January 2009

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January 31, 2009

Another Victory in Iraq

Iraqi shop owners in Baghdadi.  We talked to them about ordinary problems.

See also Victory in Iraq

A purple finger in the terrorist eye.

Elections went well in Iraq.   It looks like turnout was high. The Sunnis and Shia voted in large numbers.   The day was peaceful.   Iraq is the most democratic country in the Arab world today, thanks to the courage of the Iraqi people and the strength & perseverance of America and our allies. We didn’t give up; we outlasted them.  Saddam didn’t go quietly into that good night, but he is gone.  The terrorists did not give up easily, but they were defeated.

When I volunteered to go to Iraq things were not so good. Most of the experts predicted defeat for us, chaos for Iraq and despair for the people of the Middle East. They were wrong.  

Town hall meeting in Hit, Iraq in May 2008

How far we have come!   

I know the pseudo intellections will solemnly ask “what does victory mean?”   I am kind of a simple guy, so let me explain it in simple terms I can understand.  It seems to me that overthrowing one of the world’s worst tyrants, helping create a democracy where none existed before, defeating an extremist terrorist group in the heart of the Middle East on a battlefield of THEIR choosing, sowing confusion among our enemies and just doing what they (the defeatists around the world and the terrorists themselves) said couldn’t be done – this is victory.  John Matel with Iraqi patrons at a local restaurant in Hadithah, Iraq

Emerson said that people’s view of the world is a confession of their characters. Some people can never be happy.  If their team wins in the Superbowl tomorrow, they will just complain that it may be harder next year.  It is their character flaw, their misfortune and none of my own.  I pity them, but I cannot persuade them and I don’t need to let them pull me down.  Today is a good day for democracy, peace and good people around the world. Despots and dictators are feeling less secure.  Al Qaida and their retrograde buddies are crying in their caves. That doesn’t mean that problems have disappeared.  That doesn’t mean that we have achieved an ultimate utopia, but let’s celebrate this big step in the right directions; let’s celebrate a victory. US. Marine shirts on sale in Iraqi shop in Hit

The Iraqi people have stuck their purple fingers in the eyes of the terrorists.  They are riding down to road to democracy with all its joys and challenges.   Hurray for free Iraq.  I congratulate all the brave Iraqis I met during my time. You did good guys and it was a privilege to be among you.

On the left are USMC shirts on sale in Iraqi shops.  The US Marines were popular in Anbar by the summer of 2008 because they protected the people.  I saw these in the marketplace in Hit. You would not have seen this picture in the mainstream media.  Of course, with only a couple of exceptions, they were not with us walking around in the markets so they didn’t see this stuff.


Follow this link to earlier stories and pictures on Iraq.

January 30, 2009

Privacy Ancient & Modern

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

Farragut Square in Washington on January 29, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC on January 30, 2009

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

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

January 29, 2009

Brazilian Biofuels

Below is Rio.  Chrissy & I went there in August, which was winter there.  It doesn’t get cold and the water was pleasantly cool.  It was fun playing in the waves, but I almost got sucked out by a rip tide.  I tried to swim in but found myself farther and farther from land.  Then I remembered to swim parallel to shore.  Rip tides are like rivers; they are long but usually not wide.  We didn’t see much of Brazil.  This was our first post and since we were so poor paying off student loans, setting up household etc we only went where the job sent us.  Fortunately, travel was a part of my job.  Brazil is a beautiful and diverse country.

Rio de Janiero beach in 1985

I was in Brazil when the sugar cane alcohol fuel program was just a few years old.   Cities like Rio, Sao Paulo or Porto Alegre sort of smelled like a tavern, not a surprise when the cars are essentially running on rum. I was intrigued by the idea of turning sugarcane into fuel, but I admit that I wasn’t very impressed with the application back in 1985/6.   Porto Alegre has a climate like Savannah, Georgia.   It rarely got very cold, but it was cold enough to gum up the engines that ran on alcohol. But the Brazilians have overcome these challenges and their thirty-year experiment with alternative fuels seems to have succeeded. They have gone from importing 70%+ of their fuel for their cars to less around 10%, but there is more to the story.  I went over to AEI to hear Energy Lessons from Brazil to get the update.

Below is Porto Alegre from the window of our apartment there.  Rainbows like that were common.

Porto Alegre rainbow 1985

The speaker explained that the impressive figures were a little deceptive.   The Brazilian success came not only from alternative fuels, but also from a lot of old fashioned oil that they discovered offshore.  And that was the first lesson from Brazil – you have to do all of the above when it comes to energy. 

Brazil has a big advantage in biofuels because the climate is great for growing sugarcane and sugarcane is great for making biofuel.  Making fuel from sugarcane is around 8 times more efficient than from corn.  In fact, corn probably uses as much or more energy to make a gallon of fuel as it yields, so corn ethanol is more just an energy carrier than source.  Beyond that, sugarcane is relatively unmanipulated, i.e. there has been little crop improvement done on cane, so there more scope for easy improvement than there is in corn, which has long been the subject of selection. 

Below is Brasilia.  The picture is within the city.  It was not carved out the jungle, as the myth says.  Brasilia was mowed out of the grass.  The climate is nice, with a dry season when it never rains and a wet season when it rains every day.  I like the rainy season better because it gets very green. There was a lot of space in 1985.  I suppose it has grown.

Brasilia in 1985

Even with all this, however, low oil prices in the 1990s almost killed the sugarcane experiment.  Ethanol from sugarcane is competitive with gas when oil is around $50 a barrel.   When oil gets too cheap, it drives out the alternatives, as I have written before.

Alternatives to oil are good for both political and economic reasons.   Most of the world’s easily exportable oil is under or near unstable countries often in places where democracy is not viewed with particular enthusiasm.   Less dependence on these sorts of places is good.  In the Brazilian case (which probably in applicable generally) having the alternative to oil made the economy more stable.  More than 90% of the cars sold in Brazil are flex fuel, which means drivers can choose the cheaper fuel, which moderates price changes.  Besides that, the alternative fuel employs people within the country, keeping transfers at home instead of bleeding money to various petrostates. 

Below is Gramado, north of Porto Alegre.  Southern Brazil had a lot of immigrants from Germany and N. Italy and had a very European feel, except for the exotic trees.      

Gramado in Rio Grande do Sul Brazil in 1985   We can learn from what the Brazilians pioneered.  Some of the technologies and techniques can be applied and adapted to American realities.   We need to find a better feedstock than corn for our biofuels, however.  I hold out hope for cellulostic ethanol, but nobody can predict the future.  Ten years ago, the Brazilian ethanol experiment was floundering; today it is flourishing.  In an uncertain world, you have to try all of the above with a wide portfolio of solutions … and be ready to be flexible when some of your favorites don’t work.  

P.S. In the Q&A somebody got up and self righteously asked why America with around 5% of the world population should consume 25% of the world’s energy.  Somebody always “asks” this question, but it is a silly question and the premise is wrong.   Energy consumption is related to output. The U.S. produces around 25% of the world’s output and it consumes a commensurate amount of energy.   We need to be more efficient in our use of energy, but we cannot get down to using the same % of energy as our population unless our economy collapses (and probably brings the world down with us) or others in the world catch up. 

Energy intensity

They call that energy intensity or energy efficiency.  Our energy intensity has been improving for the last 40 years, but our economy is growing even faster.   

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January 28, 2009

Slothful & Indifferent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 27, 2009

A Little Snow in Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 26, 2009


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

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

Dead trees on C St SW killed by vandalism

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

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

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

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

January 25, 2009

Happy Birthday Espen

Below is Frogner Park in Norway, where Espen was born.

Picture of Frogner Park in Norway taken by Samuli Lintula

Today is Espen’s birthday. The youngest of the kids is now eighteen. I remember the day he was born eighteen years ago.   Espen was born in Baerum Sykehus near Oslo. It snowed the day before he was born.  The snow mostly stays on the ground in Norway between November and March, but I remember looking out the hospital window at the fresh coat of white.  

Espen in Arizona 2003

Espen was named after a little Norwegian boy who we hardly knew.   It was one of Mariza’s classmates at the preschool and evidently a brat.    Mariza would come home complaining about this Espen.   “Espen slo pa mai.” (Espen hit me) Espen kastet jord pa mai.” (Espen threw dirt on me.)   My apologies to any Norwegian readers for the mistakes I made in spelling and grammar.   We liked the name.    All of the kids names are associated with countries.  Mariza was born in Brazil, so she has a Brazilian name.   We spelled it with a z instead of an s so that Americans would pronounce it closer to the Portuguese and not call her Marissa.  Alex’s  name was chosen when I expected to go to the Soviet Union.  Espen is actually a Norwegian name with a Danish origin.

The third kid in the family gets the advantage of having the first two break in the parents, so Espen developed fast.   He really loved a kind of bouncing swing that hung from the door frame.   I taught him to swim at the Kolsas pool before he could walk.   Like all kids, he could climb before he could walk, but he was especially good at it.   Our house in Norway had three floor, so he could make us nervous on several levels.

Espen & Alex at canyon

Espen only spent a year and a half in Norway, so he doesn’t remember it, but Norway was a great place for little kids.   It is safe & clean and there are lots of parks.  I am sure it made an impression on him, although the detail is forgotten.   

We moved to Silver Spring, Maryland for Polish training when Espen was about 1 ½ years old, so his first language was American English.   We got a house with a big yard and a fence.   Espen learned to climb over the fence right away. We moved to Krakow about a year later.

Espen and Alex in Warsaw 2002

Espen adjusted well to Krakow and went to a Polish pre-school up the street.   He called it “two cats” because the woman who ran the school had two cats.  e learned Polish w/o knowing what he was doing and I got a great insight into language learning from him.   I heard him speaking to the cleaning woman in Polish, but he denied being able to speak the language when I asked him about it.   He told me that he didn’t speak Polish.  “Those are just the words I have to use with her,” he explained.  

We bought a house in Virginia after we came back from Poland in 1997.  Espen went to Strevewood Grade School.  Espen and Alex had a lot of friends during our three years there.   Espen played on the Fairfax County little kids’ league. His team was called the little wizards and they were good.

We moved back to Poland in 2000, this time to Warsaw.   Espen and the other kids attended the American School in Warsaw and they were lucky enough to get a brand new school building.   The American School in Warsaw was a very posh place.  It is hard for working diplomats to have kids in this sort of school, because many of their local classmates are fabulously rich.  The government pays for our kids but those local guys who can afford the tuition themselves are very well off.    Espen went to one birthday party where they drove around in little Mercedes go-karts and got helicopter rides.   He wondered why his birthday parties were so pedestrian.   The locals think that all American diplomats are rich, but we just can’t play in their world.   

Below is our home in New Hampshire.

Century Village in Londonderry, NH spring 2004

We came back to the U.S. in 2003, but lived up in New Hampshire, as I got the job as State Department Fellow at Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy.   Espen attended the Middle School in Londonderry, NH.   It was hard for the kids.   Many of the families have been established there for generations.   It is hard for newcomers, especially since we knew we would be there only for a year. 

We moved back to Virginia in 2004, same place where we lived before.  Espen went to Kilmer Middle School and then George C Marshall HS.  He still had some friends here and made new ones.  As I write this, I hear them all downstairs talking.  Parents can’t compete with friends at that age.  Virginia is home now.

These are my brief thoughts about my son on his birthday. Of course, there is a lot more than I am writing.  Suffice to say, I am thinking about the last eighteen years.  I miss the baby and the child, and I love and I am proud of the young man he has become.  

January 24, 2009

Financial Diversity, Risk, Profit & Loss

Reflections on a riverbank in forest out side Frankfurt in Germany taken on September 28, 2009

A guy on the radio today was complaining that he lost all his money invested with Burnie Madoff.  He made his money with many years of hard work in the NY garment industry and Madoff took it all, according to the report  I know we are all supposed to feel sympathy or even outrage.   He was the victim of a crook you could understand how he lost SOME of his money. But this guy claimed to have a couple million dollars invested, all of it with Madoff.   When you money like that, you have the capacity to diversity.   If you diversify you don’t lose ALL your money.  Although what the newly poor old guy describes might be a personal tragedy for him and from his point of view, it is not a random outcome and it was not beyond his control.   

You have to ask yourself why somebody might have so much invested in one place, why they insisted on putting all their eggs into one basket.   The answer is never flattering.    The least offensive is that the basket keeper is just ignorant.   More likely are elements of sloth, greed & a flexible definition of honesty. 

This is certainly not the first time people have been caught up in this sort of scheme and it won’t be the last.   Many financial histories begin with the South Sea Bubble or the Dutch tulip mania, which was the first recorded speculative bubble way back in 1637.  The patterns are clear.   Somebody offers the prospect of unusually high returns with minimal risk doing something that is difficult to understand.   They often are also exclusive and have the slight odor of something skating near the edge of the regulations.   That is ostensibly why they can make the big bucks.  Ironically, they also sell the schemes by implying that the investment is safe because it will be protected by regulators.  The regulations provide a kind of cover that encourages credulous investors to take greater risk.  They  think they are clever, cleverer than the average people with their pedestrian investments. 

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.   There is nothing wrong with making risky investments.   Risk is how you make high returns, but you need to understand what risk means.   Risk means that you are trading a greater chance of losing part or all your investment in return for the chance of making more money.    You can manage risk by diversifying your investments.   A good number of investments that are individually very risky can be low risk when they are put together.   You might lose all your money in one investment, but you gain enough on others to make up for it. Nobody can predict the future, so the only way to protect yourself is to spread your assets.   

You can still lose big money, as almost everybody has in the recent hard times, but you won’t get wiped out.  You get problems when you try to identify the ONE winning thing. Never do that. This is Investment 101.

If you went back in time before the crashes and told investors in Madoff/Enron/Keating/etc that they should be getting money out of these things and spreading their risk, most would have turned you down.   They were making the big bucks and wanted to keep on making them. How stupid would you have to be to take money out of such winning investments? 

A couple years ago, I watched a program about a bunch of the victims of Charles Keating.  I saw one angry old man who actually tried to spit on Keating. I think it was the same guy who sat with his son for an interview. His son was a financial planner and he asked why his father didn’t ask for advice before sinking all his savings into this investment.  The old man answered honestly, “Because I knew you would tell me not to do it.” He wanted the returns and figured he could get it risk free.  A fool and his money …

Anyone who promises very high returns w/o risk, is lying and/or doing something dishonest and anybody who still chooses to invest is stupid or dishonest or both.   With the freedom to choose comes the responsibly to choose responsibly.  

It is too bad that the old guy on NPR Radio will have to find a job at Wal-Mart or Seven-Eleven, but according to what he said himself, he gradually liquated all his other investments so that all his money was left with Madoff.  You don’t do that even when investing with someone who is perfectly honest because shit happens.  I guess some people have to learn that for themselves and something we have to learn as a society every couple of years.

January 23, 2009

Cranes of the Southwest

Cranes of the Southwest

Crane on the frozen Anacostia January 21, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 22, 2009

Simple, Maybe not Easy

People make the right choices when they have the right incentives and they can do what they say they cannot.   According to articles I read, Americans drove 112 billion FEWER miles over the past thirteen months.  This is way higher than the previous biggest drop of 49.9 billion miles in the 1970s.  The drops in driving are across the U.S., with Rhode Island, Utah and Vermont the top three. Wide open Utah has little in common with compact Rhode Island. The drop is rural and urban.

Below is a picture I took in Germany.  English is not their native language, but I don’t think this is coincidence.

Car in Frankfurt

Gas consumption drops when the price rises.  All the rules, CAFÉ standards and exhortations are mostly just feel good palliatives, analogous to all those fad diets beloved by fat people and largely ineffective.  Solutions are simple, just not easy. Higher gas prices lead to less driving.Traffic and parking problems help in the long run. People make logical decisions. When driving in cheap and easy, they drive more.  When conditions change, they do too. Bad economic conditions are evidently extending the demand drop for gasoline. Simple, but not easy – there is no painless way to achieve change.  

And we do need to change. The environmental effects of carbon consumption are bad enough, but we also have the geopolitical considerations. Most of the easily exported oil is under or near countries that are unstable or run by despots and tyrants.    

Anyway, the continuing drop in driving and related drop in oil consumption is a bit of good news, but we have been in this place before.  This time we should do the right thing and get the incentives right.  The time to raise taxes on oil is when prices are low.  I have written about these things many times before.  When gas prices were high, I wrote that they would drop again and that we should raise taxes on oil when they did. The time is now.

January 20, 2009

Oral History & Flawed Understanding

The good news is that cable television has resulted in a proliferation of good programs about science, history and politics.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, lots of moving pictures must be worth millions of words, but the pictures may be out of context and if you count up the total number of actual words in an hour on History Channel, you could probably fill only a couple of pages. (Re pictures – I watched “the Real Abraham Lincoln.”  It featured a reenactment of the young Abe.  But the guy has a beard.  Lincoln didn’t grow the beard until 1860.) TV spends a lot of time repeating scenes of collapsing buildings, burning fires or horsemen galloping, w/o explaining the significance.    The shallowness of the medium is the bad news.

Cobras at ancient Egyptian temple taken January 2008

This extends beyond the series of gripping but unenlightening images.    I also notice a general decline in rigor.  Maybe it is a general phenomenon, but you notice it clearly on TV.   Instead of trying to evaluate evidence and sources, the programs sort of throw it all out there with equal credibility.   This would be okay with a written source or among scholars, but the television images don’t provide enough background or references for the viewers to evaluate veracity, even assuming most audience members had the background or inclination to do so.

It is bad enough when we have dueling “experts” but it gets worse when many programs seem to put oral histories on par with real ones.   All histories are subject to interpretation and just because something is written down does not mean that it is true.   But oral history must be even more carefully evaluated because it is literally subject to change w/o notice.  

Early Egyptian pyramid that collapsed into a mound

The strength of written sources is that they freeze impressions and the facts at the point of writing.   Facts don’t improve with age.   An earlier recollection is more factual than a later one and a primary account is better than a secondary one.  An investigator can compare a written record against subsequent ones to detect enhancements or omissions.    It makes it harder to change the story.   It is also possible to nail down the assertion, so that you can check them against other evidence.   

Oral histories do not suffer these constraints.  When confronted with disconfirming evidence, an oral history can just change.   The danger to the integrity of the story comes not only from deception, but also from innocent rationalization.   People tend to want to fit their stories into current realities.   They smooth the edges to make them conform to the present needs.    

Peloponesian landscape with olives and grapes take from hill near Mycenae ruins March 2008

This story changing is most often a social process.   Stories change in the telling and retelling and in a short time they come to reflect the aspirations, interests, prejudices & desires of the group more than reality.  Oral history has great value because it tells you a lot about the people telling the story; it tells you less about the actual historical events on which is it ostensibly based.   It has to be handled carefully. 

Of coures all history starts off as oral.  It is the raw material.  Beer starts off as barely and hops, but it requires some processing before you drink it.  The same goes for oral history.  If you take oral history from those who actually experienced an event, you can check facts.   It is helpful to compare stories of individuals who have not communicated with each other much since the events in question.   It gets harder when you get into the second or third generation of the story.     At that point it has probably become myth.  It may be based on the truth but it is not truth.

Path on Acropolis hill in Athens taken March 2008

Myth is usually more interesting and plausible than actual historical events.  Heroes are stronger and braver.  Villains are scarier.   Causes are more just.  Events make more sense and often presage big developments of the future.   They make better narratives precisely because they have been edited and enhanced by the people who have told and retold the stories. 

The compelling nature of oral history and the resulting myths makes them especially dangerous on history television.   They are almost always more interesting and more easily recreated in dramatic reenactments.   It gets worse in our PC world.  Many historical programs these days portray the confrontation between literate and pre-literate societies.    The literate societies have historical records that can be critically evaluated and parsed.   You get the warts and all portraits.   Given the critical nature of this inquiry, we often end up with a mostly warts portrait.  On the other side, we have the myths property altered in light of subsequent events.    

Below are Alex and Chrissy at “America’s Stonehenge” in New Hampshire.  We visited it when we lived nearby in Londonderry.  It is worth seeing but not worth going to see.   The History Channel featured it as a “mystery”.   It is a mystery – a mystery why some clown would pile those rocks, but otherwise it is clearly not ancient.   But a TV show with lots of cool angles and supositions can make it seem so.

America's Stonehenge near Londonderry, NH taken in 2003

Modern historians are understandably frustrated.  They want to write about pre-literate societies and they want to write about conditions of the common people in all past worlds.   Unfortunately, pre-literate people don’t write at all and the common people didn’t write much until recently.    I don’t know a precise number, but I doubt that more than 5% of all the ancient Roman texts still exist, so we start out with a small sample.   None of the authors are representative of their societies, in that most people couldn’t write, so you already have an elite enterprise.   There are no significant female historians from the Roman period and the Romans were unenthusiastic about letting their subject people write critical accounts of their rule.   Beyond all that, most the writers were not interested in the doings of the common people, male or female, Roman or not.  When the sturdy yeomen are featured, it is usually just a didactic example.  Victor Davis Hanson wrote a good book on people working the land, who always made up the vast majority of the population, called “The Other Greeks,” but there just are not many good sources.  

You can learn a lot about physical conditions from archeology, but you still don’t have the narrative.   The stones and bones don’t tell you much about the people’s motivations, imagination or aspiration.   That is unsatisfying.   Imagine if a future archeologist could reconstruct your television set but had no record of any of the programs.  So historians extrapolate and move the historical narrative into the realm of conjecture, as with other forms of oral history telling us as much about the extrapolator than about the subject itself.   All the specialty cable channels (history, discovery, military, science etc) are spreading information wider than ever before.  That is good … I guess.

Particular parts of the programming that I think is very good are some of the “current” history features.   I have seen several good programs on Iraq.   They tell the story and interview the people involved.    My belief is that the U.S. public currently has a very biased view of the events in Iraq and the news media is unlikely to clear it up, since they have largely moved on.   Fortunately, a lot of lessons learned type programs are being made now.     These are essentially primary sources and when historians get around to addressing events in Iraq more dispassionately, I believe these will be the key sources.

January 19, 2009

Hail to the Chief

Below is George Washington on Boston Commons. Washington set the tone for the presidency.  He was the indespensible man, so often talked about but actually so rare in history.

Statue of George Washington on Boston Commons  taken on August 2003

Most Federal employees working in DC don’t have to come in tomorrow, inauguration day.   It would be literally impossible for most of us to get to work anyway.   I don’t know how many people will come in for the inauguration, but it will certainly be enough to clog the Metro.   I thought about going down to try to get a glimpse of the activity, but decided against it.   I would just become part of the crowd problem.  Besides, I figure I will get a better view watching TV.

Below is the stone wall in Fredericksburg.  The battle that took place there in 1862 was bloody, with the Confederates shooting from behind the stone wall.  Nevertheless, two years later, during a terrible civil war, we held our elections on schedule.  Lincoln won a second term.  Lincoln was another indispensible man.  He was remarkable not only for winning the civil war, but for his profound generosity at the end.  Read his Second Inaugural Address.

Stone wall at Fredericksburg

People who know me are aware of my leanings and I don’t talk about politics on this site, but I can voice support for my president.   All Americans wish President Obama success.   I am glad that he seems to be so popular worldwide.  Although I think that anti-Americanism goes beyond our political leaders or our policies, it doesn’t hurt to have a leader who is personally popular. 

I listened to an interview on NPR this afternoon with a guy whose parents were Black Panthers.    He said that he distrusted Martin Luther King when he was a young man because he thought that such peaceful and respectful tactics couldn’t work.    But as he got older, he saw the error of his ways.   Still, he said, he was surprised when Obama won in almost completely white Iowa and he was astounded when he won the presidency of the United States.    If you think back to 1968, it is truly astonishing. 

Below is the old fashioned train in Durango, Colorado.  The genius of our Constitution allowed our republic to expand from sea to sea w/o compromising our democracy.  The railroad and telegraph helped tie the continent together.

Old fashioned steam engine in Durango, Colorado taken in July 2003

It makes me wonder how much better the world could be if some of the violent militants around the world had chosen a more peaceful strategy of change. Some of these generations long armed struggles make no objective sense if you are looking for real results.  Of course, I think the difference may be that King was trying to help his followers become part of the American dream. Non-violent tactics require a fundamental respect for and belief in the humanity of your opponents.  Many international militants have more bloody revolutionary aims and are less loving of their opponents.  They are not really looking for mutual solutions.

Each new president is a new beginning.   That is another astonishing thing.  We have become so accustomed to it that we forget how astonishing it is – 220 years of successful transitions, even during the civil war.   Few governments in world history have that kind of record of success.  The U.S. is considered a young country, but we have the second oldest government in the world and the oldest living constitution.   I expect the best is yet to come.

January 18, 2009

Improving the Species

NPR Talk of the Nation Science Friday had a feature about how hunting and fishing rapidly affect the evolution of the species in question in a negative way, since hunters and fishermen like to take the big fish or animals.    Well bang the drum.  How obvious is that?   In forestry, we see that in high grading/selective cutting, when people cut out only the biggest trees.    The young man did a good job of describing the problem, but the program in general did a bad job of prescribing a solution.

Cave painting of ancient aurochs

Nature is profligate.   That is the basic assumption of evolutionary theory.    Many more individuals are  born than can survive.   Human activities rapidly select for particular characteristics and we have been doing it for a long time.    That is why a miniature poodle doesn’t much look like a wolf or a cow has only passing resemblance to aurochs.  (The last recorded wild auroch, BTW, died in Poland 1627.) 

Game keepers and river keepers have long recognized the problem with taking the biggest and best and leaving the runts to reproduce.   The same goes for forestry.    The way to go about managing for this is to make sure you take out the undesirable traits too, or in greater numbers.  

It requires more work and understanding.  In forestry, for example, the biggest trees are not always the oldest.   You have to harvest the small ones too or maybe even more.    Down on my tree farms, the hunters are members of Quality Deer Management association.   Fortunately, their task of improving the deer herd is made much easier by the deer population explosion.    In the case of deer, for example, the worst thing you can do for the health of the herd is to limit hunting.  Not all species are as common as deer, but some of the same management principles apply.   You don’t improve the total herd/forest/school by protecting all individuals equally.   In a wild population, you are probably looking to increase genetic diversity.   This makes the species more robust.   Remembering the nature if profligate maxim, you might improve the genetic diversity AND in the long run the numbers of a species by disproportionately eliminating individuals with particular sets of characteristics.   This creates room for the others.   

When dealing with the natural world, many things seem counter-intuitive.

January 17, 2009

Burn the Brush but Save the Soils

Fire in the loblolly pines

Different sorts of fires are prescribed for different purposes.    The variations usually depend on the wind direction and topography.    A backing fire goes against the wind and spreads slowly by conduction.   It is the safest fire and consumes most of the fuel, but it is slow.   A head fire goes in the direction of the wind and/or uphill.   Flames are carried by the wind, so things burn faster, but it tends to be a less complete burn.  The fire jumps over some fuel.  That jumping also makes this fire more likely to get out of hand.   Other variations are flanking fires, as the name implies along the sides and strip fires.  The strip fire is a series of head and back fires.   They run into each other.  The strip fire is faster than other fires because you light several places at a time.  Similar to a strip fire is a spot fire, where you light a series of spots that come together.   The spot fires work well in theory, but they very often turn into strip fires anyway, just because it is hard to keep the spots apart.  The challenge with all multiple fires is when they come together.    They rise up and can scorch the trees or even provoke a crown fire.

Cleansing fire

The time of the year when you set your fires depends on your management goals.   A dormant/winter season fire will consume the surface vegetation but won’t usually kill it.   In fact it will create a lot more sprouts and shoots, especially with understory hardwoods and blueberries.    This kind of fire produces a lot of good browse for deer, but it will not yield the herbaceous growth for other species.    A growing season burn will often kill much of the woody vegetation and over time it will produce the savannah-like open forests with a herbaceous forest floor.    It produces more flowering, legumes and releases nutrients to the soil.  If a forest has not been burned for a long time, a winter backing fire is probably smarter.   It cleans up the debris at a cooler temperature that is less likely to damage your trees.   After that you can do the growing season fire as appropriate.    May/June is a good time.

In a loblolly rotation, it makes sense to wait a year after thinning and then do a winter season fire to clean up the slash.  After that, go with a spring time burn every 2-3 years.

Loblolly pines usually survive scorching.  The biggest danger to them is in October, after they have finished growing for the year, but before they have gone dormant.   A scorching will probably kill them at this time, so you should never burn in October.   The State of Virginia bans outdoor burning until after 4pm from February to April.   This is the time when conditions are dry and the leaves are off the trees.  There is significant danger of fire escaping. 

A major concern in fire management is its effect on the soils.   An intense fire burns hot.  A severe fire burns down more of the soil.   Sometimes you want to expose mineral soil since some plant communities require that to regenerate; most of the time you don’t.    Usually it is best when you see black.  The vegetation has been carbonized but much is still intact.  White is ash.  Too much white means you burned a little too severe.   It is bad when orange is exposed.    If the soil gets burned bad enough, it can become impervious to water.   The fast run off caused by the impervious soils can create mud slides.  

Burning off too much soil litter can lead to erosion in general.   Summer rains in Virginia can be torrential.   The water hits hard and washes the soil downhill.   All land erodes.  An intact forest in Virginia loses from .05-.1 ton of soil per year on average.  By contrast, field crops can lose 3-15 tons a year.   After a burn, a forest floor loses more than the intact forest, but less than plowed field, depending on how severe the burning was.   But repeated small burns create a stabile herbaceous layer that helps build a healthy soil that mitigates erosion in the longer run.  Good forest stewardship means thinking in the long term.  Be aware of how what you are doing now will be in years or decades. 

Of course, erosion is an eternal process that never stops.   The Appalachians were once as high as the Rockies and in the future the Rockies will be as low as the Appalachians.  Erosion & time will flatten Mt Everest. Everything washes down and everything has to go somewhere.  If a ton of soil flows from one acre to the one down hill and that one loses a ton of soil to the one below that, it is really not much of a problem.   Each acre “loses” a ton of soil, but not really.  It becomes a problem when too much soil is lost and when it flows into watercourses.   The water from my farms flows eventually into Albermarle Sound via the Meherrin and Chowan rivers.  An important duty is to protect the waterways from too much silt.  That is why we don’t cut near the streams (stream management zones) and generally tred lightly near them.  Beyond that, you just don’t want to lose your dirt, on which all prosperity depends.

January 16, 2009

Burning Questions

Alternatives to fire, such as mechanical, mowing, grazing or chemical do not have the same ecological effects.  For example, none of these things can properly kill diseases and pests on the ground, nor do they consume all the combustible materials.  

Prescribed burn in southern pine forest

There is a general rule that big fires decrease biological diversity, since only a few species can stand being totally annihilated.   Big fires will also tend to impact areas where fire is less useful.  A beech forest, for example, will be destroyed by a big fire, but the moist conditions of such a stand will usually resist or limit small fires.  Small regular fires lead to greater diversity, since they prevent to domination of a few species while not destroying too much and opening the landscape to some sunlight. In any case, you really cannot avoid fires; you can only postpone them.  When combustible materials build up in wild lands, you eventually get a much bigger and more disastrous fire.   These are the kind of thing we saw in Yellowstone back in the 1980s.   Years of fire exclusion made the place a tinderbox.

Understory burn in southern pine

An unplanned fire is significantly more dangerous than a prescribed fire, but fire is dangerous no matter what.  A prescribed fire can get out of hand and even if it goes 100% according to plan, it will create side effects, principally smoke, that will annoy the neighbors.    They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.   In the case of prescribed fire, an ounce of prevention is sometimes worth a ton of blame, as people weight the tangible effects they see from the prescribed fire with the much greater, but unspecified effects from a true wild fire.

A form for a burn plan is included at this link.

Fire has several simple characteristics.  We all know about them, but it is useful to think about what that means.  Fire usually rises.  You should always avoid getting above a fire.  Fire will move up hill more readily than it goes downhill.  It will also climb if there is a burnable ladder of brush or branches.   Flames will also rise when two fires come together.  This may scorch tree branches or even set them on fire.  Fire more easily spreads to loose and dry material, but it burns longer in denser materials.  You can see that with a campfire.  I have seen people trying to light big logs with matches.   It doesn’t work.  You need to go from the small to the large.   Of course, if you light a pile of pine needles with nothing else, you will just have a short flash and then ash.

The behavior of a fire on the ground depends on lots of factors, none of which can be predicted with absolute certainty.  The most capricious is the wind.  Wind directions can change and local conditions can change the direction locally.   The fire itself changes wind conditions.   A fire draws in air.   If the fire is going up a canyon, it might create an effect much like a chimney. 

Other factors include humidity, temperature, air stability and time of day.   Higher humidity dampens fire.  The key factor is not humidity itself as much as relative humidity.   Warm air hold more water than cool air.   The same amount of water will be a lot less dense in warm air.  Roughly speaking, for every 20 degrees in temperature, the relative humidity decreases by half.   That is one reason time of day makes such as difference.   You might have dew in the morning (relative humidity is 100% and the air cannot hold the water it has, so dew forms), but as the temperature rises, relative humidity falls.  That is why fires burn faster and stronger at 3pm than they do at 3am.  Temperature makes a difference independent of humidity, since the cooler the temperature, the more heat a fire needs to generate to maintain and spread.

Fire weather forecasts are available at this link.

You can sometimes see stable air at a distance because may be clearly demarcated layers of air.   Stability makes a bigger difference for smoke.  In stable air, smoke rises and then flattens out.  It doesn’t blow away.  Smoke rises higher and disperses easier in unstable air, but unstable air has its own challenges in that it usually has stronger and more variable winds, making fire control more of a challenge.  The tradeoff is between smoke problem and fire control problems.

Fire escape used to be the big concern for burn bosses;  now it is smoke.  As more people w/o country experience move into the countryside, the complains and problems of smoke increase.  

Smoke doesn’t always rise.   In stable air or in humid condition, it tends to drain.  Like water, it drains into valleys and gullies, where it might sit a long time.   Unfortunately, valleys are often places where we have roads and homes.  Smoke can be a health and a traffic hazard.  The worst is “super fog”.  Super fog is a combination of smoke and fog that makes visibility almost zero.  The fog helps hold the smoke near the ground and the smoke helps keep the fog from evaporating off.   It is bad all around.

We used to have lots of super fog in Krakow.   We would often unwisely drive in it, following the taillights of the car in front.   Such behavior sometimes led to spectacular accidents involving many vehicles.  One vehicle stops and the others blindly drive into it, sometimes for miles.

Anyway, those are some of the concerns about prescribed burns.   Tomorrow I will talk a little more re how and why we burn.

January 15, 2009


James Madison's house at Montpelier recently restored taken in January 2009

The question in any historical renovation is when.   What period should be restored?   In some cases the answer is fairly obvious.   I stopped off at Montpellier, the home of James Madison. They just finished restoring it to what it was like when Madison lived there.  Madison’s grandfather started the farm.  His father built the house.  Madison added a lot.   Other people owned after that, including some of the Duponts, who greatly added and updated it.    The restoration stripped away everything done after Madison owned it.    That makes sense to me, but it is a value judgment. 

Madison was the youngest of the founding fathers.  He came prepared to the Constitutional Convention and is justifiably called the father of the Constitution.  He deserves to have his house restored.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is one of the most interesting places I have been. It was the biggest Christian church in the world for more than 900 years until the Turks conquered Constantinople, killed or drove off the natives and turned the building into a mosque, which it was for almost 500 years.  Now it is a museum.  Should the Turks restore it to its original Christian splendor, when it had those beautiful mosaics or to the Islamic period when they were plastered over?   The same sorts of questions go for almost any historical structure.  But humans create more than buildings that change over time.

Below is a changing made-made landscape with non native animals (horses) near James Madison’s house in the Virginia hills.  Not so bad.

Horses outside James Madison's house Montpelier in January 2009

When Henry David Thoreau talked about wilderness, he meant the kind of mixed forest and farm communities around Walden Pond.   Today the forest has taken over much more of the landscape than in Thoreau’s time.   Should historical sites in the Eastern United States restore the non-forested landscapes of the past?   If you look at old photos, you notice that the landscapes have changed a lot.  

Prescribed burning in southern pine forest

We talked a bit about landscape restoration in my forestry and prescribed burning seminar.   Most people think the eastern U.S. was naturally covered with heavy forests in 1607.  This is wrong.   The landscape of pre-European was not natural and the forests were not so thick.  Native Americans were enthusiastic users of fire for hunting, warfare and to manage landscapes, in addition to fire escape from cooking and campfires.  Human induced fire shaped the ecology of North America for tens of thousands of years.    The native populations, after all, had no comprehensive way to put fires out and there were no roads to act as firebreaks.  As a result, grasslands and prairies extended well into regions of N. America that today support forests and forests were open and park-like.   John Smith of Jamestown wrote that he could ride through the Virginia tidewater piney woods on horseback.   You couldn’t do that today. Elk and bison flourished almost to the Atlantic coast because there was lots of grass for them to eat.   The forests of 1607 were not like those we see today.  

Print of native Americans around the camp fireSettlers from Northern and Western Europe had less experience with fires as a tool for clearing land because Europe had been cleared long ago and their land was much more densely populated and intensely used.   European peasants constantly searched the forests for firewood.    They were not allowed to cut living trees, but could get any dead branches that they could reach by hook or by crook.   They didn’t leave much fuel on the ground to burn.  It was too valuable. 

They quickly learned the native fire techniques.    But with the denser populations, fire got out of hand.   After a series of disastrous fires, such as Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin and the big blowout in Idaho and Montana, fire was stigmatized and it was government policy and popular preference to exclude fire from the woods.   We pursued fire exclusion goal until around pursued until around 1970 and we still have not welcomed it back as a tool we should.   Fire exclusion changed the landscapes, to include very thick forests and very different species compositions.   These ecosystems were not being restored, since they had never been there.   The Native Americans “immigrated” to North America before the most recent ice age.    They brought fire with them and the continent has been burning ever since.    Remember that nature starts fires in only two ways: lightning and volcanoes.   There are no volcanoes in eastern North America and lightning tends to come in the summer, when humidity is high and plants are lush.  It also usually comes along with heavy rain. In other words, natural fires are much rarer than the regular burns we find in the natural and archeological record over the last 10,000 years.  Humans accounted for most of the burning.

Blueridge Mountains from James Madison's house on January 15, 2009

So the question about restoring the American landscape is when – what period?  What period should we restore?   Should we restore at all, or maybe strive for a richer, more diverse landscape?   We have lost some species and gained some others. (Most of us like horses, sheep and cows, all non-native.)   We have a better understanding of ecology than any of our ancestors and we have improved tools.   There are some natural places with special value.   These we should choose the appropriate period and “restore” them as possible.  However, overall we cannot restore how it was and probably don’t want to.  There is no ideal past.  We can do better.

January 14, 2009

Good Government by Extension

Chrissy Pond forest in 2004 right after pine clearcutOn left is our CP forest in 2004, right after a clearcut on the pines.  You can clearly see the stream management zones with intact hardwoods and the boundaries of the property.  On the south is Genito Creek.  We own both sides of that creek on that little hump.  You have to look closely to see that;  We also own both sides of the road, but not very deep on the north-east side.

The best parts of government are those you hear the least about.   It is because they are less controversial and somewhat apart from politics.  They don’t overreach and they do the things government is designed to do, i.e. things people cannot reasonably do for themselves, things that have payoffs beyond the lives of individuals and things that promote the common good.   Most of us don’t know how much our well being depends on these under-the-radar activities.   You know, the ones that predict the weather, secure public health, keep track of our records etc. 

Since I bought my forest land and tried to learn how to manage it well, I have been very much impressed with the activities of the U.S. and Virginia forest services and the several extension services, especially Virginia Tech.  You might think I am a little self serving, since this part of government serves my interests, but I think it goes beyond that.

Land use affects all Americans and most of what happens on the land is the responsibility of private landowners.   It is in the general public interest that grasslands, forests, wildlife habitat, watersheds etc be well managed.    It makes perfect sense for government to help landowners do a better job of stewardship.   Beyond that, land stewardship is an excellent instance of something that individual people cannot reasonably do all alone.   Even the largest landowners don’t own whole watersheds or wildlife habitats and air, water, bugs and weeds don’t pay attention to property lines. There is a need for common goals and cooperation.  But how?

There are many ways to work toward the common good in land use.  Of course, the government could own or control all the land.   This is a thoroughly discredited system, as anybody with even a passing knowledge of the abysmal ecological conditions in the Soviet Block can attest.    Common ownership of land is a good idea only in theory.    Whenever anything becomes everybody’s responsibility, it becomes nobody’s.    On the other hand, complete freedom for land owners is also a mistake.  As I wrote above, there is too much interrelatedness.    

We need environmental regulations, but they need to be flexible.   We have recognize the different generations of environmental regulations and how success can change the problem set.   Forty years ago we needed some tough regulations to clean up big pollution.  Command and control worked back in those days because we could easily identify pollution sources, which tended to be particular sources and often very toxic.  As we eliminated most of the really bad pollution, it got harder to get each successive step.  It doesn’t take a genius or any subtlety to find and shut down one big pipe.  Finding a thousand little ones, no so easy.  Beyond that, it is generally easier to solve the first 90% of any problem than the last 10% and it gets harder and harder to get at that last 1%.   As you have to address more diverse and difficult to assess sources of environmental damage, you need to empower more people and engage their intelligence and imaginations to work toward solutions.   Incentives work a lot better than coercion.   If you order people around, you take away their responsibility and their dignity … and they take their innovations somewhere else. You cannot coerce someone into being creative.    Under coercive conditions, people use their intelligence and imaginations to figure out how to avoid blame and do the minimum.   If you want creative solutions, you need incentives.  They need not be only monetary.   Most intelligent people want meaningful things where they can be committed.    The search for meaning.

Involvement v Commitment

You can understand the difference between involvement and commitment by looking at your bacon and eggs breakfast.  The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.  A lot of involved people think they are committed because they feel passionately about an issue, but they wander off when passion cools, styles change or sustained hard work is required.

Responsibly should be as close as possible to the ability to makes decision and the likelihood to suffer or benefit from the results.     It always annoys me when somebody tries to tell me what to do with my land.   But I actively seek out the advice and experience of those who can help me make better decisions.   I take my stewardship responsibilities very seriously.    The Virginia DoF and Virginia Tech have been very helpful with advice.   I have taken part in several courses and field days where I learned about things such as biosolids, water protection, invasive species, wildlife protection and much more.  They usually cost me around only $20-50, which doesn’t cover the costs.   But in return, I apply my knowledge and skill, improved by the courses, to managing my land well, which benefits all the people of Virginia, or at least those that breathe air, drink water or like wildlife. 

I appreciate what the Commonwealth does to empower me to be a good steward of my forests and they seem to appreciate what educated landowners can do with the proper information and incentives. Everybody does their parts.  It is a win all around.   I bet most people don’t even know about this part of government.   I suppose that is why it works well.

January 13, 2009

Setting the Woods on Fire

I am in Charlottesville for the prescribed burning course sponsored by Virginia Department of Forestry.   It has given me a lot to think about.   I am entering the various threads as separate posts.   (BTW –  I used to come to Charlottesville to visit Mariza when she was at UVA.  Now that Mariza is graduated it is the same, but different and a bit lonely.)

Forestry bear at Virginia Dept of Forestry HQ

The Science of Forestry

When you try to change any single thing, you find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”  John Muir.

Below is the view from the forestry building in Charlottesville.  It was cold, but no wind, as you can see from the flags.

View from Virginia Dept of Forestry building in Charlottesville

Forestry is probably the most scientific of all the environmental fields in that it is one of the only ones where people with boots on the ground actually do something like controlled experiments.   They usually take a long time to get real results.   Time is needed to let all the various small connections and causes to be manifest and many times unobvious factors are the real drivers of the process.  But the time lag and complex causality usually revealed mean that forestry is usually behind the curve on the big news scares and hopes.  The news media has moved along to the next crisis by the time the forest science comes in. 

For example, we only recently got the word on acid rain.   You remember acid rain?    It was a big deal during the 1990s.  It threatened to destroy many of the trees in our Eastern forests.  I admit that I got a little hysterical about that prospect and there was indeed a serious problem with sulfur dioxide etc emitted by coal fired power plants.  We addressed the coal/acid rain problem with a cap and trade program.  It worked well enought that it is one of the great environmental success stories that we mostly have forgotten about.   (BTW – the things that worry me more are invasive species.  In my lifetime and those of my children, this problem will impact our forests more than global warming or acid rain or almost anything else I can think of, but that subject seems to get only local traction.)

But much of the acid rain hysteria was misdirected.  There was a lot written about lakes and streams that were too acid to allow fish to survive.   This was true.  Acid rain, however, was not the most important cause of this.   The root problem was change in land use and the ultimate irony was that acidification of lakes and streams was related to the ostensibly good factor of re-growth of forests and the prevention of forest fires.   Until the early part of the 20th Century, burning was very common in Eastern forests.   When burning virtually stopped, this changed and so did the chemistry of lakes within the forests. 

Fires change the chemistry of the streams and lakes in the forests by changing the chemistry of what runs off the land.  Everything is a trade off.  The fires burn away the C and N but the remaining ash and silt that pollutes the water also raises the pH.   If you stop burning the forests on the shores and/or they grow back thickly, the pH of the nearby lakes drops (i.e. they become more acidic) because the surrounding soils are naturally acidic.  Burning has always been part of N American ecology and the more frequent burning has been a factor ever since humans brought fire making skills to the new world.   Until recently, that is.  The forests in the Eastern United States are thicker than they have been at any time since the Native Americans “immigrated” from Asia and altered the landscape with regular burning.   When we talk about restoring the natural environments, BTW, we are usually talking about restoration to the pre-1607 levels, not the pre-human levels.    This makes sense.   It would be too hard to figure out what the “original landscape” was like, anyway.   That was a couple of ice ages ago.  Who knows?

Forestry, being a practical science, can analyze the problem practically and propose practical solutions.   Change what you have on the land and how you manage it and you change other results.  Everything is connected to everything else, often in unexpected ways.  If you want to raise the pH of land or lakes, you can do that by changing land use.  Controlled burning can help.  Or you can apply lime.   We did that when we established our wildlife plots because the soil was too (naturally) sour.   You can do the same with water, at least smaller bodies.

Land use is a really important factor.  In fact, it is often so big that we overlook it.  I also think land use issues are a little too diverse and prosaic to attract the sustained attention of the media and the public would prefer to turn a blind eye since almost everybody is complicit in this problem.   It is more fun to blame big industrialists or feckless government than to change your own habits and aspirations.

January 12, 2009

Great Books … At Least Useful Ones

Below are CJ and the boys near Mt Washington in NH in 2003.

Alex, Espen and Chrissy at the foot of Mt Washington in NH in fall of 2003

I found this while going through some old emails.  I wrote this to Mariza when she was off to college.  My “great books” for her first year are a little idiosyncratic.  Some books are influential because of the things you are going through in your life when you read them.   When you reread the book, you realize that it is important to you because of what you read into it. 

You have to interact with ideas.   Nobody can be right all the time and I have never come across a book that is good through to the very end.  The authors that influenced me gave me good starts, but none of them lived in my circumstances and I had to modify them accordingly.    That gives me an ideal escape clause.  When I recommend books, I assume that you will interact with the ideas.  Some will be useful; others not.  And even best author or philosopher will say at least a few really stupid things and sometimes a fool can have a useful insight (even if he doesn’t recognize it himself.)

Anyway, I left the note as it was in 2003.  I would make a few changes and additions if I wrote it today.   I personally find it interesting because I can remember some of the things I was thinking about and going through when I wrote the note.  For example, in 2003 I was studying pragmatism, so it was more prominent in my thoughts than it would have been before or since.  Everything depends on contexts, times and places.


Now that you are off to your education, I want to share some of the books that have influenced me for the better.  Few of these things were assigned to me in school.   But I think they formed the basis of the education I use today.

“In Search of Excellence” – Formed the basis of my management and leadership style.  Also influenced my view on human relationships in general.   I bought my copy in 1983, when just before I started my MBA at the University of Minnesota.  It just hit the right chord.  I still have the book I bought, with my underlining and notes.  It is amazing how much I internalized those thoughts.  

“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” – This is the “execution” book of my life and provides the “how”.  It helps me know how to act with integrity and purpose when I might not be sure what to do.  I read this book in 1990 and compared the ideal to the best bosses I had known.  (I worked for a guy called Brian Carlson at the time and he was a great example.) I tried to be like them and like the person the book made me want to be.

“Two Cheers for Capitalism” by Irving Kristol – I found this book by chance in the University of Wisconsin library in 1978.  It made clear to me that I believed in the free market. It set the dominos in motion that sent me to business school with vigor and enthusiasm and then into the Foreign Service to fight world Communism.  On a related item is “The Communist Manifesto” and excerpts from “Capital”.   One of my leftist professors made me read them in 1977.  It had the opposite result from the one I think he wanted to achieve.  I found them to be such unmitigated crap that I was permanently soured on socialism. 

“The Bible”, especially Mathew, St. Paul and Ecclesiastes – I am not strongly religious, but the Bible provides the foundation of faith that I need in my life.  It is the essence of things hoped for; the evidence of things unseen.   I have never read the entire Bible, but have read several times the parts above and heard it in church more times than I can remember.  I am not sure how Ecclesiastes got into the Bible, since it seems a little cynical and world wise, but I like it.  It is a good antidote to things like Amos. 

“The Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides.  Thucydides was my favorite historian when I was an undergraduate.  I read his work in English and part in the original Greek.  It is the classic tragic view of history and one I regrettably share.  His account of the Syracuse campaign actually has all the aspects of tragedy in the technical sense and the Melian dialogue is a classic of power politics.  I would add Polybius and Tacitus and everyone should be familiar with the Iliad and Odyssey.    Although I have long since forgotten the particulars, I recall the sweep.   As for classic philosophy, I can’t recommend Plato or his ilk, except the “Apology of Socrates” which is short and well worth reading.  It was the first work I read in Greek.

“Decision Traps” – In this book I learned about how decisions are made in the real world and how to factor inevitable error into my own decisions.  I learned a little humility and at least one valuable technique for learning from experience:  make specific written predictions; put them aside; later analyze them in the light of how event transpired in fact and improve the decision making process.   I read this book for the first time in 1990.   I would add another book to this one as an influence in the same direction, “Against the Gods”, which I read first in 1997.  As I write this (April 19, 2003) I am reading another book, “The Blank Slate” which seems to be supplemental to many of the things I learned in “Decision Traps.” 

Pragmatism – Various things by and about people like William James, Charles Pierce and John Dewey, especially “the Metaphysical Club” This is the most recent wrinkle in my ideological skin.  I find many pragmatic ideas very useful, which is itself pragmatic.  I especially like the idea of the evolution of ideas and the concept that ideas are creations in a human context.  I found many of these ideas embedded in concepts I got from other places, such as the decision traps complex or the “Seven Habits”.   I will also lump into this category Emerson’s essay on “Self Reliance”.  It is not pragmatism, but James et al read it.  It influenced them.  

Biography – this became my favorite form of literature in the middle 1990s.  I guess it comes with age.  I can’t cite a particular book, but in general, seeing history though the lives of great people has been instructive.   It shows how much can hang on an individual decision and how fast failure can turn to glorious success or the reverse.  The biographies that stand out in my memory are: Truman, Eisenhower, Robert E. Lee, Ben Franklin, and the joint biography “Founding Brothers”, which is interesting because it shows how individual human flaws can actually enhance the performance of a group.  It is sort of a portfolio theory of human events.

Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu – I loved these guys when I was an undergraduate.  I always like to try to act logically.  Taoism provides the non-logical basis on which a logical edifice can be built.  In the same vein, I would cite “Emotional Intelligence”, which I read in 1997.  Logic can provide the “how” (that I got from the Seven Habits), but preference in based on emotion.  Emotion can never be fully suppressed and we should not try to do so. 

Declaration of Independence, Constitution Preamble, Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, Four Freedoms (FDR).  America’s contribution to world literature is in the language of freedom.  These are some of the best.   

Anyway, these are a good start.  You will find a lot more.  Never stop looking. 

January 11, 2009

A Study of History


John & Alex Matel at Pyramids in Giza January 2008

Washington Post featured a report from a guy who toured the world of Herodotus.    This is the link. 

Herodotus was the world’s first historian.    Of course people wrote about historical events before his time, but they didn’t think in the historical sense of trying to connect disparate events into a meaningful whole.   For the ancient pre-Greek civilizations, history was just a series of bragging press releases, with pharaohs, kings and warlords exaggerating and sometimes completely fabrication triumphs.  There was no understanding of greater causality.  They also looked for supernatural explanations to all human affairs and/or are accounts of the work of God on earth.   That is, BTW, is what differentiates Herodotus’ work from the Book of Samuel, which some scholars have called the first history, or from something like the Iliad, which has a narrative and talks re historical events.    

Acropolis in Athens in March 2008

Herodotus was often not accurate. That is not why he was the “first historian” He accepted all sorts of hear-say and outright myths. His was also a very intensely personal work and he makes little or no attempt to screen for his own bias.  This is one reason it is so much fun to read his work. But he did seek to understand the context of his events in his inquiry, which is the more precise translation of his word history. 

Herodotus is great literature, but my favorite ancient historian is Thucydides.   His Melian Dialogues and the book about the Syracuse campaign should be required reading for anyone trying to understand world affairs.   It is interesting how you can see progress in the writing of history.   I like Thucydides better, but Polybius is a better historian, because he had the advantage of the experience.   (Polybius put the rise of Rome in the greater context.)  Today, standing on the shoulders of these giants and others who came after, the average graduate student is a better historian than any of them.    We have the gift of being able to take the best of the past.    We should never squander that gift. 

Mariza & John Matel in Athens March 2008

Improvements in how historians could assess events are examples of technologies of the mind or technologies of thought.

We easily recognize technologies of the physical world.  Using technology, a weakling driving a bulldozer can do more than the strongest man working by hand.  We all remember the story of John Henry and the steam drill.   But we overlook the more important technologies of thought & mind.   The most obvious are in hard sciences and subjects like math.   The greatest mathematicians of any time before around 1600 could not pass an introductory statistics and quantitative methods class.   The tools we use today just were not yet invented.  But this goes for others things as well.  

It is also true for cultures.   Culture is a form of technology in the broad sense.   It gives people the package of techniques and skills they need to adapt to the world and its challenges.  Some packages work better than others.    I am talking about “small c” culture too.  Firms have cultures.   That is why some companies can consistently outperform others.  

Below is Jarash in what is now Jordan.  The Romans knew how to bring in water.  The skills were lost and it went from thriving city to impressive ruins in a couple of generations.

Jarah in Jordan May 2008

Culture is the mystery ingredient that frustrates the predictions of the data-obsessed analysts.   It is usually the explanation why the same sorts of investments in plants and equipment prosper in one place and flounders in another. And an unwillingness to address the problem culture lies at the bottom of most failures to institute meaningful change.   You can supply all the physical technologies you want; they are worthless and even harmful without the technologies of the mind to integrate them into the cultures.   I talked in an earlier post re the various sorts of barbarians unable to figure out the Roman technologies that made it possible for cities to prosper in arid or hostile environments.     This is a lesson of history we should learn.   The great thing about taking lessons from ancient history is that much of the politics and passion has dissipated so we can be a little more objective. 

Mariza and Espen on the Greek island of Hydra in March 2008

Anyway, Herodotus is truly entertaining.   I would love to do study tour like the one described in the report.   I used to read Herodotus to the kids as bedtime stories.   There are lots of good lesson that go with the good fun.

January 10, 2009

Environmental Footprints v Real Progress

Meteor crator in ArizonaOn the left is the meteor crater near Winslow, Arizona.  Nature can make big footprints on its own.

I read an interesting article re environmental footprints.    The author makes a good point that has long concerned me.   The idea of an environmental (or carbon) footprint strongly implies that humans are fundamentally bad and that the best we can do limit the damage we create.  Environmentalism has become a religion for some people and this “footprint” idea is the equivalent of original sin.   Unfortunately, in this new religion there is no way to salvation.   It is a pernicious & narcissistic viewpoint, in that it paralyses action.   Those espousing it get to feel superior and in their narrow minds the notion that people are just a blight on the environment removes the responsibility any proactive duties. 

Humans are in nature; humans are of nature and humans are part of nature.  This is THE truth, not merely a truth and we should just acknowledge it because  the silly pretense that we can make a clear separation between man and nature is destructive to both the environment and the humans that live in it.   On the other hand, if we recognize the reality of the situation, we can make things better all around.

Below is a secondary growth forest near the Milwaukee airport

Secondary growth forest in Wisconsin

Ignoring environmental progress is irresponsible and all those ticking doomsday clocks are dishonest.   Making good choices requires an accurate assessment of conditions, not one that is too optimistic, but also not one that is unjustifiably gloomy.  The American environment is cleaner now than it was ten years ago.  It is a lot cleaner than it was a generation ago and it will be cleaner still in the future.   It is fashionable to focus on the failures and ignore the massive success.   This is an example of the pseudo-religious aspects of environmentalism.

Below is a traditional Navajo lodge.  Pre-industrial life was no picnic … maybe it was – all the time.

Navaho lodge

No matter how much some peculiar people claim to speak for or to Animals, trees, rocks etc, they are speaking to and as humans.   The earth is not sentient.  If it were, it would be hopelessly cruel.  There was no life on earth at all for most of the planet’s existence and after that life suffered several mass extinctions well before the advent of humans.   The dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Mesozoic era. The Paleozoic extinction wiped out 90% of the species on earth and there were many others.  And none of them mattered because there was nobody around who knew or cared.  The current health of the earth matters a lot to us but all the judgments depend on human emotions and intelligence.   There will come a time when the earth no longer supports human life.   The earth will be no better or worse off.   Nature doesn’t have a plan.  Natural communities are complex and beautiful to US.  They matter to US.  I love nature but I know that my love is unrequited.   

Below is Austin St in Milwaukee.  The ash trees were planted in the middle of the 1970s.

Austin St in Milwaukee July 2005

Below same street in 1949.  The little trees are elms that died in the early 1970s, so this is now the second growth.  The guys standing there, BTW, are my father and my grandpa Haase.

John Matel Sr and Emil Haase 1949

That is what leads me to blasphemy against the environmental religion that I am about to voice.   Man can improve on nature.  I am not saying that we usually do.  There are plenty of examples of human greed and rapaciousness.    But sustainable development is indeed possible.   We can simultaneously make conditions better for humans and do so in an environmentally responsible way.   The good news is that the bad news is wrong.

Tree farming is an excellent example of a human activity that produces useful products while sustaining and improving the environment.   It wasn’t always like that.  Timbering used to be very destructive and it still is in many parts of the world.  But here in Virginia, it is now sustainable and if fact improves the environment in terms of making the water cleaner, removing pollution from the air and providing wildlife habitat.   This is a tremendously hopeful development.   What is possible in forestry is possible in other industries.

Below is a Colorado pasture, very beautiful, sustainable & natural looking but very much the result of human intervention and domestic animals.

Colorado meadow near Durango in July 2003In the long run, we cannot address our environmental challenges by turning down thermostats, doing w/o things we need or by not allowing economic development.  And we certainly cannot make progress if we stupidly deny that progress is possible.   We have to be smarter and we can be.   A working forest in Virginia today is nearly twice as productive as it was 100 years ago in terms of the wood it produces per year, but it goes much beyond that.  It is also better for the soil than it was, better for the wildlife, kinder to the water resources and in the course of production more attractive.  It is a win all around, by everything we can measure.   We can use forest land to absorb municipal waste in an environmentally sustainable fashion.  

Below is Albert Einstein statue at National Academy of Sciences. 

Albert Einstein statue at National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC, January 7, 2009

Does it really make any sense to talk about “footprints?”   That assumes a one-way relationship, which is just not reflective of reality.  All of us consume wealth & resources but most of us also create them.  Humans come into the world with mouths to feed and various needs to meet.   But they also come with hands to work and – more importantly – brains to think.   Sometimes they figure out how to make things better.

John Matel tree farm with five-year-old trees in July 2008 

Above is my forest with five-year-old pines.

January 09, 2009

Globalization & Zubrowka

Zubrowka Vodka from PolandYou used to have to travel to get special things.   It used to be fun to shop at the duty free shops.  Globalization has changed all that.    Now in America you can get almost anything from almost anywhere.  There are loses that go with this gain of globalization and diversity.   It takes a lot of the fun out of discovery when you discover the same stuff wherever you go.   

There are still some things that you can’t get easily even in America.  These are mostly things that don’t travel well.   Bread is a good example.   Bread must be baked locally and I have never been able to find European quality bread in the U.S.    I don’t really understand why that should be the case, but it is.  Cheese and sausages are also like that. Sausage made in Milwaukee is better than the Euro variety, except for salami.  French soft cheese is better than the same varieties in the U.S.  We also make great hard cheeses and these travel well.  Not so the soft varieties, IMO.  A Frenchman once told me that it was because of American health regulations and practices.   We require a level of sanitation that is beyond actual health requirements and some of the good flavors come from types of “impuritites”.  The same goes for Polish ham.  Ham tastes better when the pigs get a variety of food, i.e. slop.    

It used to be that beer didn’t travel well, but modern packaging has changed that.   Good tap beer is still a local pleasure, however.    I think that comes more from the psychological aspects than reality.  Although I doubt I could pass a blind taste test, the same beer tastes better in pleasant surroundings served in the right kind of glass. 

They have a unique kind of vodka in Poland called Zubrowka.   It is what you see in the picture.   It is named after the bison that lives in the forests of Eastern Poland and it has a piece of grass and some herbs that give it its special flavor.   Some people like to mix it with apple juice; I just like to drink it straight and cold.  

Zubrowka is hard to come by in the U.S. I guess globalization doesn’t work for everything.  A Polish friend brought me this bottle. 

The Polish bison has an interesting story.   They were wiped out in the wild early in the 20th Century, but restored with stock from zoos in Sweden & Germany and reintroduced into Bialowieza, the biggest area of old growth deciduous forest in Europe.  Bialowieza used to be completely in Poland, but the Soviets moved the border in 1939, when they and the Nazis cooperated to dismember the second  Rzeczpospolita.    In an odd twist of history, Hermann Goering was instrumental in protecting the bison in Eastern Poland in the Bialowieza forest during WWII. He and his fellow Nazis were more interested in animal than human rights. 

I visited Bialowieza back in 2002, but didn’t see any wild bison, although they had some injured ones convalescing in a compound.   I did see some semi-wild bison near Bielsko.  They were more recently introduced there.  The European bison is smaller than the American bison and doesn’t have the characteristic hump. (We saw a herd of American bison in the Custer National Forest in 1992.  They are really magnificent animals.)  

I remember the trip to Bialowieza and the really massive oak trees.  The biggest ones are named after Polish kings.   They are not the biggest oak trees in Poland, however.   The biggest one  is near Poznan.  I didn’t see that one.   The second biggest is near Kielce.  They call it “Bartek” (the Poles name big trees) and it was supposed to be around 1200 years old, but I heard that it is “only” a little more than 600.   The story is that Jan III Sobieski  rested under the tree on his way back from the battle of Vienna where the Poles saved Europe from the Turks in 1683.  I saw that tree in 1995.  Near Raclawica, where Kusciuszko defeated the Russians in 1794 there is a big linden, under which Kusciuszko rested after the battle.  A living link with the past makes history a lot more immediate. Our driver, Bogdan, knew I liked trees and he took me to these sorts of places on the way to programs in other cities.  He was a great guy, who knew the countryside.  Those were the days before I kept a blog or took digital photos.  It is a pity not to have a record. 

Memory fades.

January 08, 2009

Walking Around

Washington harbor on the Anacostia on January 8, 2009

Above is the Washington harbor on the Anacostia.

Sun behind a single cloud over the Anacostia River on January 9, 2009

Today was bright and cool with a persistent west wind.  I am still working on the CENTCOM assessment and getting sick of it.   Actually, I am just anxious to get to my ordinary job.    That is what I signed up to do and there are many places where I think I can add value … once I get to focus on it.

Lobsterman statue near Anacostia River on January 9, 2009

I don’t have anything good to write today, but I did walk from HST to NDU and have pictures.  I have to walk around when I have a problem to solve or a system to understand.  It makes thinking easier.  Man is meant to be in motion. I just don’t think clearly sitting at my desk.  I can sit looking at my work for hours w/o making much progress, but if I go out and walk around I have no trouble finishing when I get back.  When you are clear on what you need to do, doing it usually easy.  Besides, Washington is such a beautiful city and the monuments provide a constant inspiration for anybody working for the government.

Sycamore trees near WWII Memorial in Washington on January 9, 2009

Above are sycamore trees near the WWII memorial.

WWII Memorial looking east on January 9, 2009

Above WWII Memorial looking east.

New cherry trees near the Tidal Basin in Washington on January 9, 2009

Above is the next generation of cherry trees around the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial.  In a couple of months, this place will be covered in flowers.


Internet Idiots

About a week ago, somebody sent a couple blank email messages to a large number of State Department recipients, me included.   I supposed it was a mistake and deleted them.   Most people did the same, but not everybody.   Dozens of our cognitively challenged colleagues insist on sending “reply to all” messages complaining about getting messages.   I suspect there is more than just stupidity at work.   My latest is from an ambassador who evidently is affronted that he cannot turn off the flow with a wave of his mighty hand.   It goes to show that high intelligence and high position do not always correspond perfectly.  

A couple messages created dozens more and are still creating them.  Some fool always wants to get in the last word.   Maybe some sociologists can understand this.  I can’t.  I just keep on deleting them. 

I want to write back on email to these idiots and explain the situation to them, but then I would just be among them.  I just have to get this frustration over with, so I am putting it here on the blog.  If anybody who responded to all in this recent email chain is reading this (and you know who you are) please understand that you are too stupid to be allowed to use Internet.  Turn off your computer and go away.   I know that it is unlikely that any of my readers are in this group, but I am sure we have all suffered from this sort of thing. 

January 07, 2009

Gloomy Days


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 06, 2009


Traffic on 395 near 9th St in Washington DC January 7

Energy independence is neither possible nor desirable.    Well … it is possible for the U.S. to become energy independent.   We could do it in short order if we were willing to pay the price in terms of money and environmental degradation.    The U.S. has the world’s largest reserves of coal.  We have the technology to extract natural gas from oil shale in our western states.   Of course, we could burn wood to heat our homes.  

Of course, this is not the first time I wrote about this subject.  Follow this link for some of the older stuff.

The best energy policy is “all of the above.”   We should have a diversity of sources and a wide choice of options.   We lean too heavily on oil and especially imported oil.  But if we are to address this problem, it is probably a good idea to figure out how we got here.

Why do we import oil and other sources of energy?  Because it is cheaper and easier than the alternatives.   It is that simple.  It is not the result of mistakes or stupidity.   Importing cheap oil instead of using dirtier or harder to use domestic energy makes perfect sense.   Except that oil is not really as cheap as it seems.

Economists talk about external costs and benefits.    When I plant trees, I personally get only a part of the benefits.   The cleaner air & water as well as the wildlife & aesthetic benefits are provided free to others.    When I burn a gallon of gas, I personally pay only part of the cost. The air pollution & CO2 are part of the cost I impose on others. But oil has other costs. 

It seems like something of a divine joke that so much of the world’s easily accessed oil lies near or under unstable countries run by despots or other nasties that are not particularly attached to the values we hold dear.   It is just not smart to be too dependent on these sorts.  Oil to despots is like steroids to petty thugs.   It makes them bigger.    What kind of threat would Saddam have been w/o oil?  He would have been a pissant dictator like Robert Mugabe – a very bad man, but just a local menace.    W/o the wealth poured in by oil, most of today’s terrorists would be neighborhood bandits.    W/o oil, Hugo would be a second class stand-up comic. 

Anyway, a gallon of gas would cost a lot more if it included more of the expenses associated with its provision & protection, the costs of encouraging despots and terrorists as well as the pollution and CO2 it produces.  I will say again, that while I am not a big believer in raising taxes, I believe in taxing gas, or more precisely carbon.   This has many good knock off effects.

As I mentioned above, we burn gas for good & logical reasons.  It is cheaper and easier than the alternatives.   You cannot convince most people to use less gas or switch to alternatives because using gas makes sense.    Many alternative fuel enthusiasts seem not to understand this and persist in thinking that they just need to explain things to the ignorant fossil fuel users.   Maybe just a few more public service adverts will do the trick – not.  

If you want to change the fuel mix, you have to change the incentives.   Nothing works faster than price, as we saw in 2006, when gasoline consumption declined and U.S. CO2 emissions overall actually dropped.   This is the first time this ever happened in a time of robust economic growth.   Higher oil prices are an automatic stimulus to alternatives.  Alternatives that are money losers when oil is $40, suddenly look really good when oil reaches $80.  We are now seeing the reverse begin to set in as the price of gas plummets.  Already drivers are putting on more miles and looking at those bigger cars and SUVs.   

We have a another big chance to make a dent in the oil addiction, make our air cleaner, encourage alternatives and screw some international bad guys.   If we blow it, this will be the third time.   In the middle 1980s, the price of oil dropped and wiped out lots of alternative investments.    In 1998, oil was at an all time low in dollars adjusted for inflation.   Instead of taking advantage, we bought the big SUVs.  A year ago, experts told us that we would never again see cheap oil.  They were wrong.  Let’s make sure not to fall into that cheap oil trap again. 

We really cannot have cheap oil in the long run.   The only real question is whether we pay it in American taxes and stabilize prices to some extent or pay to oil producers and tolerate wild swings that preclude the development of viable alternatives and enrich and corrupt people who don’t like us.  Let’s not make Hugo, Vlad and Mahmoud any happier than necessary.   Opportunities don’t last forever.  This one won’t last very long. 

January 05, 2009

New Tricks for Old Dogs

John Matel looking 

The New Year season is a time for reflection.  I have been thinking a lot about the new communication technologies and my job.  I know this is boring to some/most of the people reading this, and I know that I am being repetitive, but I still don’t have this sorted out in my own mind.
Decisions are easy when values and priorities are clear.  The hard part is figuring them out.  

I got along well with Internet in its early incarnations.  It fulfilled dreams of my youth.   They were nerdy dreams, I admit.  I dreamed of a comprehensive searchable data base that could answer all my questions if I posed them correctly.   We got it. I wanted easy access to the accumulated knowledge of mankind.  We got that too. I dreamed of instant communications networks to pass new ideas.  Got it.

My dreams were myopic, just projections and amplifications of what I already knew.   But the world doesn’t stop and innovations spawn unexpected changes.  The Internet shot clean past my slow moving dreams. 

Internet revolutionized the pursuit of knowledge in mostly good ways.   You can find out almost anything you want to know and connectedness of the web is increasing scientific and practical knowledge immensely.    Knowledge and politics, however, don’t always intersect.  Metastasizing politics on the Internet has been less a good thing.  Let me clarify with an example.

Blogs made it possible to write about your opinions and experience and easily publish it for others to read and comment.  This is just an old technique adapted to new technologies.   It is kind of the Federalist Papers on steroids; a quicker marketplace of ideas, this I like.   But it didn’t stay on that high plane very long.  The messages slid downhill and became shorter and more vitriolic.

The blogosphere and cyberspace in general experienced a kind of evolution, where selection favored the nastiest and the most extreme.  Rather than a universe of ideas, it debauched into a muliverse of pseudo-intellectual hostility.   Many of the online communities became intolerantly self-policing, driving out anybody with divergent views and in the process increasingly coarsening the rhetoric.  Too many online communities became autoerotic circles of hatred, where participants confirmed each other’s prejudices, sharpened their collective teeth, and pulled their groups farther out of the mainstream.  We often cannot persuade or be persuaded by others because we occupy completely different dimensions. 

There used to be a saying that you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. The new media has developed different fact-universes, each with its own specific sets.  This is a challenge and it gets worse.

Now we have all the interactive systems, the Facebooks etc, Twitter as well as interactive gaming.   I just don’t know what to do with them.  I am not sure it is possible for government based public affairs (i.e. someone in my job) to use these technologies because they are so labor intensive and the messages so often intensely idiosyncratic.

Consider the strengths and weaknesses of a government information operation.  My job is to explain the U.S. and U.S. policies to people in other countries.   In what we see in retrospect as the golden age (it didn’t seem that back then), we had certain advantages.   Most important was that government had a monopoly over some sorts of information, but there were other structural advantages.   The technologies favored the one speaker to many listeners paradigm, so a relatively small number of writers could reach a large number of readers/listeners/viewers.   Beyond that, our enemies were easy to identify and possible to count.  The Soviets produced a lot of deceitful propaganda, but we could usually find the return address if we looked hard enough.

None of this is true anymore.  The government no longer has information dominance and is often not the first or the best source even of things about its own activities.   The information market has splintered into millions of pieces and our adversaries are harder to identify.   Essentially, we went from a situation with one big and dangerous bad guy (or a couple of them) to a world where there are thousands of little ones.   The dragon has been replaced by insects, each one inconsequential, but collectively heavier and more intractable.  And they are more quickly adaptive to changing circumstances.  You could always expect the Soviets to be slow and ponderous, not so our new adversaries. 

When it was one-to-many communications, we happy few at State or USIA had a chance to move the communication needle.   In the one-to-dozens communication environment, we just don’t have enough people and never will.   We can get the occasional “viral” hit, but not with any predictability.

I think we still have a chance.  The Internet is starved for content.  We can produce content and/or pictures.  We can also build relationships that might leverage to larger populations.    We can succeed, but I am worried that we will not.  I am also worried that I cannot go along on this ride.   I have been in this business for a quarter century, but I am afraid I might have reached a river I cannot cross.   I have always believed that with the proper tools and permission, I could make a difference and sometimes I have succeeded.   I have not always had the means, but I always had the vision, at least I thought I did.  

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

This worries me.  I don’t know whether it cannot be done in general or if it is just ME that cannot do it.  I a have a responsibility to add value and I always promised myself that I would not hang around after I outlived my usefulness.    I don’t want to try to apply yesterday’s solutions to tomorrow’s problems.    It is funny how things come in circles.  I am having the equivalent of adolescent angst at my age.

I guess I will figure it out, or more correctly I will find people who have figured it out to work with me.  I really don’t understand much of anything, but I have always had the good fortune to find people who do and I have been able to bring out their talents.   I add value the old fashioned way – through good people.  Maybe the old tricks still work for the old dog.  When I cannot do that anymore I will go quietly into that good night – someday, but probably not today.   I still have a lot of thinking to do.

January 04, 2009

Gaza – Poorly Run Since the Romans Left

There is trouble in Gaza again.   Like so many other places around the Middle East, the longest time of sustained peace and prosperity came courtesy of the Romans.   Under the Roman Empire, Gaza enjoyed six centuries of peace and prosperity.  

Goats graze where merchants and scholars met during Roman times 

Above – This is in Amman.  In Roman times it was called Philadelphia.  This is the marketplace  where merchants met and scholars discussed.

At that time, the inhabitants spoke Greek and the city was a center of culture, known for its sophistication and love of the ancient customs.  Probably for that reason, Gaza remained pagan longer than many other cities. It didn’t become Christian until the middle of the fourth Century. 

Anyway, the point is that Gaza is not naturally a terrible place.  If Hamas would wise up, it could be a nice place to live, as it was when it was under better management for six centuries during the Roman times.   Too bad the Romans are no longer in the business.   Please see this link for our visit to the Roman city of Jarash.

It reminds me of Monty Python, when the miltants ask “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

From “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”

Monty Python Life of Brian militants

Reg: They’ve bled us white, the bastards. They’ve taken everything we had, not just from us, from our fathers and from our fathers’ fathers.
Stan: And from our fathers’ fathers’ fathers.
Reg: Yes.
Stan: And from our fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ fathers.
Reg: All right, Stan. Don’t labour the point. And what have they ever given us in return?
Xerxes: The aqueduct.
Reg: Oh yeah, yeah they gave us that. Yeah. That’s true.
Masked Activist: And the sanitation!
Stan: Oh yes… sanitation, Reg, you remember what the city used to be like.
Reg: All right, I’ll grant you that the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done…
Matthias: And the roads…
Reg: (sharply) Well yes obviously the roads… the roads go without saying. But apart from the aqueduct, the sanitation and the roads…
Another Masked Activist: Irrigation…
Other Masked Voices: Medicine… Education… Health…
Reg: Yes… all right, fair enough…
Activist Near Front: And the wine…
Omnes: Oh yes! True!
Francis: Yeah. That’s something we’d really miss if the Romans left, Reg. Masked Activist at Back:
Public baths!
Stan: And it’s safe to walk in the streets at night now.
Francis: Yes, they certainly know how to keep order… (general nodding)… let’s face it, they’re the only ones who could in a place like this.
(more general murmurs of agreement)
Reg: All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace!
Reg: (very angry, he’s not having a good meeting at all) What!? Oh… (scornfully) Peace, yes… shut up!

Roman ruins in Amman Jordan

BTW – The ancient Middle East was nothing like the modern one.   First off, there were almost no Arabs.  Around the coast, most people were Greek, at least in language and outlook.   In Egypt the upper classes spoke Greek and had a Hellenistic culture, while the common people lived a lot like they had under the pharaohs.  Inland in much of what is now Israel, Jordan and Iraq, people spoke Aramaic.   This was the language had been a common language of the Persian Empire.    There were many nationalities in the region, but Arabs were not prominent among them at this time.   Arabs arrived in the 7th Century, when they conquered those places from the Roman (Byzantine) rulers.

Cherub and Byzantine Emperor Heraclius submitting Sassanid king Khosrau II; plaque from a cross. Champlevé enamel over gilt copper, 1160-1170, Meuse Valley.

The Arab conquest is one of the great historical anomalies.   They came just at the right time.   The Byzantine Empire had just finished a long and mutually exhausting war with the Persians. Either of these great Empires could have dispatched the Arab raiders at almost any other time, but in these particular decades they were weakened.  The Byzantines also had a schism problem.   The Christians of Egypt and Syria had a doctrinal dispute with the Christians in Constantinople.   In other words, the armies of the prophet came upon a weakened and divided empire.    Such is the role of chance in history.   

No matter how it happened, it is truly astonishing to anybody who studied ancient history to contemplate the complete transformation and in many cases destruction of the ancient cultures of the region.  A thousand years of Greek culture was submerged in a couple of decades.   It was a much more complete change than happened in the West, where the lands of the Western Roman Empire still speak languages descended from Latin and still have cultures that can be traced to their ancient heritage.  Northern Africa, which is now Libya, Algeria and Tunisia, were very Roman, but that heritage is gone.

I think some of it has to do with the natural environment.   Barbarian invasions in places like France or Italy destroyed much of the infrastructure of civilization, but the environment was more forgiving.   Ancient cities could grow back as times improved.   Roman and Greek cities in the arid places like the Middle East or North Africa were more dependent on the engineering infrastructure.    The Arabs invaders in the south and the Germans in the north were all interested in taking the riches of the Roman Empire, but didn’t really understand the complexities of making it work.    

When the Roman engineers died off or left their work, and no new ones were trained, the great aqueducts broke down.  This didn’t happen all at once, but in the course of some years, the knowledge was lost.  In the areas of the German conquests, natural rainfall allowed a fall back.  Not so in the more arid regions.  That is why you see those Roman cities in the middle of the deserts. The Romans knew how to make these places productive.    

January 03, 2009

Public Diplomacy & New Technologies

Back story
US Capitol just after dawn on January 2, 2009I went to see the new James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.  It is not as good, IMO, as the old Bond movies because Bond has lost his edge, or more correctly, the rest of us have caught up.  In one scene, Bond calls back to his HQ for a name check.   After a couple seconds, the super spy commuter comes up with a picture of the miscreant.   Very impressive, but you or I could come up with the same result on Google Images in around 0.9 seconds.   Bond would have been better off just using his I-Phone himself.  This is the new world of communications. 
Web 2.0/PD 2.0 

Initial use of the web for public diplomacy and strategic communications involved online versions of familiar delivery methods, such as magazines, radio and television.  Despite vast differences among them, all these shared the paradigm of one-way communications, where a set message was delivered to a passive audience in a one speaker to many recipients model.  It ignored the web’s special capacity for interaction.  Web 2.0 refers to the way the web has changed the nature of communications, making it interactive, more fluid and less centrally organized. Last year, Internet passed newspapers as a source of news in the U.S.  For young people Internet is beginning to rival television. [1]

This new world can make many people in governments or powerful institutions uncomfortable, since it signals a diminution of their power over information and a dilution of their messages.   We tend to focus on the instant communication aspect of the Internet, but the sinews of its influence are its capacity to find, sort and distribute information.  Powerful search engines give individuals the power enjoyed only by world leaders few decades ago and before that time by nobody at all.  Governments have lost what monopolies they once enjoyed and are now sometimes not even the most prominent voices.  Controlling information is no longer possible.  On the other hand, there is a greater opportunity for engagement to harness the power of the nation and the wisdom of the crowds to produce better and more robust products.   There is no option of ignoring the development.  Internet users demand a degree of interactivity and accept a measure of ambiguity unpredicted a decade ago.   These trends will accelerate as the first generation of digital natives (i.e. kids who don’t remember a world w/o Internet) has reached adulthood.   This is the new world of communications.  Whether we are ready or not, the future has already arrived. 

Interactivity and interrelations The two concepts to keep in mind are interactivity and interrelatedness.   The first concept is more obvious but the second is more pervasive.   Internet users ostensibly love the possibility of interactivity, but most don’t use it to an extent commensurate with their stated preferences. On any blog, there are dozens, hundreds or thousands of “lurkers” for every active participant.  On the other hand, interrelatedness represents the fundamental power of the Internet and its search engines.  It is the interrelatedness – the unexpected relationships – that makes the Internet such a wonderful and terrible place to do public affairs.

Some say the web provides a venue for the best and the brightest to share ideas w/o the constraints of status or station; others contend it is a place where peculiar people congregate to accrete one dumb notion on top of another.  Both points of view are correct.  The medium of free and often anonymous exchange produces the best and the worst as it emphasizes people on the long tails of the normal distribution.
Mass customization
The ubiquity and interactive aspects of Web 2.0 offer public diplomacy the possibility of direct engagement with thousands of individuals on a global scale.  We can bypass the state run media and the various despotic gatekeepers that have long hounded the quest for truth & knowledge.  In the exchange, however, we get a world of constant change, requiring flexibility and creativity, where you have to earn attention again and again every day.  The interactivity means just what the word says.   When we are trying to influence others, we need to open the possibility of being influenced by them. In a free marketplace of ideas, this would be all to the good.  It would produce a synergy greater than the sum of the parts.  The caveat is that this marketplace of ideas is not as free and open as it would appear.

Pew research graph re Muslim attitudes toward 9/11Our own presence in the mix is the first sign of a constrained freedom.  Although our opponents disagree, our activities are generally benign and broadly truthful.  The USG is constrained to tell the truth by its own rules as well as the continual monitoring by our own free media, interests groups and political leaders in opposition.  For the most part, we are probably too timid in the defense of our positions.   Not so our adversaries.  Most of them are heavy handed and incompetent peddlers of web influence, but there are so many out there that some get it right sometimes and others get it right a lot.  When it works for them, their campaign is based on plausible lies, ones that play to stereotypes and prejudice, and often based on caricatures and exaggerations of our own real and verifiable mistakes and missteps.  In a world where significant numbers of people doubt that there was ever a moon landing and where in communities where majorities don’t think Arabs were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, conspiracy theories go a long way.  And the U.S. is probably the single biggest victim of conspiracy theories.  In a world often driven by dispersed impersonal forces, people look for someone to blame.   The U.S. is always there for that purpose. Countering conspiracy theories with facts and information is futile.   Most conspiracy theories have a built in defense against such quaint ideas as truth or fact.   They are, after all based on “hidden,” “denied,” “secret,” or “occult” information.  True believers in conspiracies derive significant personal status and feelings of self worth from the idea that they know things overlooked by or kept from the masses of people.  It is a true Gnosticism.  As they see it, any counter arguments are merely examples of clever attempts to discredit them.  We have to recognize that some people are incurable conspiracy theory believers.  Others are susceptible to the contagion, but can be cured, but through relationships, not information alone.  A trusted and credible source of the information is what makes the difference.  Web 2.0 provides the opportunity to create such relationships.

In a New World Where Nobody is Well-LovedPew research graph showing declining support for bin Laden among Muslim populationsWe also need to recognize that the constant vetting and finding of flaws, even when done honestly, will create a permanent state of dissatisfaction among large numbers of people.  This is what happens when campaigns go negative and it is just easier to go negative than to defend a positive position.  The U.S., as the most ubiquitous presence in the history of the world, will naturally come under the most scrutiny, fair and foul, but it is a general trend that affects everybody.  The good new in this is that it applies to our adversaries as well as to ourselves.  Al Qaeda’s popularity has also plummeted in recent years among Muslims, for example. [2]

Insiders & Outsiders Internet 2.0 will strengthen “tribes” as people can go online to find others with whom they identify even across great geographical distances.  (Of course, the tribes I am not talking about are not kinship of linage, but kinship of ideas.)  This may lead to greater trust within groups, as they become more uniform and homogeneous, but also lead to a general decline in tolerance overall, since most people will be out-groups to any particular in groups.   Early hopes that Internet would weave the world together in a kind of cyber age of Aquarius have been dashed against the reality of self-selection and segregation.   In a mass information market, differing viewpoints must be tolerated, not so in the case of core groups of believers autoerotically communicating among themselves on the Internet. Where websites and blogs are most developed, disagreements have become sharper and more venomous.   However, the impersonal/personalization of web interactions allows people with very divergent views to coexist and performs mutually beneficial transactions that would be impossible in a face-to-face world.   General “approval ratings” have already become more transactional and unstable, making it even more important to discount what people tell opinion pollsters and watch what they do and get an idea of their true beliefs by their revealed preferences.

Public diplomacy and the marketing mix

The analogy of public diplomacy with marketing is far from perfect, but it provides some useful insights.  When marketing a product or service, you have to understand which communications techniques are appropriate.  Those useful for selling Coca-Cola are often not valuable for selling passenger jets or legal services.  The same goes for public diplomacy.   Our business is more analogous to selling high end legal services than consumer products.  This informs and constrains our choices.
Public diplomacy involves communicating complicated concepts to people who come from a variety of backgrounds and the U.S. operates in a truly global environment.  It involves long term relationship and trust building.   Messages are more problematic.  Some of our world audiences will react in sometimes violently different ways to the same subject.   Imagine the discussion of U.S. attitudes toward same sex marriage at venues in Amsterdam and Jeddah.  Aspects of the discussion popular in one venue would be odious in the other.  In this interconnected world, messages cannot be neatly targeted to a discrete audience.   Even more challenging is that the more extreme members of each audience will seize on the aspects they find most objectionable rather than look for areas of compatibility.   This has long been a problem, but web 2.0 exacerbates it, since one blogger in an audience of hundreds can characterize a discussion for thousands of his compatriots back home.   

In other words, web 2.0 has as much or more capacity to puncture and disassemble public diplomacy messages as it does to deliver them.   The shorter the attention spans media, the more likely this is to be the case.   Twitter with its 140 character limit is a good example.   We have used Twitter successfully to send short messages and a give a “heads up” about bigger things, but it doesn’t easily lend itself to any proactive public affairs task beyond notices and reporting the equivalent of scores or stock averages.  One the other hand, 140 characters is plenty of space for a slogan or attack.  

BTW – the last two sentences of the paragraph above had 327 characters counting spaces.   These two directly above are 140 characters – exactly the right size for a tweet. Good luck with deep explanations.So what do we do?


We look beyond or through the technology to our purpose.  You cannot answer the how question until you have address they why question.  Communication and relationship building is our goal.  Rather than be beguiled or intimidated by technology, we simply need to keep our focus on the goal and use whatever technological tools are most appropriate.  But we do need to acknowledge that changing technologies have changed the game. Common themes not unified messages

There is much talk in public affairs about having a unified message.  The new technologies, with all the links and leaks they entail in the information net, mean we can no longer have one unified centrally crafted message.  We can have themes and goals that are interpreted and alerted by the individuals on the ground and closest to the challenges.   We will, however, need to tolerate significant local variations on the themes and welcome the ambiguity of message delivery. Delivering variations on the themes is much more labor intensive than cranking out a single message because rather than one voice speaking to millions (on the model of the national television program) we will have many voices speaking to thousands or maybe even to hundreds and not only varying the theme to suit particular audiences, but also responding to them and quickly responsive to changes in the environment.  It is important that the theme be consistent but the delivery is protean.  It requires more of a robust process than a comprehensive plan.

Set the Proper Goals for Each SituationThere are many degrees of distinction between active opposition and enthusiastic support.   Americans are particularly afflicted by the desire to be loved in the world, but all that is often required is compliance or even indifference.  Although outright opposition constrains our policy options, America’s image in the world has no discernible impact on the sale of U.S. goods or the acceptance of U.S. cultural products.  Much of the sound and fury of anti-American prejudice signifies nothing or not very much.  The fragmentation of media on the web means that those who dislike us will always have an outlet for their vitriol and they will probably be among those yelping the loudest.  The majority may not have a strong opinion on a particular issue.  They may voice support for our opponents, but take no steps to provide anything practical. 

Military action, which by its very nature is coercive, will almost never be popular and any exercise of power, which inevitably means choosing among priorities, will annoy somebody.  Since you usually get less credit for the good things you do than blame for the bad, any use of power will probably create more perceived losers than winners.  (The world’s superpower is always on the hot seat.  President Clinton gets blamed for not sending troops to Rwanda; President Bush is excoriated for sending troops to Iraq.)  Lack of practical support for extremism and neutrality or even indifference toward our policies among the mass of a country’s people may be sufficient to accomplish our purposes.  Often neutralizing or discrediting opposition will be the most appropriate tact, and Internet is well suited to this task.  We should consider this on a case-by-case basis, rather than compromise practical goals by pursuing the chimera of seeking full throated outright approval.   

All of the aboveUsing technology to communicate will be an all of the above proposition, with a cocktail of technologies usually more appropriate than reliance on any one.  We will never find the Holy Grail or silver bullet of communications technology and we will never again have anything comparable to the nationwide television network where everybody is watching at the same time.   The ability to reach the whole nation was a historical anomaly.   Throughout most of history and in the future, the communication environment was and will be fractured.  It is only because we all grew up in that unusually homogeneous media environment that we think of it as normal in any way.  

The right toolsWe cannot prescribe the particular technological tools for any public affairs task until we have assessed the task and the environment.   What we should be looking for is synergy among the tools.  For example, a live speaker is very compelling but not particularly memorable, while an internet page has the built in memory (you can refer back to it) but is unlikely to be compelling.  Twitter can announce the availability of some piece of information or some event, but it cannot explain the nuances.   An event might be very informative, but nobody comes unless they can be told and reminded.   Obviously a combination of technologies works best, changing them to adapt to circumstances.   BTW – technology is not only high tech or electronic.   A technology is merely a way of doing something.  A personal meeting is a kind of technology.   Sometime the thousands year old technology is the way to go.

We seek the right MIX of technologies, not the right ONE technology.  There is no silver bullet or Holy Grail of communications.  It is easy to be beguiled by the new or the latest big thing, but technology is not communication and the medium is not the message.  It is only the method.  ———————– 

1. Internet Overtakes Newspapers as News Source, Pew Research (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1066/internet-overtakes-newspapers-as-news-source)
2.  Global Public Opinion in the Bush Years (2001-2008)    (http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=263)

Other References

The Future of the Internet III, Pew Research (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1053/future-of-the-internet-iii-how-the-experts-see-it)

Other information is based on personal interviews with those doing public diplomacy as well as extensive personal experience working with USG webpages and blogs.

January 02, 2009

History up Close

Below is the personal story from one of the blog readers about his great grandfather who came from the city of Anah.    It is an interesting and tragic family history.  With his permission I am posting it here.  I will let professional historians sort out the connections and timelines.  I just think it is worth reading and have placed it as it is.

Issak from Anah and Sudan c 1930I am going to tell you the story about my great grandfather Isaak El Eini. As I mentioned El Eini means in Arabic from Anah. The picture I am attaching is not a good picture taken in the 1930s in Khartoum, Sudan. He is the elderly man in the back alone. He was thin, tall, dark. The lady in the front was his niece whose parents had moved from Anah to Khartoum around 1900. 

He was born in the 1860s. He came from a Jewish family. Anah had been a part of the ancient Babylonian Empire. The Jews had been brought over from Judea by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586BC.

Jews, Christians and Moslems lived in the town in harmony with no problems. Each in their own neighborhoods. The family were in the Caravan business. They took care of the camels, merchandise etc. Anah was an important station on the Damascus to Baghdad caravan route (it took 33 days). The caravans comprising of as many as 1,200 camels carrying textiles from Britain, sugar, tobacco, drugs etc would stop in Anah for 3 days as it was here where they would cross the Euphrates river. From Baghdad there were caravans to Basra where merchandise would continue to India and Asia by ship.

After 1888 when the Suez Canal was opened for all shipping it was quicker to transport goods by ship. This devastated the family business. So Isaak left Anah and moved to Egypt, which was prospering from the construction of the Canal. In those days there was no Iraq. It was known as Mesopotamia and like Egypt was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

He moved to Aswan in southern Egypt and began trading with the tribes in the Sudan. In the late 1890s the British decided to take over the Sudan which was ruled by the Mahdi. Lord Kitchener headed the Anglo Egyptian Army. Isaak followed the army as a civilian trading with the Sudanese all the time. When they arrived in Omdurman (Khartoum) they put a siege on the city. However the siege was not working and the Mahdi was holding out.

Girls from the SudanLord Kitchener chose Isaak to act as a spy, enter Omdurman  and to pretend he was a trader who had crossed the Red Sea from Arabia. He brought many gifts to the Mahdi. In return the Mahdi gave Isaak a young boy and girl as a gift to be raised as slaves. Isaak had no choice but to accept the gift.

While in Omdurman Isaak found out that the Mahdi was holding off the siege because some Egyptian Officers were giving / selling arms to him. He left the city and gave all the information to Lord Kitchener.

Kitchener won the battle and became a hero in Britain. As a reward he gave Isaak a lot of fertile land in Omdurman. Soon later he told all his brothers and sisters to leave Anah and come live in Omdurman / Khartoum. They lived there till 1967 and became Sudanese citizens. But in 1967 when Israel and the Arabs went to war, Sudan expelled all the Jews. The family then moved to Britain and Switzerland.

Now Isaak stopped working. He lived off the land holdings and every few years he would sell some acres to live on. He was a terrible husband. and playboy. His wife lived in Cairo all the time with his only daughter Massouda, my grandmother. He would travel to Cairo about once a year to see them. It was basically like being divorced.

In his 70s he had spent all his money. In the early 1940s  my father living in Cairo, heard a knock on the door and it was Isaak. He was sick and died soon afterwards.

As to the two children who were given as gifts by the Mahdi: one was a boy and the other a girl. Isaak’s wife and my grandmother raised them and sent them to school. At 16 the girl got pregnant. Because they wore long wide dresses my grandmother did not realise that she was pregnant. She tried to give birth to the baby and kill it. My grandmother rushed her to the hospital. The needle was infected and she died in the hospital; so did the baby.

The boy later got a job at a bank. His son became a very important official at the same bank.

Hope I did not bore you with such a long story.

Best wishes,

January 01, 2009

Unity & Sweet Liberty

Capitol Washington DC July 2003 looking east

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

US Marine Memorial Arlington VA July 2003 looking north

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

American dominance of the world was unique.  We bounced out of the Depression after WWII at a time when most of the other world economies were in ruins.  At some points, the U.S. produced around half of ALL the world’s production.  Nothing like like that had ever been possible before and is unlikely to ever happen again anywhere.  It resulted from the perfect storm of industrialization, depression and war.  Communist domination of large parts of the world ensured that many places remained uncompetitive and backward for longer than necessary.   Speaking of communism, we cannot forget the Cold War.   The threat of nuclear annihilation focused the minds of those generations and facing a benighted, yet dangerous enemy together leads to shared identify. When we look back at the two decades after WWII, we sometimes see stifling conformity and we unavoidably cast our glance forward to the divisive and challenging times to come.   But we still look l back to the lost feelings of comfort and community and imagine how we could recreate it along with today’s diversity and options for individual expression.  This is an impossible dream. 

Union Station Washington DC July 2003 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 2009!

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