August 31, 2010
Pseudo Bike Friendly
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 30, 2010
Feeding the World
When I lived in Brazil twenty-five years ago, I was only vaguely aware that the Brazilian agricultural frontier was pushing west. I knew about a significant number of farmers from Rio Grande do Sul moving into western Parana, Mato Grosso do Sul, Mato Grosso & Goias. But Brazilian agriculture was not efficient and I heard the soils out west were acidic, poor and subject to rapid exhaustion. Lately, I have been watching Globo Rural (a Brazilian agricultural TV show) on Internet and have been impressed by what looks like efficient and forward looking agriculture. Today I read a really good briefing article on Brazil’s agricultural miracle. It is a good news story thirty years in the making and it sort of crept up on us such that we didn’t notice. But it is big, a game changing development.
The way I think of a place like the Brazilian states (such as Mato Grosso) story is to compare it to what it must have been like in Ohio in the early part of our Western expansion. Ohio entered the Union in 1803 and at that time was largely potential. Twenty-five years later, it was a settled and very productive part of the United States. The transformation was fast and so big that it was not properly noticed because by the time it was finished it seemed so inevitable. But it wasn’t. The same goes for Brazil.
I went down to the State of Parana last year to look at some Brazilian forestry operations. I was massively impressed. They were taking timber in a sustainable manner and were heavily into improving silvaculture. The Amazon, BTW, is up north and the deforestation is not related to the developments I am talking about. That is a serious problem, but a different one. In fact, good silvaculture and agriculture in the south and central west takes the pressure off the rain forests.
They used to joke that Brazil was the country of the future and always would be. Looks like the future might be now. I have to admit that I was not optimistic twenty-five years ago, but all that I read and see has changed my mind. It gives me lots of hope for turning around what is so far the world’s biggest failure – Africa. Maybe in twenty-five years we will be talking about the African miracle.
Let me excerpt from the story from the briefing from the “Economist” and we can talk about it. You can read the whole thing at the link above.
“In less than 30 years Brazil has turned itself from a food importer into one of the world’s great breadbaskets. Between 1996 and 2006 the total value of the country’s crops rose from 23 billion reais to 108 billion reais, or 365%.
“No less astonishingly, Brazil has done all this without much government subsidy. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), state support accounted for 5.7% of total farm income in Brazil during 2005-07. That compares with 12% in America, 26% for the OECD average and 29% in the European Union.
“Since the biggest single agricultural failure in the world during past decades has been tropical Africa, and anything that might help Africans grow more food would be especially valuable. In other words, you would describe Brazil.
“Since 1996 Brazilian farmers have increased the amount of land under cultivation by a third, mostly in the cerrado. And it has increased production by ten times that amount. But the availability of farmland is in fact only a secondary reason for the extraordinary growth in Brazilian agriculture. If you want the primary reason in three words, they are Embrapa, Embrapa, Embrapa.
“Embrapa is short for Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária, or the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. It is a public company set up in 1973, in an unusual fit of farsightedness by the country’s then ruling generals. At the time the quadrupling of oil prices was making Brazil’s high levels of agricultural subsidy unaffordable.
“Embrapa received enough money to turn itself into the world’s leading tropical-research institution.
“When Embrapa started, the cerrado was regarded as unfit for farming. Norman Borlaug, an American plant scientist often called the father of the Green Revolution, told the New York Times that “nobody thought these soils were ever going to be productive.” They seemed too acidic and too poor in nutrients. Embrapa did four things to change that.
First, it poured industrial quantities of lime (pulverised limestone or chalk) onto the soil to reduce levels of acidity. Embrapa scientists also bred varieties of rhizobium, a bacterium that helps fix nitrogen in legumes and which works especially well in the soil of the cerrado, reducing the need for fertilisers.
“Second, Embrapa went to Africa and brought back a grass called brachiaria. Patient crossbreeding created a variety, called braquiarinha in Brazil, which produced 20-25 tonnes of grass feed per hectare, many times what the native cerrado grass produces and three times the yield in Africa. That meant parts of the cerrado could be turned into pasture, making possible the enormous expansion of Brazil’s beef herd.
“Embrapa has recently begun experiments with genetically modifying brachiaria to produce a larger-leafed variety called braquiarão which promises even bigger increases in forage.
“Third, and most important, Embrapa turned soyabeans into a tropical crop. Soyabeans are native to north-east Asia (Japan, the Korean peninsular and north-east China). They are a temperate-climate crop, sensitive to temperature changes and requiring four distinct seasons. Embrapa worked out how to make it also grow in a tropical climate, on the rolling plains of Mato Grosso state and in Goiás on the baking cerrado. More recently, Brazil has also been importing genetically modified soya seeds and is now the world’s second-largest user of GM after the United States. This year Embrapa won approval for its first GM seed.
“Such improvements are continuing. The variety of soya now being planted [in Brazil’s Northeast] did not exist five years ago.
“Lastly, Embrapa has pioneered and encouraged new operational farm techniques. Brazilian farmers pioneered “no-till” agriculture, in which the soil is not ploughed nor the crop harvested at ground level. Rather, it is cut high on the stalk and the remains of the plant are left to rot into a mat of organic material. Next year’s crop is then planted directly into the mat, retaining more nutrients in the soil. In 1990 Brazilian farmers used no-till farming for 2.6% of their grains; today it is over 50%.
“Embrapa’s latest trick is something called forest, agriculture and livestock integration: the fields are used alternately for crops and livestock but threads of trees are also planted in between the fields, where cattle can forage. This, it turns out, is the best means yet devised for rescuing degraded pasture lands.
“The fields of Mato Grosso are 2,000km from the main soyabean port at Paranaguá, which cannot take the largest, most modern ships. So Brazil transports a relatively low-value commodity using the most expensive means, lorries, which are then forced to wait for ages because the docks are clogged.
“Partly for that reason, Brazil is not the cheapest place in the world to grow soyabeans (Argentina is, followed by the American Midwest). But it is the cheapest place to plant the next acre.
Big is beautiful
“Like almost every large farming country, Brazil is divided between productive giant operations and inefficient hobby farms. According to Mauro and Ignez Lopes of the Fundacão Getulio Vargas, a university in Rio de Janeiro, half the country’s 5m farms earn less than 10,000 reais a year and produce just 7% of total farm output; 1.6m are large commercial operations which produce 76% of output. Not all family farms are a drain on the economy: much of the poultry production is concentrated among them and they mop up a lot of rural underemployment. But the large farms are vastly more productive.
“From the point of view of the rest of the world, however, these faults in Brazilian agriculture do not matter much. The bigger question for them is: can the miracle of the cerrado be exported, especially to Africa, where the good intentions of outsiders have so often shrivelled and died?
“There are several reasons to think it can. Brazilian land is like Africa’s: tropical and nutrient-poor. The big difference is that the cerrado gets a decent amount of rain and most of Africa’s savannah does not (the exception is the swathe of southern Africa between Angola and Mozambique).
“Brazil imported some of its raw material from other tropical countries in the first place. Brachiaria grass came from Africa. The zebu that formed the basis of Brazil’s nelore cattle herd came from India. In both cases Embrapa’s know-how improved them dramatically. Could they be taken back and improved again? Embrapa has started to do that, though it is early days and so far it is unclear whether the technology retransfer will work.
“A third reason for hope is that Embrapa has expertise which others in Africa simply do not have. It has research stations for cassava and sorghum, which are African staples. It also has experience not just in the cerrado but in more arid regions (called the sertão), in jungles and in the vast wetlands on the border with Paraguay and Bolivia. Africa also needs to make better use of similar lands.
“Still, a word of caution is in order. Brazil’s agricultural miracle did not happen through a simple technological fix. No magic bullet accounts for it—not even the tropical soyabean, which comes closest. Rather, Embrapa’s was a “system approach”, as its scientists call it: all the interventions worked together. Improving the soil and the new tropical soyabeans were both needed for farming the cerrado; the two together also made possible the changes in farm techniques which have boosted yields further.
“Systems are much harder to export than a simple fix. “We went to the US and brought back the whole package [of cutting-edge agriculture in the 1970s],” says Dr Crestana. “That didn’t work and it took us 30 years to create our own. Perhaps Africans will come to Brazil and take back the package from us. Africa is changing. Perhaps it won’t take them so long. We’ll see.” If we see anything like what happened in Brazil itself, feeding the world in 2050 will not look like the uphill struggle it appears to be now.”
August 29, 2010
Virginia Goats in Forestry
Boer goats were developed in South Africa. They are bigger and more solidly built than most goat breeds, which makes them better as meat goats. They are not as agile as other breeds, which is good since they are not as likely to climb onto structures and through fences. They were really developed as land clearing machines. They can climb steep hills and will eat almost everything in their paths, including thorny bushes and vines, such as multiflora rose, blueberries, kudzu and honeysuckle. That is why I am interested in them.
I want the goats to eat down all the brush that grows underneath my pine trees, especially after we do the thinning. They would be well-adapted to that job, since they can and will eat all the common brush that vexes me. In addition, they also fertilize as they go. There is also a growing market for goat meat because of the growing immigrant populations from Central America and the Middle East. It seems almost too good to be true. They don’t need much care, but unfortunately, I don’t think I can give them that.
Since I was taking Alex back to school at JMU, I took the opportunity to visit the goat farm of Jeff and Loretta Whetzel in rural Rockingham County. They are semi-retired. Jeff joked that goats are his hobby and he is lucky to break even. I enjoy the same situation with my forestry, so we understood each other. The Whetzels started raising goats only a few years ago and are kind of easing into the business.
The goat business is still mostly a small-farmer operation in Virginia. Although goats have been resident on American farms since the first settlers landed in Virginia and founded Jamestown, they have never been a big business. But the changing demographics might be creating business opportunities for goat farming.
Goats are fairly easy to take care of and do well in Virginia. Goats are criticized as “desert makers” because of their voracious appetites and promiscuous eating habits. But this is not a problem in Virginia, where we have enough rain and good soils to make the grass and brush grow. Goats are browsers, not grazers. That means they eat mostly leaves and brush, unlike cows that eat mostly grass, legumes and forbs. (Of course, goats also eat grass and forbs; they just have a wider diet.)
Goats will eat pine needles and so you cannot put goats into a working pine forest until the trees are tall enough that goats cannot reach the tops or the vital branches of the crop trees.For practical purposes, this means the trees need to be about ten feet high (about five years old for a loblolly pine in Southern Virginia), since goats can reach up about five feet by standing on their hind legs. They will eat pine bark, but only if there is not other things to eat. Presumably this would never become a problem if the goal was brush clearing. Jeff says that pine needles in the goat diet are beneficial, since something in the resin helps prevent worms.
The goats are very friendly. They are like dogs in that they follow you around. I can see the attraction of having them around.
But after talking to Jeff & Loretta, I realized that I cannot put goats on my lands unless and until I have to more time to devote. For one thing, I would need a lot of them to eat down 80 or 100 acres. I would also have to build electrified fences and dig some ponds or other water sources.My farms have flowing water, so that could be done.But you have to watch them.They require some grain supplements etc. And they need protection.
Coyotes are a problem. Jeff and Loretta have a big dog called Yogi that chases them away.He is a Pyrenees sheep dog, very big and tougher than coyotes, developed by shepherds Spain to fight off the local predators. He looks a lot like the podhale dog in Poland. This is another reason why I cannot put the goats on our land and be there to watch. The goats can be left more or less alone for a long time, but a dog cannot.We have coyotes, along with some bobcats and a few bears, in Southern Virginia too, so we need that protection.
Anyway, I have to put my goat plan on hold for at least the next couple of years when I am in Brazil. We are thinning eighty-six acres this year.I plan to burn under those trees in 2012. After that and after the brush grows in, maybe it will be time to deploy some Boer goats.
August 28, 2010
I used my new GPS to find the goat farm of Jeff & Loretta Whetzel (more on that in the next post). I am a late adapter of the GPS for the car. I had one a long time ago that I used in my forestry, but it was not really good enough for precise measurement. This one (see above) is nice and was much cheaper. It tells you when to turn etc. I made it speak in Portuguese so that I can practice. Of course, vocabulary is limited. Also can play audio books.
Above you can see road work. We had to wait around fifteen minutes while the cleared out the rocks. They are widening the road. The rock is shale, which is common in the Eastern Mountains. It is very good for paving running trails as it breaks down into flattish chips and forms a springy surface.
Below is kudzu growing along US 211 (also called Lee Highway, BTW, a continuation of the Lee Highway that runs near my house) and doing the one thing it is good at – holding a steep bank. The government encouraged Kudzu planting in the U.S. because of its extreme ability to grow. That was not an entirely wise idea. What makes it a great cover for everything also makes it a troubling invasive, since what grows over rocky hillsides also grows over trees and other plants, choking them off.
I drove the country way home from Harrisonburg, through Luray and over the mountains. I enjoy driving that more than the freeway. It is a bit shorter in miles, but takes about the same time since you have more curves and have to drive slower. It is not a good idea to drive through the mountains during the winter or at night, but it is nice on a nice day like today.Most of the way after the mountains is the way home from Old Rag Mountain, so I have been driving this way for twenty-five years. The area up to Warrenton is very built up, and much of US 29 has become a big strip mall. This includes areas near the Manassas Battlefield. It kind of takes away from the historical feel. But after Warrenton, it has not changed that much. It is still very rural, green and pleasant. Fauquier and Rappahannock Counties are among the nicest in Virginia. It is a great pleasure to pass through them.
August 27, 2010
Alex Back to JMU
I took Alex back up to school at James Madison. He is in a new dorm right in the center of the campus. I think he will be better. He can more easily walk to the places he needs to go and will have more contact with other students. The room is smaller than the one he had before & has no air conditioning. This will be okay most of the school year, but it still can get hot in September. His room is part of a suite with six guys, who share a kind of living space in the middle. Above is his building and below is his room as it looked when he moved in. The tree is a river birch, the southern cousin in the birch family. In Wisconsin we can grow the paper birch or the white birch. They are pretties than this kind of brownish one, but you have to adapt to local conditions. I wanted to get a picture of Alex too, but he refused and kept on moving in and out of the shot.
The campus was full of new freshmen, you can see the gaggle of them below. They are much better groomed than back in the 1970s when I started, but otherwise look similar. Speaking of gaggles, the geese just stroll across the road and most cars stop. I didn’t. I went slow enough that they could move out of the way, but I am not going to yield to geese. They squawked a little but they cleared a path. Up at the farm, a turkey stood in front of my car and stared at me. I actually had to get out and shoo it away. Turkeys are dumb enough to be run over by a car going 3MPH; geese are not.
August 25, 2010
A Cool Bike Ride
It was cool and overcast for my morning bike ride, but an easy trip because of the west wind. I am glad that I don’t have to drive. Below you can see the cars backed up on Memorial Bridge.
Above is the stop light to cross near the Lincoln Memorial. You have to push the button to get the walk light, at least you HAD to. Somebody glued button down so that it just goes through the cycle continuously. I think that is good. I hate that idea that you have to push the button and always wait. Of course, sometimes you can just nip through between the traffic.
Above & below are elm trees looking not good on Independence Avenue. I have noticed that many of the elms around town are not looking good. Some elm trees are resistant to Dutch elm disease, but none are completely immune. I worry that something is going on with the trees. It would be a shame if these big trees died. I have been watching the media for reports re the elms. So far I have found nothing. I hope that my fears are unfounded. It was a hot year. Maybe they are just stressed.
August 23, 2010
Fells Point Baltimore
Chrissy and I went to visit Mariza in Baltimore. It really is a nice city, at least the parts we visit. Espen and I once turned into a less nice area. It looked like the set for a cop drama; lots of people just hanging around, but these places are being renewed and redeveloped pretty well.
The pictures are from Fells Point, where we went to eat at a place called Kali’s Corner, a seafood restaurant. They had a special menu for restaurant week. I had sea bass; Chrissy got skate, evidently a sting ray & Mariza got the salmon. The Atmosphere was very good; food was okay.
Mariza is doing fine. Business is picking up a little at Travelers. Evidently they are at least hiring some new people this year. Above & below are pictures from the windows of Mariza’s new apartment.
August 22, 2010
I found this about wind power. All the swells love wind power until it comes anywhere near them. They can often even get the local Indian tribes to claim it violates some sacred something or other to make the opposition more PC. Evidently it spoils the view from some burial grounds. I am not making this up. Who knew the dead were so sensitive?
Where to put it is a serious problem for any type of alternative energy. Oil and gas, for all their problems, have small & shrinking footprintson the land per unit of energy produced and it is less important for them to be near places where they are consumed. Wind, solar and biomass production are very land hungry AND because of transport & transmission challenges they are better situated near where they will be used, i.e. near people. And since some of these people will be rich & powerful, as with the Kennedys and the Cape Wind Farm, they can effectively kill many projects.BTW – You can see from the chart nearby that the U.S. is now the world’s leader in wind energy, with more than 1/3 of the total world production. You might not guess that from all the caterwauling you hear about the U.S. falling behind in these things. Any guesses about which state is the leader?
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 18, 2010
Working on the Railroad
Which country has the world’s best freight rail system,according to experts? It is the United States, by a wide margin. And it has gotten a lot better since 1981.
Those of us who have traveled the comfortable and reliable passenger rail in Europe are surprised by this information. But the key to our confusion is the word “passenger.” American passenger rail doesn’t work as well. And freight tends to be out of sight, so most people just don’t pay attention or even suspect what is going on in the vastness of our country and in those lonely places literally on the wrong side of the tracks.
If you look at the nearby chart, you see that rail productivity exploded and prices came down after 1980. The Staggers Act was one of the few sustained successes that came out of the Administration of Jimmy Carter. It rationalized regulation and eliminated some of the pricing schemes that had previously crippled the railroads. It still working. Some people thought that railroads were creatures of the past that couldn’t compete with trucks, but they were wrong.
In fact, the fastest-growing part of rail freight is “intermodal” traffic: containers or truck trailers loaded on to flat railcars. The number of such shipments rose from 3m in 1980 to 12.3m in 2006. This is something that affects all of us who drive on the highways, since one freight train can carry as much as 280 trucks. Now maybe we all appreciate freight rail a little more.
Of course, success creates its own dangers. Bigger container cargoes and an expected doubling of the capacity of the Panama Canal by 2014 will create need for capital improvements. Government may pony up some of the cash, but government money comes with government management. It would be horrible if we returned to the bad old days before 1980. (BTW – I worked on railroad cars in the 1970s. I remember that each train had to have a “fireman”. What did the fireman do? Nothing. A generation before, the fireman’s job had been to shove coal in the old steam engines. When diesel replaced steam, union rules and regulations protected this now redundant and phony baloney job. Some of the firemen would actually do a little useful work, but others would tell us, “I ain’t gotta help you f*ers and I ain’t gonna.” And they were right.)
The other threat to freight rail is passenger rail. High speed passenger rail has its own tracks in a few places, but most of the time they share the tracks with freight. Passenger trains pay only a fraction of the costs, but they tend to get right of way over freight. Passengers complain a lot more than does a load of coal or timber, so when push comes to shove, freight is shoved aside. This saps efficiency and greatly adds to costs. We have to be careful when we rush to copy Europe’s trains not to copy the downside with the good. Freight rail is the most efficient form of terrestrial transportation and there is a good reason it so rapidly replaced canals and wagons. It can continue to compete well in the age of trucks, as long as we don’t mess it up.
August 15, 2010
Bad Solutions to Water and Shade Problems
There is talk about building a drain again in back of the houses.This drain would cost around $8000 and would not solve any problems.I am probably the only one who will actually stand out in the rain and watch the drainage and soak away characteristics and I see how it really works.
The problem is that the decks, board fences, houses and vegetation creates shade, enough shade that grass won’t grow. In a heavy rain the water running off the rooftops can cause erosion. The culprit is the lack of vegetation, not the water.
Although grass won’t grow, lots of other things will.A couple years ago I planted some lily turf. It cost me nothing, since I took the shoots from the front of the house.The only improvement that I had to make was to put in some timbers to stop the water in the short term. I also knocked down the board fence at the end of our house, letting in more light.
Look at the pictures. I took them from my deck today after a few hours of rain. Notice how the mud starts exactly where the planting stops. If the problem was water or sunlight, it would not be like that. My plantation not only greened up my space; it also slows erosion up and downstream by slowing or stopping the water flow. Things will grow back there, just not grass.
The drains would not work because they address the wrong problem. Beyond that, it would make everything worse by quickening runoff. It is exactly what we don’t want to do to our local streams and Chesapeake Bay.So we would be spending $8000 to help break down stream beds downstream and ultimately dump more silt and pollution into Chesapeake Bay.
I am afraid such backward activities are common when we make collective decisions.
August 14, 2010
Big issues are perennial. Just details and names change. I recall debating industrial policy back when I was studying for my MBA more than twenty-five years ago. Conventional wisdom back then held that Japan, with its mastery of industrial planning, would overtake the U.S. as the world’s leading capitalist economy. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, with its capacity to focus and centrally command resources, would catch up in the security arena. Our only hope, some argued, was to adapt their methods to our own ponderous, unorganized and chaotic economy through industrial planning.
Things didn’t turn out the way experts predicted/feared. Within a decade, Japan had plunged into an unpleasant and persistent recession that called into question the prowess of the planners. The Soviet Union went out of business entirely, collapsing under the weight of its own centralizing bureaucracy and structural inefficiencies. Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) failed to change the facts on the ground or in the factory; his glasnost (publicity) served only to show the people the previously hidden hideousness of the decaying communist system. But these things that are so blindingly obvious with hindsight eluded the analysts at the time. *
The U.S. did not adopt a coherent industrial policy, but over the next quarter century grew much faster and created millions more jobs than those places, such as France or Japan, that had something approximating one.
Last time we talked seriously about an industrial policy was in the early-mid 1980s, when we were just coming out of a hard recession and people were uncertain about the future. It is no coincidence that in the conditions of today we are talking about it again. It is a hardy, perennial weed that thrives when things get bad and pessimism dominates. But I think the debate has improved, since it is informed by a generation of real experience. Beyond that, researchers have finally begun to explain in theory what people understood in practice for long time – how distributed but aggregated (i.e. market mechanisms) work. The “hidden had” is not as indecipherable as it once was.
We can all recognize that every country in the world has something we could call an industrial policy but that none (even the most monotonously oppressed such as North Korea) has complete control of its economy. We spent a lot of time arguing a kind of yes or no industrial policy when I was back in school in 1983, but we were just stupid kids scoring rhetorical points on each other. Like most things in life, the question of industrial policy is one of gradations and implementation. In that regard, a little industrial policy is good, but at some point it becomes poisonous and some applications are better than others.
The best policies take advantage of preexisting advantages or propensities. Identifying exactly what those are is easier said than done, but let me give an obvious example. The State of South Dakota probably doesn’t want to invest a lot in becoming a low cost exporter of bananas. You CAN grow bananas there, in greenhouses. And there are some wise guys (sorry wise men) who will correctly tell you that there is plenty of naturally occurring hot water underground in parts of the state to heat them. But how stupid would you have to be to follow that advice? Politicians often don’t want to hear this, since much of the business of politics is to reward followings. Ironically, the reward is much sweeter when it is for something silly. If the recipient can do it w/o the help of the politician, he is likely to feel less grateful.
Another characteristic of successful industrial policy is NOT to pick winners and losers. The government does best when it creates general conditions for prosperity and then allows the people to make choices & investments that make the most sense to them. In other words, there is a good place for planning but not for the planner. More correctly, the planning is done by the people in that effective distributed but aggregated fashion I mentioned above. Remember how much trouble centralization caused the Japanese and the Soviets. Don’t do it. Once again, this is not something that comes easily to politicians. Picking winners and losers is a big part of political power. That power is the reason lobbyists line up to kiss the politicians asses and contribute big money to political campaigns. How is it that big firms are willing to cut big checks to “charities” recommended by politicians? They expect it to pay off if/when the guy they are backing wins.
The pressure to politicize decision making – for good as well as bad motivations – is the second biggest hazard of industrial planning. The first biggest hazard is lack of timely, useful and accurate information in sufficient detail to allow decision making by the experts. That is precisely why we should not give them much decision making power. Like the watch making god of the Deists, they should set up the system, with its incentives and attributes, enforce the rule of law but otherwise let it grow by the decisions of the participants, intervening only to address true emergencies. This is essentially how it worked with the Internet, one of the most successful U.S. forays into “industrial policy.
The idea that you COULD have an industrial policy that was centrally run, comprehensive and innovated – all at the same times – is a supreme example hubris. Even stipulating that they are smart and honest, what are the chances that politicians or bureaucrats have the information or vision needed to choose tomorrow’s technologies and technology leaders? The record is not encouraging.
And the record goes way back. The Roman Emperor Diocletian did what we would call comprehensive industrial planning. It helped lead to bankrupting the empire and hastened the development of what we would later call serfdom. In more modern times, industrial policy has been associated with mercantilism. A lot of that originated in France in the early 1700s, when France was Europe’s predominant economic power. Suffice to say, it didn’t work out and France didn’t stay on top.
The free market requires government for some infrastructure projects, rule of law and provide for the common security. There are some things that have to be decide politically. But for everything else, we are better off deciding for ourselves the things that we care about the most and have the most information about and having faith that our fellow Americans will do the same for the things they know about.
* My professor for business policy, a guy called Bruce Erickson, is one of the only serious people I know who openly and unequivocally predicted the imminent demise of Soviet tyranny. I still remember his simple structural proposition. He understood there were other factors, but this was the new part. Again, today this looks obvious, but in 1983 it was fairly new. He explained that the mainframe computer had been the salvation of communist central planning. They could control access to information and still do the needful computations. But the personal computers, which were just becoming common at the time, would be the death of central control because they decentralized information and decision making.
The communists had two options. They could give up a lot of control and then it wouldn’t really be communism anymore. Or they could resist the new technologies and make their system obsolete a little faster. In fact, the Soviets tried first restrictions and then let loose, so that both things hasted their system collapse. The Chinese saw this and refused to liberalize their political system, repressing dissent in a bloody crackdown of which Tiananmen Square was only the part we saw on TV. But they continued to liberalize their economy, essentially conceding many aspects of economic control (defacto abandoning communism) in return for continued political power. The Chinese experiment continues.
August 13, 2010
Focus on What You Do & Tell us How you Did it
More from my promotion boards experience.
It is very important to describe positions well. Generics just don’t do it. Never accept the same description as your predecessor or the same one that “like” officers have. For example, saying that your PRT is one of 31 PRTs in Iraq w/o saying much (or anything) about the particulars is unhelpful and, IMO, indicates a certain intellectual flabbiness. Also be very clear about who you manage, how many and what they do. Recognize that quality and diversity count. Managing 100 low level employees who all do well established and similar things may not take as much leadership as running an operation with ten colleagues doing a variety of changing duties.
Experience counts in similar ways. It is possible – and I have seen – people get twenty years worth of experience in five years. It is also possible to get five (or less) years of experience in twenty years. Some people just repeat the same sorts of things. I suppose they are getting better at doing them, but it doesn’t add much to experience. It reminds me of watching CNN and hearing them claim that they have 24 hours of news each day. No. What they often have is a half hour of news 48 times a day. Watching an endlessly repeating loop of the same event doesn’t add much to understanding. Experience can be that way too.
Of course, there is a caveat. There is always a caveat. You need to develop expertise and some specialties. Beyond that, simple variety also does not produce useful experience. Focus is important. Ideally, experience should build on previous experience creating a capacity to do and understand more. Change for the sake of change makes no more sense that the opposite.
Experience teaches, but learning is not automatic. If things just happen to you and you don’t think about them it may be useless energy spent. I was impressed when I could see how people learned from experience and applied it in analogous situations. This demonstrated not only that the experience was good, but also that the individual had the ability to reason by analogy and make reasonable distinctions among situations.
Finally, I am reminded of what Mark Twain said about not learning more lessons from an experience than it has to teach. The cat that sits on a hot stove will never sit on a hot stove again; of course he will not sit on a cool one either.
August 12, 2010
Getting Good from the Group while Avoiding Groupthink
The panel works a lot like a jury is supposed to work; it aggregates the experience of a reasonably well informed group, sometimes tapping into expertise that single individuals could not use. Our group had five senior FSOs from various cones and with various career paths, alone with one member of the public for proper leavening. We made special efforts NOT to fall into either groupthink, where we have too much early consensus, or chaos, where we don’t achieve consensus at all. This meant initially ranking files w/o deliberation and then voting on those we thought were high, low or middle.
I was surprised how often we came independently to similar conclusions. There were often overwhelming majorities on one side or the other. We discussed some of them briefly as a form of quality control. Perhaps more interesting than the near unanimity of the results was the fact that often the reasons for the decisions were very different. This made me more confident of the decision, since each person bringing his/her experience to bear on the aspect of the decision they knew the best had led to this aggregated decision.
Of course, there were some close votes and those required more deliberation. Nobody tried to dominate the group, but each member came to be recognized as having particular expertise in some things. I, for example, had more experience in public diplomacy and in running PRTs and that experience helped me understand if particular claims or achievements were really significant or just things that would have happened anyway. I could also point to instances where officers had tried very hard to achieve a very difficult goal and even in failure had demonstrated the characteristics we are looking for in our senior leadership. We tried not to penalize innovators, even if their reach sometimes exceeded their grasp, but of course you have to draw distinctions between innovation and recklessness. This is not always as clearly evident as we might like. I was glad to contribute my own expertise and grateful that my fellow board members also brought a lot to the table.
I believe we made good decisions and that our group decision was better than any one of us could have done alone.
August 11, 2010
Learning & Education
I have more formal education than I can practically use and that is the way I wanted it. I just liked to study when I was in college and for my leisure today I do things very much like studying.I read books and write essays (now known as blog posts).But I think you don’t understand real education until you understand that all of life is – or should be – about learning. I took the formal “book learning” education route; others chose different ways. Sometimes we make too much of a distinction. Learning, whether it comes from books, experience or anything else, has to be integrated into a person’s life and outlook. Some people despise “useless” education. Others boldly assert that no education is useless. I think both miss the point. Education of any kind is useful if it changes how you look at and/or do things, if it spawns new ideas or skills or if it just makes you think. This definition would seem to include almost everything, but it doesn’t.There is useless education, although it has more to do with the recipient than the subject.
Some people just don’t pay attention or don’t integrate what they learned into their behaviors or thoughts. They don’t turn information into knowledge. These are the kinds of people who memorize lots of things, but cannot recognize them when they are a little changed or in different contexts. Unfortunately, these are often the people who call for more “education” and are most interested in official credentials.These are the guys that try to trump you by quoting experts or citing their own expertise. I recall discussing economics with a guy who didn’t like my opinion. He said something like, “Wouldn’t you feel stupid if I told you that I wrote my PhD dissertation on this subject?” I just said no. I should have elaborated, “Wouldn’t you feel stupid if I told you that you went through all that trouble and learned so little?” I have to admit that I take some refuge in my own formal education credentials. I can be a lot more of a smart-ass because I have some of the smart papers.
Lately I have been in closer contact with practical people who know things I want to learn about buying land, developing property, building roads and sustainable forestry/agriculture. These guys know all sorts of detailed things, like the quality of dirt or the type of rocks you need to use to shore up a bank. Lots of these things seem really easy until you have to make the decision yourself.As with anything else, some people are better at what they do than others. I was thinking about the type of education you might need and how you could figure it out.There are some places where my education has a very direct connection. For example, figuring out how much I can pay for things and still make profits and payments is something I did indeed learn in finance class, although I have to admit that I really didn’t understand it until I bought my first house.Let me jump back to my other life for a minute. I have been sitting on promotion panels and trying to judge which of my esteemed colleagues should move to the next level. Many of us get formal training at the upper-middle or lower senior level.I valued that training, but I wanted to see what they did with it two or three years later.I wanted to know if it took root and grew or if it was just a pleasant sojourn in academia. I found some of each. Some people were clearly changed and improved by their educations, i.e. they learned something.Among others you just couldn’t tell.Everybody had earned the same credentials, but it was different.
So I guess I am advocating a kind of “Gold’s Gym standard.”I go to Gold’s Gym three times a week. I do an intense workout that takes me less than 15 minutes and then I am out. People make fun of me for that. I get a variation of “Leaving so soon?” with monotonous regularity. Most people spend more time than I do and many spend a lot more time, but time in doesn’t matter. It is like the credentials. The only thing that matters is whether or not you can pick up the weights.The answer to the question, “Can you bench press 250 lbs?” is not, “Well, I come here every day and workout really hard for at least an hour.” All that matters is yes or no, probably followed by an actual demonstration if you answered in the affirmative. Educational achievement is harder to measure, but the same type of standard should apply. College is not the only place you get educated.Increasingly, there are other options.Many firms have their own training programs, which are often more up-to-date and almost always more specific than the program at the local college. Community colleges are increasingly important because of their low-cost, almost universal access and flexibility.Of course, online options are exploding.
Aristotle thought that the best education was just to live in a good city. I think if he were alive today, he might call it lifetime learning and advocate a learning culture. Learning, like art, truth and beauty, is ubiquitous. We just need to be aware and constantly searching. And our needs are protean. (Me use hard words from education). I never thought that variations in rocks and dirt would absorb so much of my intellectual energy. I apologize if this post has gone off in so many directions, but I think the idea of education is like that. We talk a lot about the need to educate our population.We say that education is the key to the future. This is true. But too often we are thinking narrowly of a specific place and time where education will be delivered by certified professionals who will hand out certificates when all the education is done. Maybe instead of education, we should think more about learning.*
*How about a little display of etymological erudition, which is usually not of much value but fits here? Think about the words. Education is a Latin-based word. It means to bring out or lead out. The one being educated may be a little passive in this case.You can be educated by someone else. Learn is a Germanic based word. Its original meaning was to get knowledge. It requires that you take an active part. Learning is what you are supposed to do during your education. Some people do. The reason I made the distinction between Latin and German was because of the nature of our wonderful English language. English is a Germanic language, but it is heavily Latinized, much of it through the use of Norman French (descended from Latin).After the Norman conquest, since the rich guys spoke French, the educated people read Latin and the poor guys spoke Anglo-Saxon (old-middle English), we tend to have a rich vocabulary of overlapping words; the Latin-French words tend to be classier than the Germanic-Saxon ones that mean almost the same things.
Most swear words are Germanic. In Latin-French based English, for example, people have intercourse in the bedroom and they defecate in the bathroom. The German-Saxon words for those things cannot be spoken on network television. But the twin words do not always mean exactly the same things.So it is with education and learning. My education taught me the things I just wrote, but I have learned that most people don’t know or care about them. That is another difference between learning and education.
August 10, 2010
Secrets of Success
I wrote these notes for these posts during my time on promotion boards, but held off posting them until the work was done.
After many years of trying to figure out the tricks of getting promoted, I finally got it. It is an epiphany. After now reading the files of 100s of my very competent colleagues, I found that the secret of success is to be good at what you do. Of course, the write up is important. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, it doesn’t make a sound for any practical purpose. But you have to have something to write about. A week of energetic writing and spinning won’t make up for a year of lethargy on the job. You just cannot sell Edsels. On the other hand, people stand in line to get the good products they want.
I like the fact that people write their own first pages on their assessments. It gives a better look at what they can do and what they think is important. Some people “get it” more than others. In their own write-ups they emphasize the right things first and they make logical and meaningful connections among the things they accomplished.
There is focus. In the good EERs, I notice a “purposes principle” at work. They explain the “so what?” and list the results and outcomes of what they have accomplished. I also get the impression that they frequently ask the purpose question. When someone gives you a task, it is not impertinent to ask, “what do you plan to use it for?” This will often make the person focus more, give you a better idea of what is necessary and maybe make it more of a partnership. The person getting the task might know, for example, that there is a better way to achieve the goal. Of course, you have to ask the question in the right way, but a good leader should be glad to have subordinates who try to improve on what they are given.
Nobody is perfect and I like it when I can find areas of actual conflict or mistakes that provided learning opportunities. This is perhaps the hardest part to get right. Nobody likes to be criticized and it is always a risk to have any criticism prominently mentioned. However, it may be a acceptable risk that sets you apart. Nobody has a good year every year. It is unlikely that someone goes from one success to another w/o any setbacks. I was reminded of the juvenile lovers who ask their partners whether they love them more today than yesterday. Despite what we hear in song and story, the inevitable true answer eventually must be “no”. It doesn’t mean that careers, or love, do not or cannot grow over a long period, but it will never be a straight and clear path in either case.
That said, it makes no sense to dwell on failure. One of the things I dislike most is when people seem to revel in the hard times they have suffered. Difficult conditions are a mitigating factor, but the fact is that there are two sorts of criteria. You either did something or you didn’t. Almost fought the great chicken of Bristol just doesn’t compare to actual achievement. Ideally, you should mention the problem immediately followed by how you moved on from it. And remember that most FS careers have had some hardships. I served a year in the Iraq, with dust in the air and bad guys behind the rocks; many of our colleagues have had worse. The bad plumbing or poor phone service at someone’s post just doesn’t sound very impressive.of
Overall, some files just seem to sing beautifully, others are a little off key and a few are bad. Sometimes one person manages to be/do all three. That is why I like to see the person in more than one type of job or place. Some people can do well one time and in one place. That is admirable but doesn’t mean they should be promoted to more responsibility. It is not the one home run that counts but the day-to-day success that adds up over a long period.
August 09, 2010
I made an unexpected trip to the farms yesterday. I wanted to look at a piece of land near the Nottoway River. FM wants to buy the timber and wants me to buy the land. In other words, he gets the wood; I get land to grow new trees. It is a long-term proposition for me. I couldn’t even thin until around 2025. On the other hand, I can get the land cheaper and grow the trees later.
The land would not be only for forestry. There is a lot of road frontage and the property is across from the Nottoway River, which you see in the picture. (It was a very foggy morning, as you can see and chilly. It later got hot and humid.) They would leave the trees near the streams etc, so it would remain wooded and attractive. There is a public boat launching place across from one corner of the property. It was a very foggy morning, as you can see and chilly. It later got hot and humid. Under the right conditions, I could sell off some lots right at the corner with the river, where people could build “farmettes” or cabins. I have no idea how that works, but I bet I can figure it out. That would help pay for the land.
Land is inexpensive these days because of the recession. It won’t stay that way forever and this may be a good time to buy. But the timing is always tricky and I don’t have that kind of money to just risk. The forest land and its produce will essentially fund large chunks of my retirement, or not. In a rational market, this land would become more valuable. Markets are always rational … in the long run. But as John Maynard Keynes said, “Markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.”
Anybody want to come in on a forestry investment? Or maybe buy a beautiful home site near an officially designative senic river? Well, I have to figure out the finances. I really just don’t know.
The first picture shows the boat landing on the Nottoway River. The picture under that is the part of the property I was looking at that was cut in 2001. This is natural regeneration and would remain on the land. I would have to mange it a little, but the trees look healthy. As comparison, you can see my trees on the CP property (same day. The sun came out.) They are only six years old (planted 2004) but they are bigger by a couple feet and fuller because of better genetic stock and some management. The second lastpicture shows the pines on our Freeman property. They were planted in 1996 and will be thinned later this month (first thining). They need thinning. Light will reach the ground and it will be better for wildlife. The last picture is a dog that just wandered by. He has a tracking collar, so he is probably a hunting dog. I offered him a piece of ham from my sandwich. He took it but remained a little spooked.
August 06, 2010
Northern Virginia has an interesting hitchhiking system called slugging. Drivers who want to use the HOV lanes, but don’t have the required three passengers, pick up “slugs” at various lots south of DC. The occupants allow the use of the HOV lane and get both drivers and passengers there much faster. No money is exchanged and there are some simple rules, such as no talking unless the driver initiates it.
This form of transport has been around since 1975 and it is evidently as fast or faster than taking the bus and significantly faster than driving as a single person in traffic. A couple of my colleagues slug to work w/o any significant problems. It is interesting that such a cooperative market has grown up w/o outside regulation. Local governments accept it and welcome it as a way to reduce congestion. There have been occasional calls for the government to somehow regulate the system, but that would probably make it collapse. If it ain’t broken …
More information is at this link.
August 05, 2010
Hunters are the backbone of rural society. People who live in cities and suburbs rarely appreciate that fact. I thought of this in relation to my own land and was reminded when Chrissy’s sister Diane visited a friend who lives in western Virginia. The friend owns some forest land in the Shenandoah. Local hunters watch over it, make improvements and generally take care of the place. She was a little surprised at the role of local hunters. I used to be too, but not anymore.
The hunters on my land have been there for generations. Much of what I know about the land comes from them. They knew how long the roads had been in place. They remembered when the streams had flooded and when they had gone dry. They had experience of fires and storms. And they loved the land and understood the relationships with the animals on them.
Deer hunters are working to create better habitat for the animals they hunt and improve the herds. They always have done this. Much of the county’s wildlands were conserved by hunters. Lately the equations have changed a bit. The burgeoning wildlife and especially deer population has shifted emphasis from any deer to quality deer. Hunt clubs are actively managing the herds through selective hunting, feed plots etc. I get a magazine called “Quality Whitetails” from an organization by the same name that provides a place for the exchange of information and experience. It is very interesting the things hunters are doing in the conservation field, literally out in the field.
Another big factor is development and urban encroachment. A generation ago, there were a lot fewer deer and they were spread over a bigger area of undeveloped land. Today deer populations have grown to almost nuisance levels in some areas and this is exacerbated by the fragmentation of the forests. This is another reason to emphasize quality of the herds over mere numbers. The numbers problem is no longer a problem.
Hunting keeps people closer to the land. One of my friends down in Southside Virginia spends most of his free time working on conservation projects on land his hunt club leases. He helps restore wetlands, makes wildlife corridors etc. He has helped a lot on my farm, at no cost to me since we work in our mutual interest. This guy doesn’t hunt very much anymore in the traditional sense. He just really enjoys the conservation and wildlife management aspects of hunting. Most of the hunters I know enjoy the sport more for the insights it gives them into nature than the actual shooting deer, which is only one part of a full-year, multi-year effort.
The numbers of hunters has been declining over the past decades. There still are enough, but if the trend continues, this will be a serious threat to the health of rural communities and the rural environment. Somebody else – probably at taxpayer expense – will have to do what as work hunters do joyfully and for free.In fact, they actually pay to do it.
I am not a hunter myself, for the same reasons that the number of hunters has been declining. I was a city kid, with no hunting tradition. I am also a terrible shot. I support hunting by working with the hunt clubs on my farms and supporting some hunting organizations, such as Quality Whitetails, that provide hunting education and advocacy.
Beyond the environmental benefits, hunting has a long tradition in American culture. It is very different in the U.S. than it was in many parts of the world. In Europe, hunting was a rich man’s sport. When the ordinary people hunted, it was usually called “poaching,” especially when talking about bigger game, a crime that was severely punished by the aristocrats. Besides just wanting to keep the animals to themselves, aristocrats sensed the fundamental democratizing nature of hunting. Besides giving the common man access to weapons and the training to use them, hunting allowed individuals a personal connection with nature, unfiltered by the hierarchy of the old world. It also provides a means of support. One of the older hunters down near the farms told me that when he was young, hunting wasn’t just a hobby; it was needed to put meat on the table. One of the things that impressed former-peasant immigrants to the early America was that they COULD hunt. They were the owners of the land and didn’t have to kiss the ass of the local baron or “his” deer and elk untouched in the forest where only the fat-cats could hunt.
So this is my paean to the pastoral pursuit of hunting in our great America, whether it is deer, turkey, geese, quail, ducks or bears (yes we have a few on the farms now). We should appreciate what hunters and hunting have done for us.
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?