December 2008

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December 31, 2008


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

Our next dog, Sam, was the most docile dog in the world.   He never bit or growled.  He would bark at visitors, and it was hard to get him to be quiet, but then he hid in back of us when they came in.   I was locked out of the house once, so I climbed in through the bedroom window.  I didn’t hear a sound from Sam, except I could hear his claws on the linoleum kitchen floor as he backed up.  I still couldn’t find him, until I saw him hiding under my father’s bed.  As soon as he saw me, he came out bravely.  Everybody liked Sam.  He was a good looking dog, a Chesapeake Bay retriever.  He had some of the instinct.  He used to point at rabbits and squirrels, although he never bothered to pursue them. Our last dog was Xerxes.   He was the dog of my father’s later years and he reflected some of the infirmities of old age.  Xerxes was even more cowardly than Sam and not at all aggressive.   He is cringing in most of the pictures, because he was afraid of the camera.  If he heard a loud noise, he would go crazy.  Thunder storms and the 4th of July were not pleasant times.  My father treated him with a gentleness bordering on deference.  “He has rights too,” my father would say.  Probably as a result of this, Xerxes paid no attention to my father and would not come when he called.   

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

We used to have cats until I was around five years old.   They were not really our cats; they just sort of moved into our house sometimes, sort of community cats.  They all had the unimaginative name of “Kitty.”  It made it easier to remember their names and there really is no use in naming cats anyway, since they never come when called.  In those days it was considered cruel and unnatural to keep cats in the house and they wandered the streets.   You “put the cat out” at night.  Sometimes they would come back.  In between, they would enter cat society and alternatively fight, mate and kill birds & mice. They came back when they got hungry and/or when they couldn’t find a better offer.  Cats have no sense of loyalty.  Once Kitty had kittens.  One of them had six toes, so we called him “six toed Richard” after one of my mother’s similarly endowed cousins.  We got rid of the ultimate Kitty and never permitted cats again because she scratched my sister once too often.  My sister was a toddler+ at the time and wanted to play with the cat in a way independent felines evidently didn’t appreciate.  I got along well with that particular cat and even once gave her a bath, w/o getting scratched up.  I guess it all depends on how you approach things. My cousins Luke & Irma and their son & Tony, who lived upstairs from us, had the meanest cat I have ever seen.  I don’t remember what its name was, but we called him “Heathcliff” after the obnoxious comic book cat.  He was the Fang of the cat world.  One Christmas, my sister and I were watching Tony while Luke and Irma went to midnight mass.   We didn’t know where the cat had gone until we saw the tree shaking and found the cat climbing inside and batting at the ornaments.   I chased him away from the tree and he ran off and disappeared.  Soon he reappeared.  He had climbed up the back of the couch and was attacking my sister.   I drove him off again and he went and hid in the basement. 

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

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

December 30, 2008

Gallows Dunn Loring Development

Providence Forest Townhouse Complex, Vienna Virginia

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

The Metro was the real key. 

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

Warehouse on Gallows Rd - Vienna Virginia

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

Demolition of buildings on Gallows Road - Vienna, Virginia

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

December 29, 2008

Roosevelt & Jefferson

I have a minor stomach bug and didn’t feel well enough to run on this beautiful day, so I went for a walk instead during lunchtime.   I went down to the Roosevelt Memorial.  It is a pretty big and impressive thing, as you can see in the picture, and there is a lot of flowing water.  Main statue at Roosevelt MemorialThis size and complexity of the memorial goes against Roosevelt ’s wishes.    He told Felix Frankfurter that he wanted a memorial no bigger than his desk and there is a memorial about the size of a desk near the National Archives.  But the Roosevelt legacy outgrew the man.  Waterfalls at Roosevelt Memorial

All monuments are really as much about the time when they are constructed as about the people or events depicted.   You can see the 1990s (when the Memorial was built) in the Memorial itself.   For example, although Roosevelt was crippled with polio, he didn’t allow himself to be pictured in a wheelchair.   I think there is only one such photo.   Many people at the time were not aware of the extent of his infirmity.   By the 1990s, such attitudes were unpopular. The compromise, in my picture, shows him seated with his cape covering the wheelchair.   This evidently offended some people, so there is also a statue of Roosevelt in his wheelchair. Breadline statues at Roosevelt Memorial

I think we have an interesting question.   Roosevelt expressed clearly in his words and actions that he would not have approved of the monument or of his depiction in the wheelchair.  The question is, at what point does a man’s legacy become more important than he is and how much license should we have to fit a man of the past into contemporary morals and sensibilities?  Jefferson Memorial over the water

In pictures from the times, Roosevelt is always shown with a cigarette.  It was a big part of his personality.  We won’t see that.  This part of his image is gone.  There was a controversy about a stamp featuring the artist Jackson Pollock, who evidently smoked all the time.   The postal service made the stamp from a photo of Pollock.   They airbrushed out the characteristic cigarette.    Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin

Modern technology makes this kind of ex-post-facto censorship much easier.  I think it is better to leave such things in and explain that times were different.  We cannot apply today’s standards to the people of the past.  Thomas Jefferson

This applies to Thomas Jefferson more than most.   I also went to his memorial.   Jefferson was knocked off his high pedestal by his slave owning.   It is true that slavery was a terrible blight, but it had been around as long as human society.  The pyramids were built with slave labor.  Jefferson had the misfortune to be on the societal cusp that separated the 5000 years of human history when slavery was accepted from the last couple centuries when it was anathema to civilized people.  It wasn’t until around the time of Jefferson that large numbers of people began to see slavery as an evil to be extirpated and that outrage was limited generally to the Western world at that time.  There are still parts of Africa and Asia where forms of slavery are practiced.  pillars at Jefferson Memorial

It is hard not to judge Jefferson by today’s standards and harder still to understand how someone who could think so elegantly about freedom could have such a blind spot about the freedom of people he saw every day.  But we really cannot judge him too harshly for not making a clean break with a tradition that stretched back to the dawn of history. 

BTW – I met a former slave when I was in Poland .  He and his family were captured by the Soviets in 1939 and sent to labor camps where only those who worked got food rations.   The Soviets, enlightened as they were, would not officially allow children to work, so this guy’s underage brothers and sisters were not allowed to work and got no food.  It was the perfectly logical workings of a diabolical bureaucracy.   The family tried to share, but they all died except for the man I met.  He survived the Russian death camps and returned to Poland where he became a wood worker and was making decorations for churches in Zakopane.   

He was a surprisingly cheerful man, with a still abiding faith in the goodness of God despite his ordeal, and not bitter at all against the Russians.   “It was a different time and place,” he advised me.   This is the only actual slave I ever met.  In America , after nearly 150 years, there is no living memory of slavery.  My friend’s conditions were much worse than those in Virginia during Jefferson ’s time.   Perhaps we should take his advice. Jefferson Memorial looking west

Jefferson was a great man, although a flawed human being – like all of us.  The genius of America is that we can take humans as they are, w/o demanding perfection, and through all these imperfect people create a more perfect country.

December 28, 2008

You Can’t Handle the Truth

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

A Few Good Men

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

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

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

Eyewitness Not so Good

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

Failure of Memory

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

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

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

The Myth of the Unfiltered Truth

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

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

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

Self Organizing Systems & Their Discontents

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

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

The Golden Age That Never Was

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

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time,” said Abraham Lincoln.    The Internet doesn’t change the general categories, but it does change distribution.    Internet makes it much harder to fool all of the people even some of the time, but it makes it easier to fool some of the people all of the time.   More disturbingly, Internet facilitates the aggregation of those people fooled all of the time.   A few isolated weirdoes are just curiosities.    If enough of them find each other, they may form enough of a mass to become a real menace.    Like the embers of a dying campfire, if you spread them out they all burn out, but if you gather them together you can have a conflagration on your hands.  Internet makes this much easier. 
As I wrote in the first paragraph, I am just working through these ideas.   I am done doing that for now, but I really need to get this clear in my mind so that I can do a good job in my new job.


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

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

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

December 26, 2008


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

LL Bean crank up lantern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 23, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 21, 2008

The Joy of Virginia Forest Land

People own lots of things but we form special relationships with the land we own.   Wound up in land is the concept of connection of our ancestors’ to the earth and our legacy for future.   There is no surprise that people have deep feelings for land that has been in their families for generations, but it is astonishing how fast the same connections form with adopted land.

I have loved forests and wanted to have my own part of one for as long as I can remember.   But buying a forest is not something most people do.   Most forest owners inherit them.   I would have to borrow the money to buy my forest so I couldn’t afford to do it as a mere indulgence, so I started to study on the economics of forestry.   I was surprised and encouraged to learn that forestry was an excellent, if illiquid, investment.    According to Forbes magazine, timber investments from 1990 – 2007 timber produced a compounded annual return of 12.88%.    You just cannot beat that if you have the time and the inclination to wait for nature to take its course. 

Most people who invest in forestry do so through REITs and TIMOs.   That option didn’t appeal to me.   That makes forestry just another investment.   My logic was the reverse.  I was looking for a lifestyle choice, not a mere investment vehicle.   I wanted to own a forest and I needed to justify it as an investment, not the other way around.   And I wanted my forest that I could stand on and manage.    After investigating the economics, I decided that I felt secure enough in my judgment on this matter to base my retirement savings on growing trees rather on a capricious stock market. 

Of course finding the right forest is harder to do than buying stocks or mutual funds.   I needed to find a place close enough to my house that I could visit but far enough from Northern Virginia that I could afford the land.   My research took me to Southside Virginia on the Piedmont south of Richmond.  This is the land of the loblolly pine.   The soils of the region were denuded by generations of cotton and tobacco farming and the land has been returning to forest for more than a century.   The decline of the tobacco industry, which pushed people off the land and the distance from growing cities kept land prices lower.   

Successful forestry on one tract of land requires successful forestry in the neighborhood.  Wood is heavy and hard to transport.   Unless you have enough forested acres in a roughly 60-100 mile radius to sustain a forestry industry and mills, you really cannot grow trees profitably.   The forests of Southside Virginia meet this need.   I knew this was where I would find my forests. 

I called a rural real estate broker called Rick Rawlings in Lawrenceville.   He didn’t think I was serious when I called him and probably didn’t change his mind when I showed up at his office in Lawrenceville.   He wanted to steer me to small tracts of land suitable to building a getaway cabin.    I told him that I didn’t care for such things.   I wanted a place for forestry – real forestry.    He told me that he had some tracts that were 100+ acres, but they were isolated and it would cost me a fortune to bring in things like electricity.  “You would never be able to build,” he warned.   He smiled when I told him that is exactly what I wanted. 

Baby loblolly

He showed me several tracts of well developed timberland and then told me about a recent clear cut.   It was 178 acres of clearcut plus 2, but there was good site preparation and I could see the tops of the little pines poking above the weeds & old brush.   I also liked the streams and the mature hardwoods left near them.   That was my first tract. 

The first thing an absentee landowner needs to do is get to know the neighbors and make some local allies.   They are the ones who can protect your land … or not.   Fortunately, the land had a hunt club already associated with it and they were happy just to keep on with the previous relationship.   The hunt club maintains the gates and the no trespassing signs.   Their presence on the land also discourages squatters or some clowns planting drugs, which can be significant problems.    In this rural area, everybody knows everybody else and they all knew about me.    I had to overcome a bit of a stereotype when I drove up with my Honda Civic Hybrid, but when they figured out that I knew about the trees and wanted them to keep on hunting, everything was okay.   A couple of the guys took me around and showed me the various thinning and timber operations they were working on.    When I got stuck in the mud, the local farmer came and pulled me out with his tractor.   I was really interested in hearing their stories about the land and their experiences.   

I also joined the Virginia Forestry Association and got the communication director job for the tree farm project.   My job mostly consists of writing an article for the Virginia Forests magazine four times a year and I get to interview and write the story of the tree farmer of the year.   I learned a lot from these things.   Forestry is kind of an art form.   Local conditions make a big difference and by local I mean difference of a few yards or a change in the slope of a hill.   The more successful tree farms you see, the better feel you get for understanding your own.    I have never met or even heard about a tree farmer who didn’t love his forest, and everybody you meet is eager to talk about their particular places.   I know I am.

I don’t depend on my forest for current income, so I have the luxury of experimentation.   I have done pre-commercial thinning and biosolids application.   I am reasonably certain that these things will make the forest grow faster, be a better place for wildlife and just look better, but I am not sure it will actually be worth the outlay in terms of actual income.

Anyway, I have been happy with my forestry investment choice.  You cannot rush the trees, so I sometimes wish I had got into the business sooner and been further along.   But I then I remember that I couldn’t.  Besides the obvious lack of money (or more correctly credit), I didn’t have enough understanding of the forestry business.   Liking trees is not sufficient.    I also do not think I could have done this deal in the pre-internet world.  It is amazing what you can find on the Internet and all the research you can you do.   For example, Southern Regional Forestry Extension has online courses.   You can download these on ITunes. 

December 20, 2008

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are sacred principles that cannot be compromised.   There are things we will fight for and die for, things we will impose on others.  If you cannot think of any, you are soul-dead.   If you can think of too many, you are a self-indulgent narcissist.   Given a few more years of experience, Mr. Smith would have been more effective, f less certain of his righteousness.     It probably would not make a very interesting movie, however.

December 18, 2008

In a Better Mood: Clean & Friendly Doha

When I glance back at my recent entries, I see I was not in the optimum mood.  It really helps to get out and meet people.

Below is the moon over Doha Islamic Center, a very interesting spiral building as you can see.

Doha Islamic Center spiral tower

I didn’t expect to get to see Doha, but fortunately some of the guys stationed on the base thought of a reason to get us out and so we went to a restaurant in town and got to walk around the market.   I could not see as much because it was dark, but I suspect there was not much in the market to see that wasn’t lit up anyway.  I regret not seeing more of Doha itself, although I don’t think there was more than a day’s worth of looking, it seemed a nice place. People who like to shop would like it here, IMO.

The streets were very clean and lively and prices were reasonable.  I paid about $15 for my meal at a nice restaurant.  Coffee at a place that looked like Starbucks was around $2.

Market street in Doha, Qatar

The market had all kinds of goods, not all of them directed at tourists.  The most interesting shop sold falcons – yes, the birds – and falconer supplies.  There are probably not many stores like that around.  Falconry is a popular sport among the rich around the Arab world.  The falcons hunt other birds and small animals like rabbits.  The return in terms of meat per unit of input is low.  It is a luxury, which is why it has always been the sport of nobles or people with lots of resources and time on their hands.  It requires patience to train the birds and knowledge of the environment to deploy them to hunt and it probably becomes part of a whole lifestyle.

Falcon shop in Doha, Qatar

The falcons in the shop didn’t do anything interesting, although it was interesting to look at them for a short time.  I didn’t ask how much they cost and the store proprietor didn’t try to sell me anything.  I expect he could easily tell that I was just a looker and not a falcon enthusiast.   My guess is that most people who come through his shop don’t intend to buy anything and he has become accustomed to the gawking traffic.

It was good to get out of camp.  The whole trip will now have a better place in my memory.  Living in the cans is no fun.  The cans in Al Asad were better because they were outside and your window got natural light.  Beyond that, I have a roommate here.   He is a good guy, one of my coworkers, but I would prefer my own place. The cans here are stacked on top of each other and all of them are housed in an enormous warehouse.   It is like living in a giant steel hive.

We also work inside a big steel warehouse with little tents or boxes set up as rooms.   It is sort of like an exhibition hall.  We don’t have enough computers to go around, so there are a few of us always made redundant.  W/o computers, you really cannot do much work in a modern office setting.  I am not sure why they brought us all the way here for this work.  I suppose it is cheaper than sending us to an offsite in W. Virginia or Florida, or even keeping us in Washington, where most of my colleagues have to be in TDY.  I am an extraordinarily good deal for them, since I live in N. Virginia and they don’t have to pay me for hotel or meals.  Once they pay the air fare, there is not much variable cost in having us work in Doha.  They already have the hives and the chow hall is cheaper than per Diem.  Actually they give us per Diem – $3.50 a day – for incidentals.  I would say that I shouldn’t spend it all in one spot, but I already did.

I had to buy toothpaste and a couple pair of socks, which I forgot.  While I was there I got a nice shirt and some junk food.   Strictly speaking it did not take up the whole ten days per Diem, which comes to $35.00.   When you get to my level, you get the big bucks.

December 17, 2008

Flying to Doha

Another post out of chronological order.


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

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

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

The interesting distinction is that the hard parts are all objective.  It is hot, or not, sandy or not etc.   The things that mitigate it are all subjective.  Within broad bounds, the actual physical experience is a lot less important than how you chose to react.  Doha 1:  Arabs Like America (When They Actually Experience It)

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

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

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

Doha 2:  Caste Systems

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

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

I understand that my observations are limited and I should not extrapolate to the general condition from the small sample I have seen, but I have never seen anything like it.   It is all very neat.  I don’t know if it results from a plan or is just self organizing and auto correlated.   Both things must be at work. I thought re alternative histories.  What if WWI had not sapped the power of the British and they had held onto their empire for a longer time.    Given the general trends, it probably would have developed into something more integrated and you may well have others from the empire making their way up the social and political latter.   It happened in the Roman Empire, as full citizenship was extended until it encompassed the entire empire, so much so that people from the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor, speaking Greek still called themselves Roman a thousand years after the German barbarians kicked out the last emperor in Rome itself.

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

December 16, 2008

Trails Around a Featureless Camp in a Featureless Desert

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

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

stacked cans in Doha, Qatar

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

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

Below is my room.

John Matel quarters in Qatar

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

December 15, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 13, 2008

Out of Town…

I am traveling outside the U.S. and not in a position to write or post on the blog.  I will not be posting again until o/a December 20.  Please come back then.

December 09, 2008

Flying to Doha

I am at home today getting ready to go to Doha tonight, where I will meet colleagues to work on our strategy paper.  I am unenthusiastic about the journey.    It is something like 16 hours on Qatar Airlines in an economy class middle seat.  It is officially a United flight, so I hoped that I could use my United miles to upgrade, but this is evidently not possible with a code share like this.

Airport in Washington

I don’t have many complaints about flying and I think that all that gnashing of teeth about passengers’ bills of rights is exaggerated.   Travel sucks by its very nature.  You just have to get used to it.  Most of us (me too) are unwilling to pay extra for business class seats, so we get stuck in the cattle car class.    In other words, we get what we pay for.    It will be an ordeal. 

Many people think diplomats travel first class. No, our government is not that generous. We fly economy unless we upgrade ourselves.  They used to have a rule that we could fly business class if we had to be on the plane for more than fourteen hours.  No more, except if you can claim that you have to go to work immediately on landing or you can assert a credible disability.   Being too tall to fit comfortably in the seats doesn’t qualify.   

I sat next to a fat guy on my last trip home.  He wanted to put up the arm rest so that he could flow into my seat too.   He complained about the injustice of air travel when I told him no.    Being fat is increasingly being classified as a disability.   A Canadian court has ruled that airlines have to give a free extra seat to the will-power challenged among us.   By that logic, they should have to give more leg room to anybody over 5’10” tall, maybe extra luggage space to those who just have to bring along more stuff than they can use.   Maybe a passenger bill of rights would handle all these permutations and produce a kind of Malthusian solution.  If we do it completely, it will drive the price of flying so high that almost nobody will be able to afford to fly anyway and it will be pleasant for the survivors. 

I don’t think Doha will be much fun.  We have to stay in the camp the whole time.   They say that there is a running trail around the camp that is around 3.5 miles.  The nice thing re Al Asad was that the base was big.   There was not much variety, but it spread over twenty-two square mile and I had more space than I could run over.   3.5 miles is actually enough for most of my runs these days, but the idea that there is no more bothers me.  I like to know I could go farther if the sprit moved me.   I can take the limited horizons for two weeks.    I hear that they have a pool in Doha.   It is like a holiday camp.   That is the way I am taking it.   The weather should be nice this time of year. 

December 08, 2008

Selling Them the Rope

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

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

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

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

Perception is reality.

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

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

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

December 06, 2008

Hard Times & Rich A-Holes

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

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

Pentagon Mall

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

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

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

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

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

Below – Rowing practice outside GWU in Washington.

Rowing practice at GWU in Dec 2008

I recently read a biography of Dean Acheson.   He traveled in some rich and privileged circles and the book gave me some insights.   In those days, students at the best universities lived in relative simplicity.    The established rich to some extent hid their wealth and played down their consumption.   There was a general acceptance that young people should experience some sort of Spartan-like upbringing.    The good man taught his son that he was special and had a special responsibility.   If this was often hypocritical, at least is was the acknowledged norm.Hypocrisy, after all, is the tribute vice pays to virtue.   In our lifetimes we have elevated hypocrisy and judging to the level of major taboos.   We want people to be genuine and be themselves.  The problem is that when people only aspire to be themselves, they set their sights way too low.   We should all want to be better than we are and this means that we are not as good today as we hope we will be tomorrow.  It also means that some people are not as good as others. We can make distinctions.  We must make distinctions.

We need to be more judgmental because our non-judgmental ethic has let the a-holes off the hook.  It has allowed crass low-lives to assert that they are just as good – better – than most others because they have cash.  Tom Arnold said of himself and his then wife the attractive Rosanne Barr, ‘‘We’re America’s worst nightmare: white trash with money!”  YES!  That is a nightmare and it has become much more widespread.  Let’s wake up from this nightmare. I expect that when you get more than others you also take on more obligation to act responsibly.  If that is an elitist idea, I embrace the concept.  Since the onset of the current economic crisis, we have heard more talk about thrift and prudence.   It is no longer considered clever to have borrowed and deployed money you couldn’t pay back.   I hope that people will soon come to look down on and judge negatively huge displays of wealth and so devalue them.  In hard times people should be ashamed to parade their good fortune.  There are better things to do with your money than buy bling and attend gatherings of the rich, famous and beautiful.  I have no illusions that such things will go away, but I would be content to have it less in our faces. 

December 05, 2008

PTSD, Iraq & the Rime of the Ancient Mariner

ancient mariner

Most of the time when the shooting start, State Department evacuats Embassies and gets its people out of harm’s way.  We were sent to Iraq in the opposite direction with the risks well-known and acknowledged.   This represents a big change that State is still trying to understand.   They are trying to find out more about how such an assignment affects the people involved, so the high stress out briefing I went to today at FSI has a double purpose: to help us reintegrate and to get some ideas on what happened to us over there.

They told us that employees often have more trouble coming home than they did going over.   Life is the war zone is exciting or at least active.   You feel like you are doing something special and that you are a big deal.  At home, you are just an ordinary guy.   You must also reintegrate the people you love.  Things have changed.    Experts identify a whole range of situations ranging from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to more mild forms of just feeling a little strange.    PTSD, BTW, is not rare even among people who have not been to war zones.  We were told that 5% of men and 10% of women NOT deployed in overtly traumatic conditions will still suffer from the symptoms. 

I was lucky.  I experienced few traumatic events and I think I have reintegrated fairly well.   I do feel some of the things they mention in the course.   I have a little trouble focusing and I lose track of the things I am doing more than I remember doing before.    But I think that is also the simple result of the ordinary changes I am going through.   I am still waiting for some of my clearances; I still don’t have my remote access and I am still not settled into my new job.  More precisely, I am kind of between jobs since I have the CENTCOM assessment taking most of my time when I am trying to check into my new job.   I will spend the next couple of weeks in Doha, which postpones the real start of my new job.   Anyway, whenever compare the first weeks of a new job to the last weeks of a past successful one, it will inevitably seem more confused and chaotic. Presumably you get better at your job so the end is better organized than the start.

An experience like Iraq reveals (if not builds) character. We all agreed that some people should not be allowed to come to Iraq and that our eagerness to get willing people at the posts lets some of them through the filter.   Some people are not emotionally robust enough for the stress and many are not physically fit enough.  You don’t have to be Arnold Swartzenegger, but you do have to wear body armor, carry your own gear, and jump out of helicopters & into MRAPS.  You also have to be able to take the temperatures and the pounding that comes from ordinary life and travel in Iraq.

The experts say that people returning from posts such as Iraq are sometimes crabbier, less engaged and they think life is less colorful or interesting.   This passes in normal cases.   I also don’t think this is a problem for me (although maybe I don’t notice my crabbiness.)    My time in Iraq made me appreciate more the things I had here in America.  I had a network of support in the family and I did a few things right, w/o even planning it.   My forestry interest tied me to something long term and rooted (literally) and the blogging was an excellent outlet.   The experts say that telling your story helps calm and put your mind straight.  I guess it is like the old man in the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” who periodically feels the need to share (inflict) his experience with somebody else.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

As a career FSO, I have come home several times.   I was happy to get out of Iraq.  I loved the job and worked with great people on an important job.  I regret leaving them and the sense of duty, but Iraq as a place holds no attraction for me.  Forget the war.  I like living trees and verdant hills.  I just don’t like barren deserts and I don’t like that extreme heat.  I felt no sadness leaving Iraq.  I really liked Norway and Poland and was sad to leave those places.  The hardest homecoming for me and the family was when we left Krakow.   That was an important job too AND I felt at home in Poland.   Beyond that, I came back to a job (in the ops center) that I didn’t like and beyond all those things, the family had some adjustment issues at the same time.   Even I could tell that I was crabby, troubled and troublesome back then.  I do agree with the general proposition that coming back is often harder than going over, probably because you think it should just be a piece of cake.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

(Maybe those who read Coleridge don’t really need the course.  He seems to have figured it out and expressed it better.)

December 04, 2008

Beech Woods & Humid Forests

In Wisconsin, beech trees are native only within the fog distance of Lake Michigan, so you find them in Grant Park along the lake but not a couple miles inland.   They are common in the Middle Atlantic States and in Central Europe.  It is hard to tell the European beech from the American.  The European comes in more horticultural varieties, so if you see one at the nursery it is probably a European beech.

john Matel in the beech wood

Beech trees are shade tolerant.  They show up only near the end of natural succession and you find them in old well-established sites with rich and well developed soils.    When you see lots of beech trees, you know that the place has not been disturbed very much for a long time.   I am very fond of the beech trees along the stream beds.    This is my hardwood legacy forest.  You can see from the picture below that the young trees are beech.  They are the ones with the brown leaves. This is a good time to see them.  They stand out, since they characteristically keep their dead leaves until pushed off by the new ones in spring.   

Chrissy Pond beech forest 

Nobody will cut this forest as long as I am alive.  Right now we have some big beech trees, along with oaks, red maples, tulip poplars & ash.  In a generation the beech will be more dominant.  The big tulip trees will start die out.  The little pines you see in the picture above are volunteers.  They need to grow in the sun and none of them will reach maturity. The oaks will not regenerate in the shady forest but they live for centuries and will be around for a long time yet.   Beech and oak are both mast producers and provide good wildlife food.   The understory already has a lot of holly.  More will fill in.  

Chrissy Forest beech forest from road

I am not leaving this forest completely alone.  When this land was part of somebody’s farm, they high graded (i.e. took out the biggest trees and left the little ones).    This degraded the quality of the stock and there are some old but small trees that are just sucking up resources.   Other trees were damaged by ice storms past.   I am cutting out the runts and the damaged trees to make more room for the robust young ones.    A well managed forest just looks untouched.

Chrissy pond beech forest in springtime

Above is spring of this year.

December 03, 2008

Arbitrary Coherence

I am reading “Predictably Irrational” about how we often make decisions not based on rational criteria w/o knowing it.   I have been interested the effects of irrational choices and random chance in decision making for many years.  If you recognize your bias and sources of uncertainty, you can make better decisions.   The down side of recognizing these limitations is … recognizing these limitations.   Everybody likes to believe they are rational and responsible.  It is also very hard to come to grips with the uncertainly inherent in all decisions.   

Uncertainty is part of ALL decisions.   If everything is cut and dry certain, there is no need for a decision.   You can just go with an ordinary rule of thumb or habit.  I don’t really decide to put on my seatbelt or brush my teeth in the morning.  I just do it.   You don’t want to make complicated decisions about every little event.  It would drive you crazy. But the habits and routines that easy life also can be traps.

Theory in decision making is starting to catch up with what many persuaders and decision makers have known intuitively for years.   Take the marketing example when a store offers good-better-best in a product line.    Markets know that given three choices, most people are likely to choose the middle one unless they have a strong prior preference. Clever marketers have the highest margin on the middle one.But how does this work?

It has to do with setting an anchor.   All values are really arbitrary. What you pay for a product is what you and others are willing to pay.  There is no “real” value.   How do you know what to pay?  By comparison.   But that comparison doesn’t need to be rational.   When you go out to buy something, you often don’t know what it is “worth.”   If the merchant can fix a price of say $100 in your mind, when he offers $100-10 or $90 you think it is a good deal.   If you had been fixed on $80 it would be a bad deal.  That is why the three choices work.  Few people buy the cheap one and almost nobody buys the most expensive.  The comparison makes you think the middle one has the reasonable price.  

We do that all the time with everything. We base our estimates on relative prices and we are arbitarily consistent among them. It is a good idea sometimes to ask yourself what it is you really want and make decisions based on them.  This is easier said than done.   Effective people do it better than the success-challenged, but nobody is as rational as he thinks. A lot of life is habit and random chance.  But if you recognize what you cannot control, you can have better control over the other things. If you recognize the role of chance, you can arrange your affairs in to take advantage of the probabilities. They say luck is where preparation meets opportunity.   

I recently finished “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell.   He wrote “the Tipping Point,” which was a very good book and “Blink,” not so much.  I didn’t find much new in the book, but Gladwell puts it together well and tells good stories.     Gladwell, IMO, takes the analysis a bit too far.  It is true that there are more people who COULD do particular jobs than CAN do them.   This is the story of life.   More things always can happen than do happen.     No doubt the real winners have lots of advantages and luck.   Very often, however, you can find these only in retrospect.   There is dynamic where successful people both take advantage of opportunities and create them.     The other problem with outliers is general is the small numbers lead to deceptive conclusions.    It stands to reason the very few or the one at the very top required lots of talent, advantages and a string of extraordinarily good luck.   These guys are by their nature unrepresentative.    There is often no useful lesson to be learned. 

I read the biography of Eisenhower a while back.  He was a moderately successful officer, but expected to retire as a colonel at best.  Then the war came.   Eisenhower and many of his classmates rose to high levels in the army.  Had they been born five years later or five years earlier few of them would have been so successful and none of them would have reached the five star ranks.    You cannot really use that information and it has no predictive value.    Nobody could plan Eisenhower’s career.   It would be more useful to study the moderately successful over a longer period.   Those are the guys who would be in a position to jump ahead IF the opportunity came.

None of us is around long enough to get what we “deserve.”  In the FS, my guess is that if you had a career spanning 200 years, you would probably end up where you belong, as random chance variations might even out.  I think the variation tends to go mostly in one direction, however.   I know some ambassadors who could have been unsuccessful if not for a single lucky break that made other breaks possible, accreting small advantages until they became big ones.     On the other hand, there on people on whom lucky breaks are wasted. 

Gladwell says that success depends on practice (he says it requires around 10,000 hours) and talks about the lucky breaks that gave various top   performers the opportunity.   This is probably true, but not everybody is willing or able to put in those long hours.  Hard work matters too.

December 02, 2008

Stability Operations

I got stuck in back of an old fashioned at-grade crossing on the road to Quantico.  This is not something you see too much anymore.    I didn’t like the wait, but there is something cool about watching the freight train roll by.   I watched dozens of truck trailers go by loaded on flat cars, as well as the usual box cars and containers.   Rail is a more efficient way to move freight.   It saves energy and gets lots of trucks off the road.

railroad at Quantico

I went down there again to take part in a stability workshop to help the next group of Marines prepare for their time in Anbar.   I told them what I could, but my Anbar is not the Anbar they will face.   There will also be a lot fewer Marines.  We have been drawing down over the past year and will continue to do this, so one of the big questions was what will happen when the Marines are gone or mostly gone.   I don’t know how much of my experience on the ePRT will transfer in this specific situation, but I shared what I could. 

We were successful over the past year.   I think the key to success was the close cooperation between the Marines and our ePRT members.   I couldn’t explain formal reasons for that.  I think a lot  of it was the serendipity of personalities that meshed well.   I also had the advantage of having an office across from the Colonel on the command deck.  We had plenty of opportunities to run into each other and talk informally.   We agreed that ePRT members must be full members of the team.  That meany going out with the Marines and among the Iraqis.   We are not fighters and we should not take unnecessary chances, but it is our job too to be out there, not hunkered down behind the wire.   

We, Marines & ePRT members, also developed good relations with the Iraqis because we got there at the right time and I think we genuinely got to like at empathize with them.   Most at least.  I told the group that I don’t know how to make that happen, but some attitudes help.

Sometimes perception is reality.   When ePRT civilians were seen in talking to people in marketplaces or on the streets, it gave the Iraqis a feeling that things were getting safer.    Sometimes just being there is the accomplishment.   If you hang around long enough and behave well, people just get used to you.   There is no magic, just persistence.

Iraqis in general are not hostile to us, but it is a hard situation when foreign troops are hanging around your country.   We need to show respect for the Iraqis and demand respect from them.  Failure on either side of this equation is a mistake.   We have to recognize that Iraq was once better than it is today.  That was a long time ago, but people appreciate it if you recall it to put the current situation in context.  It also gives hope for the future.   Eye contact is very important.  A simple think like taking off your sun glasses goes a long way.    I shared these and other little insights.   None of them is very profound, but taken together they form a decent tool set.

Partnership is the key: partnership of the ePRT with the Marines and partnership with the Iraqis.  Nobody accomplishes anything alone.    If you work with others in this kind of way, you usually don’t get exactly what you planned, but what you get is usually better.    Anyway, that’s the gist.

Follow this link for more details.

One more thing, somebody used an analogy of taking Lipitor to describe a quick fix solution, i.e. somebody takes Lipitor for cholesterol w/o addressing the root causes.   I disagree with the analogy.  I started taking Lipitor a few years ago and it did a good job of lowering my cholesterol.   I think of it as a ham sandwich surcharge.  For pennies a day, I get to eat many of those foods I like.  I see it as a sustainable solution.     I requested a different analogy.   

December 01, 2008


We couldn’t hunt because we didn’t have licenses.  Technically, we could have hunted on our own land, but we weren’t really ready anyway.  I am a terrible shot. We just went along instead with the other hunters.   Technically, we couldn’t even go along with anybody toting a gun except that the guy we went with was a “disabled hunter.”  Ostensibly, we were there to help him.  If he shot a deer we would carry it out of the woods to the truck.   No deer jumped by, so our hunter didn’t get one, but we had a good talk.

Below is Alex at the new farm.

Alex at the truck at the new farm

There are several types of deer hunting in Virginia with different weapons and different practices.   Bow hunting is mostly a solitary pursuit.   The hunter usually waits in a tree stand until the deer comes by.  You get one shot and there is not much range, so bow hunting requires a lot of patience and preparation.  The hunt is the culmination of a year-long study of the deer ecology and habits.   Similar preparation is necessary for black powder.  In both these cases, the older technologies require more effort and understanding.  Those who hunt with these tools usually just like being in the woods more than hunting.

Below are my 13-year-old loblolly pines along with Alex to show the point of comparison.

13 year old loblolly pines with Alex as comparison

The guy we went with knew the woods and the animals very well.  He had been stalking these woods as fields for more than a half century and his family has been doing it for centuries.  As a boy, he told us, his family had to hunt to put food on the table.  Years ago, deer were not as common as they are today, so they had to know the land better back then.  He showed us how the bucks paw up the along a path.  They lay scent there to attract does and scare off other bucks. Solitary hunters can call the bucks.  Very often the deer are nearby, but out of sight.  If you imitate the buck snort, the dominant local buck comes running to drive off his rival.  This is a fatal mistake.  But we didn’t try to lure any bucks; we were not doing that kind of hunting.

We did a third kind of hunting common in the south.  They send hunting dogs into the woods.  The dogs chase the deer out to where hunters are waiting at strategic points along the roads and paths.   We heard the hounds howling, but neither dogs nor deer came our way.  We heard the shots from other hunters.  One got a nine point buck in the first minutes of the hunt.   Our guide explained to us how the dogs communicated with each other.  One kind of howl mean “I’m lost,” he said.  The other dogs respond and the lost dog rejoins the group.  The dogs follow the deer by scent, not sight until they are right close, so on a windy day the dogs are actually following some yards to the side of the deer. 

Some hunters just like to train the dogs and some of the dog handlers don’t even participate in the actual hunt.  They just take care of the dogs.  I see them running the dogs during the summer.  I don’t know for sure, but the dogs seem to be having a great time too.  I suppose running freely and jumping is what dogs do in their dreams. Two summers ago when I was working on the farm I heard some plantive shouts.  I thought someone had been hurt and went to investigate.  I met a guy in the brambles looking for his lost dog.   The dogs almost always can find their way home.  Besides, the dogs usually have tracking devices on their collars, but the dog lovers worry nevertheless.  The dog wasn’t so dumb.  He had already found his way back to the truck and was waiting there.

Below – hunting dogs waiting for transport.

Hunting dogs

The hunting is mostly a social event.   About thirty guys take part.    My main reason to go down to the forest was to talk with the Reedy Creek Hunt Club re buying about five acres of my land.  They want it for a clubhouse.   I am willing to sell it to them.   I worry a little re that my new forest because it is along the electrical lines easement, which makes it easily accessible.  The hunters’ presence near my trees will help protect them from dumping or vandalism.    

Since Alex and I were down there anyway, we stopped off at our other forest too, where ran into members of the McAden Hunt Club at the gate.  They are the hunt club that uses and takes care of our land on SR 623.  They were in a good mood because one of the kids got a nice looking deer.   Successful hunts are more likely these days, since there has been such a population explosion among the deer.  It was deer day all over Brunswick County.  We heard the dogs and saw the guys with the bright orange hats at the gas stations and convenience stores.  The Second Amendment is a big deal in Southern Virginia.

Many of the hunt club members are farmers and for them hunting is almost a necessity.  They told us re the damage the large deer numbers can do.   They can eat up whole fields of beans.   They also eat peanuts.  I never would have guessed.  They cannot really eat enough of the peanuts to make a difference, but when they make the harvest difficult when they paw up the plants.

Changing the subject a little, I have a small problem with one of my streams.  It is draining under the road, but no longer going through the culvert pipe.  I cannot see exactly where it sinks in, but it come out underneath the rocks on the other side.    I suppose a sink hole will develop.  There must have been a truly bodacious storm in the last couple of weeks.   There were sticks and debris five feet above the usual water level and east bank was severely undercut.   I wouldn’t usually care much, but my only surviving bald cypress is on top of the bank, so Alex and I shored it up with some rip-rap and sticks.    I don’t know what to do about that potential sink hole.   Maybe it will be self limiting as the dirt falls into it.  I built up some rocks on the far side to avoid erosion, although it has not been a problem so far and the water is coming out clear and clean.  One of the hunters told me that many years ago his had put down a bed of broken concrete to stabilize the road so they could drive across.  My guess is that the water if flowing through that. 

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