to attack the most valuable dominant individuals. Renato says that they are not sure if they eat the bark or are after the sweet tasting sap, but their activities kill trees outright or weaken them so that they are susceptible to the other local pest, a type of wood wasp. Ants are also a danger to newly planted trees. I understand that these are not the ordinary ants that we have back home, but rather a kind of industrial strength tropical variety.
Below is a 32-year old loblolly pine plantation being harvested now. It is probably the last of its kind in Parana, as they will go with shorter rotations.
I will write more later.
May 10, 2009
Being in Brazil
Just a short note, since I have not written for a few days and will not write tomorrow.
I am in Sao Paulo, Brazil for meetings on new media. I have a little time on my hands because I got here a early. Leaving a day earlier saved the USG about half – more than $600 in airfare. I don’t know how these things work, but it probably had something to do with weekend travel.
The trip is an all night flight. It is hard to sleep well on the airplanes, so although jet lag is not much of a problem – Brazil is one hour ahead – it is good to acclimatize before meetings. Flight was uneventful. Flying is not much fun. You are on the plane for around ten hours. We were greeting by people wearing surgical masks and handing out flu information. I was relieved to find out that this was a precaution against US. I doubt if it would do any good anyway. The flu is so far not a problem here. I didn’t hear anybody on the plane with obvious symptoms.
I was at the airport Marriott, w/o very much to do, so I arranged to go down to the state of Parana to look at some forests. SE Brazil is a big producer of wood products. I think it will be worth the trip, since the alternative is to hang around here and eat. My only concern is driving on the local roads and maybe getting lost, but I have mapped out the route. I will write about that when I get back.
BTW – I know the pictures are not very exciting. They are just from around the hotel. Weather is pleasant, not too hot or cold. Below is my “pool view” room. I didn’t go swimming, however. Hotel pools are mostly good for kids. They are not good for swimming laps and unless it is really hot, there is not much use going in, IMO. Nice to have a pool view, however.
May 05, 2009
We Shall Not Soon See Their Like Again
Chrissy’s father died today. He was ninety-three and had a full life.
A lot happens during a life that spans almost a century. It is hard to imagine life on a farm in the hills of western Wisconsin in 1915. The work was still done mostly by muscle – human and horse – and the world after dusk was lit only by fire. Electricity wouldn’t come out to the farm until the rural electrification program during the depression.
Arnold Johnson served in Patton’s army in World War II. He was injured in battle and spent time in a hospital in Britain.After the war he returned to the farm that had been in his father’s family since they immigrated from Norway in the middle of the 19th Century. He married Pearl Olson and they built a life together.Seven children followed. Chrissy was number six, born when Arnold was already forty-five.
Pearl and Arnold enjoyed the kind of life you cannot have anymore. They grew up in the green valleys (coulees formed by glacial melt waters in an area not glaciated) of western Wisconsin among generations of friends and family. People didn’t move as much back then. They didn’t have the kinds of opportunities we have now, but there were compensations. They were held in place long enough to create multigenerational communities.
I was always impressed by how many people they knew and how many people knew them. Into his eighties Arnold would do “meals on wheels” to help the “old” members of the community. He helped mow their lawns and make their lives easier. Community was important.
You should not mourn for the life well led and Arnold Johnson led a good life. He did his duty to defend his country in its time of need. He raised cows and crops that helped feed our people and lived his long life in a green, peaceful and pleasant corner of the world. He and Pearl raised a family of seven children. Their hard work provided enough to launch all of them into successful adulthood. There are now fifteen grandchildren and fourteen great-grandchildren so far. And when he died in old age, he was loved and missed by many.
We should all wish to accomplish so much.
After they are gone, we always regret not paying closer attention to what the old folks tried to tell us. We lament that we didn’t listen as well as we should have or get to know them as well as we could have. I talked to Arnold about the history of his farm and about his experience in the war, but not enough. There are things I would like to know that are now unknowable. Young people don’t usually ask. It is difficult for them to appreciate the experience of the older generation until they have reached an age where they have experienced some of the same sorts of life changes. By then it is too late. Memories fade or are lost entirely.
Arnold was the last of his generation in our family.The “greatest generation” – the one that survived the Great Depression, fought World War II and rebuilt the country after those challenges – is passing away. We shall not soon see their like again. Now we are the old folks.
We may never again visit Holmen or the old farm. That part of our lives is finished. The kids have vague memories of Wisconsin and the memory will disappear entirely in the next generation. Young people have a hard time understanding that old people were not always old. They also won’t listen until it is too late. That is just the way it goes. Old men forget and yet all shall be forgot.
May 03, 2009
Life After People
History Channel featured a show called “Life After People”. It talks re how long buildings, roads etc would last after people disappeared. According to the series, various domestic and zoo animals would get out and begin to dominate the world.
The graphics are cool. In general it was a waste of time watching, but I started wondering about the meta-message. They had an ominous sounding narration and those kind of cut in noises that are supposed to create tension. There is a general theme that somehow this the disappearance of people is justice and that the planet is better off as a result.
The series seems eager to demonstrate that the works of mankind are fragile and that they will soon decay. 1000 years after people, almost nothing remains. Nature is resilient. As far as I am concerned, however, the world w/o people really doesn’t matter, just not my business.People were not around for most of the world’s history and I suppose we won’t be around sometime in the future. There is no way humans can conceive of a world w/o humans.Things like “Life After People” after all still have a human narration and a human story line. The people who really think they are not “species-centric” are really fooling themselves.
I saw some kind of spooky abandoned buildings in Iraq. I wrote re the train station at this link.
2009 Virginia Tree Farmer of the Year
Below is the draft of my article on the tree farmer of the year.
Monte & Peggy Swann cultivate 1650 acres of rolling farmland in Northumberland County on Virginia’s Northern Neck. Although most of their income comes from grain production, they manage more than 240 acres devoted to forestry and well managed cove forests interspersed among grain producing fields protect watercourses, prevent excess nutrients from entering tributary systems and reduce loss of highly erodible soil.
The Swann forest lands have been enrolled in the American Tree Farm System since 1957, making it one of the older continuous tree farms in Virginia, But the Swann family didn’t start conservation only fifty years ago. They have been practicing sustainable forestry for almost a century before that they were officially certified as a tree farm.
The home farm has been in the Swann family for almost 150 years and generations of Swann’s have not only kept the land productive but also enhanced the productive capacity of the farms nutrients and soils. Monte Swann farms land across from forests that once supported Peggy Swann’s family. Peggy’s father ran a local saw mill operation. Some of the timber he cut, especially rougher cuts from the poplar, hickory and gum, were made into pallets and fruit boxes for National Fruit Products.
So the Swanns are part of the local fabric of society and this generation of Swanns is as committed to keeping the land sustainable in the generations to come. The Swann farm is an outstanding example of multiple productive use of the land, which includes timber production, grain farming, scenic management, wildlife habitat improvement and personal recreational use.
The topsoils on the Swann farms are a rich mix of loams and clays, but some of the same characteristics that make them so productive also make them fragile and easily erodible.
Monte Swann practices no-till agriculture, which doesn’t tear up the soil and leaves the soil intact. It also minimizes the need for pesticides and herbicides, while holding more sequestered carbon and nutrients in the soil. No-till systems are also beneficial for water resources. They have four to eight times greater water infiltration rates than the tilled fields next door and they hold the soils a lot better, something of crucial importance for the loose soils of the Northern Neck of Virginia. If all this was not enough, no-till leaves year-round cover and crop residue on the fields that hold the soil and provide off-season habitat for wildlife. Many experts believe no till systems will help bring abundant quail back to the Virginia countryside. Monte Swann goes one better as wildlife habitat by creating soft edges between his fields and forests and planting quail friendly plants such as Lespedeza.
The Northern Neck was one of the first areas of Virginia to be settled after the founding of Jamestown. George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe and Robert E. Lee were all born here. But only recently has the region come under intense development pressure. Its superb and beautiful natural location, bounded by the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers and Chesapeake Bay, means that people attracted to waterfront property love the Northern Neck and its proximity to the burgeoning Washington Metro area ensures that the attractions do not go unnoticed. As neighbors sell to developers and new subdivisions sprout like mushrooms around him, maintaining his own land in its environmentally and economically sustainable condition becomes more of a challenge for Monte Swann.
Mr. Swann understands that his land is part of the greater whole that is the Northern Neck. His land provides indispensable ecological services. The water that soaks into the soil or runs off the Swann land flows eventually into the Potomac River and then into the Chesapeake Bay. Long-established stream management zones have been protecting water quality for many years and continue to do so.
It is not hard to see how Peggy and Monte Swann’s farm demonstrates the ideals of conservation championed for many years by the American Tree Farm System. Their lands provide abundant habitat for wildlife, a place for outdoor recreation and protection for water resources, all the while producing agricultural and wood products to sustain the present and build the future.
The Virginia Tree Farm Committee congratulates the Swann family and we were honored to be able to name them as the Virginia tree farmers of the year.
May 02, 2009
The Simple Life
Mariza moved to a new apartment. It was not far from her old place. Espen and Mariza’s boyfriend – Chris – helped. Alex had to work. We had to make a few trips in the pickup truck. I told her that she has too much stuff, but I don’t suppose that it true in comparison to most other people here age.
I retold the story that when I moved to Madison, I carried everything with me in a duffle and backpack. It wasn’t really a completely valid comparison. I didn’t have any furniture because I had apartments that had furnishings. Mariza doesn’t have too much in the way of clothes or other things. She is good about not having too much more than she needs. The big thing is that she doesn’t yet have a car and uses the light rail system or walk.
Mariza’s street is below. It is a nice renewing neighborhood. Not too far away, the nice houses like those you see in the picture are still boarded up. The second picture is taken from Mariza’s back window. The neigborhood declines literally on the other side of the tracks. Espen and I drove through some of these neighborhoods on the way home. Espen told me about the Dave Chappelle routine on the subject. Chappelle can be offensive, BTW, so viewer discretion is advised on the link.
Simple is better
A simple life is better. When people get too much stuff it begins to oppress them.It is sad to see so many of those storage places popping up.I understand that you might store your possessions that you use seasonally or episodically, but that is not what is usually going on.
You just cannot own enough to make you happy. Of course, it is possible to have so little that you live in misery. This is not really a problem in the modern U.S. anymore for most people. Most of us have the opposite problem, although sometimes we are so busy grabbing more that we miss what has happened.
The really good gift a person can give himself or others is examined experiences You are better off spending that money on something where you do or learn something new. I think the examined part is also important. Experience is a great teacher but only if you pay attention.
I am not a proponent of recession, but it does have some useful effects. People are becoming more frugal again. The economic boom times really lasted from 1982 until the beginning of last year. The two recessions were mild. We all got used to having more and more. Pew Research finds that people say they “need” fewer things than they did last year. This is a good trend. Of course 8% think a flat screen TV is a necessity and 23% say the same about cable TV and 31% evidently figure that a life w/o high speed internet is not complete. I guess we didn’t know how poor we really were before these things were available.
Below – sic transit gloria mundi. The overgrown monument was set up by one of Baltimore’s mayors, one John Lee Chapman. The original was set up in 1865. It was renewed in 1915. It probably was not on a freeway on-ramp at that time. Now it is isolated by roads and a bit overgrown. Notice in the background are trees-of-heaven. Those are the invasive species I have to fight all the time on the farm. They are okay in the disturbed ground of the city. The thing that makes them invasive is the same thing that makes them good city trees: that they can grow fast in almost any conditions.
One more thing – this is the Mormon Temple. I see it as I drive by on 495 on the way back from Mariza’s house. Usually I am going too fast to take a picture. We hit a traffic jam today long enough to get a shot. It is more impressive than my picture shows, but this is the best I could do w/o endangering myself or others.