March 2009

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March 31, 2009

Springtime in Washington

It has been a cooler than average spring, but we are getting there.   Today I met Chrissy for lunch up near the U.S. Naval Memorial.  It is around a ten minute walk from my office and it was very nice today.  I don’t have much text, just some pictures from a warm spring day. 

Kits on Capitol Mall flying kites on March 31, 2009

Above are kids flying kites on the Mall

Glrove of magnolias flowering near National Gallery of Art on March 31, 2009

Magnolia grove near National Gallery of Art

Flowers in John Marshall Park near Pennsylvania Ave on March 31, 2009

Springtime in Washington in John Marshall Park

John Marshall Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

John Marshall, longest serving Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  His rulings shaped the Constitution.  Among the key opinions:  Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803); Fletcher v. Peck, 10 U.S. 87 (1810); McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819); Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. 518 (1819); Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. 264 (1821); Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. 1 (1824); Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832); Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243 (1833)

Grand Army of the Republic Monument on March 30, 2009

Monument to the Grand Army of the Republic

Navy Memorial world map

US Navy Memorial.  Look closely.  The patio is a map of the world.  Those guys are walking across Texas and Mexico.

Horse tamer statue

Horse Tamer near world commerce center

Fountain at Navy Memorial in front of Archives on March 31, 2009

Fountain at Navy Memorial.  In background is the Archives Building

March 30, 2009

The Bike Trail to Work

I rode my bike into work for the first time in the season.   There was a very brisk wind from the NW, which was great, since I travel  SW and the tailwind pushed me along.   If only it could be that easy every day.   I lost a couple of week because of early daylight savings time.  I don’t like to ride when it is still dark.  Only now is it getting light when I have to ride.

Cherry trees near the Tidal Basin in Washington DC on March 30, 2009

It is 17 miles from my house to work by the routes I take.   I usually enjoy the ride.   It is like a mini-journey with several distinct segments.   First I leave to complex and cross the freeway.   Then I climb a hill along narrow Shreve Road.   It is a typical suburban street.   About two miles from home, I catch the W&OD bike trail.   It follows the old railroad right of way, so it is not very hilly.  There is a big bridge across Leesburg Pike, but then you go down a segment punctuated each block by city streets.  This is not so good, because you really cannot safely get up speed.   After crossing Lee Highway, you come to the next segment.  

This is the part you can fly.   It is gently downhill, well-paved bike trail next to Route 66.  It goes under the streets, so you don’t have to stop for a couple miles.   It is a pretty ride with Four-Mile Run on the right side.   Beavers dammed the creek a few years ago until local authorities persuaded them to leave.  There are lots of flowering trees, especially crape myrtle and oak and poplar forests.  The trail goes through some crowded neighborhoods, but you cannot tell.  

Bike/running/walking trails on old railroads are good.  They form long narrow parks that provide passages and a lot of accessible green space.   It is a matter of geometry.   A square park is compact with little surface area to intersect with neighborhoods.   In some places, the W&OD park is only about 100 yards wide, but the green impacts lots of space and the acreage goes a lot farther. 

You pass under Wilson Boulevard along the creek.   It doesn’t take much rain to make the creek rise and flood because there is so much hard pavement and rooftops in the watershed.   One time I was riding home during a thunderstorm and almost got swept away by the creek.  I saw that the path was flooded, but I figured it was shallow enough to muscle through.   I got a head of speed and hit water higher than my waste. I had to get off the bike and pull it out.   After that, I was a little more circumspect around the creek.    It is very unstable.  

Forsythia bushes near Jefferson Memorial on March 30, 2009

Right after Wilson Boulevard you come up a little hill and go down some city streets to Carlin Spring Road, then down some more little streets past Glebe Road into Arlington neighborhoods.   They are very pleasant.   I have to track north, a little out of the way to catch Clarendon Boulevard.   I used to be able to go down Pershing and through Fort Meyer, but since 9/11 you can’t pass through the fort.   Clarendon has a bike trial on the street.  You feel a little safer, but not much, since you still share the road with cars and trucks, many of which consider bikes a nuisance that don’t belong on the roads.   I cut across Hwy 50 at Rhodes Av and head toward the Iwo Jima memorial, then downhill along Arlington Cemetery and across Memorial Bridge into Washington.  

Marine Memorial in Arlington VA on a brisk and blustery morning,  March 30, 2009

Usually I then go past the Lincoln Memorial, along the reflecting pond to the Washington Memorial and then along the Smithsonian Mall  to work. Today, however, I cut south along the Potomac to the Jefferson Memorial to see the cherry blossoms.  They are a little behind this year.  Its been cooler than usual, but a couple of warm days will get them back on track.  

Anyway, it is a nice ride with good variety.   I know I have provided too many details, but I feel very much attached to my bike trails.  I have been riding variations of this trail on this bike (I have put thousands of miles on this bike)  since 1997 and some of the closer in sections since 1985, when I lived in Clarendon.   One of the things I like best about living in Washington is that an ordinary ride to work can be such an adventure.

March 28, 2009

Power & Glory

Most people are uncomfortable with the exercise of authority and they usually resent those who do.   Lord Acton’s observation about the corrupting nature of power still applies.  (“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Nevertheless, establishing order requires authority and w/o basic order, nothing much gets done.  Power need not be overly coercive and the most effective leaders are those who welcome the participation of other.    I have written on this subject on many occasions.  But sometimes you come to a bottom line where a decision must be made.   In those times, a leader who refuses to make the hard decisions is shirking his duty. 

Statues near Von Steuben monument in Layfayette Park near Whitehouse in Washington DC on March 26, 2009, a rainy day.
  Leaders who refuse to lead are the leading cause of unhappiness in the workplace, IMO.   Worst of all are the guys who won’t lead, but like to boss.  Next worse are the ones who hide among the rules.  Rules apply to most situations and all routine decisions.  You need leadership for those times when they don’t. Leadership requires the exercise of judgment, which will always seem arbitrary to those who disagree.   
I learned an interesting lesson from an exercise in my leadership seminar last year.  Reference this link for details.  I don’t think it was the one intended.   I was chosen as a group leader by a more or less random and unfair procedure.   In the exercise, points were distributed based on rank but were also earned by individual and group effort.  I determined that our group could score lots more points if we cooperated and with my two leadership colleagues, we created a system that distributed the points fairly.  The facilitators were surprised and (I think) a little chagrined that we were scoring so many points w/o dissention.   We soon got dissention, when another group used the rules to seize power, despite the fact that it cost us all points.   The lesson I took was that the essential task of power is to maintain it.   Nasty and Machiavellian as it might seem, the simple fact is that you cannot accomplish your goals (even if your goal is to pass along power to someone else) if you are deposed.  Weak leadership does nobody any good.

I am reading a book Alex gave me for Christmas called Rubicon.  It is about the fall of the Roman Republic.   The author is very talented, but he evidently doesn’t like the Romans.  His description characterizes them almost as an infestation that infected and ultimately destroyed the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean.   Their virtues of perseverance, bravery and patriotism are seen as merely enablers of their cruelty.   A couple months ago I finished a book called Empires of Trust, which left almost the opposite impression.  I have been reading Roman history for a long time.  They are both right.   The Romans established the greatest Empire in history and brought order, a degree of justice & prosperity to the lands of Europe, Africa and Asia that surrounded the Mediterranean and now are thirty-six separate nations.  They were brave, resolute, consequent and practical.  They were also cruel, mendacious, superstitious and capricious.  In other words, they displayed all the usual attributes of power.

Washington DC on March 11, 2009

I admire the Romans, with all their faults.   Our world is very much based on theirs.  Our American constitution embodies many of the lessons of Rome, only better.  I believe in progress and that sometimes we can learn from history.   We learned from the Romans and we can be better than they were because we stand on their shoulders.  The fatal flaw of the Roman organization was their messy succession procedure.  Augustus established the principate (became emperor) through stealth and maintained it with the fiction that he was merely the first among equals.   He is recognized as a political genius and a great man for his achievement and it was probably the only way to pull it off.   But it avoided some of the responsibly of power and made each transition an unpredictable adventure which often involved murder and the exercise of military muscle.
The Romans were hated and justifiably feared because of their power.  They deprived the people of the Mediterranean of political freedom, what we would today call national self-determination.   If you annoyed the Romans, you paid a high price.   But the Roman Empire provided a great deal of liberty, tolerance and personal autonomy.  (Of course all ancient societies were horrible and oppressive by modern standards.   Remember that progress thing.  But compared with the available alternatives, you were probably better off living in the Roman Empire than anyplace else in the world at the time.)

US Capitol Dome on March 22, 2009

Above – Romans perfected the dome and pioneered the use of concrete in buildings.

Most of my ancestors were among the barbarians who destroyed the Empire and I imagine my grandfather many generations removed scratching himself in the Forum trying w/o success to figure out how all that water got to the fountains.  The Empire fell in 476 in the West (although it hung on until 1453 in Constantinople) but the idea of Rome persisted and the whole world is heir to their achievement.  You can see it in architecture from Shanghai to Seattle.  Washington looks a lot like a Roman city.  The Romans were not very original, but they were experts at assimilating and developing ideas from a diversity of sources.  They developed what became our concepts of rule of law, citizenship, the concept of a republic and separation of powers, so we Americans are especially indebted to them.   Our Founding Fathers knew what we sometimes forget.   

March 27, 2009

Working for the Go’mint

People are breaking down the doors trying to get jobs for the Federal government.   In these inconsistent economic times, the promise of steady work and a good pension trump dreams of riches. 

US Captiol on March 22, 2009

My original plan when I joined the FS was to stay in for about seven years and then start a different career.   It didn’t work out that way.  When my seventh anniversary came, I was in Norway in a great job.   Then I was in Krakow.   Who would ever want to leave a job in Krakow?  Then Warsaw, Fletcher School, it was always something good.  The only time I was really unhappy with the job was brief time when I was doing shift work in the Operations Center 1997-8, but I was only there for nine months and they sent me to Poland for three of those months to work on NATO expansion issues, so I never got around to sending my resume around.  

You have to look at the totality of life that goes with a career, not just the job alone.   As an FSO, I get to travel, meet interesting people, work with a variety of ideas and serve my country.   I am not being facetious when I say that I had the opportunity to go to Iraq and the privilege to live with Marines.  Few jobs offer that sort of adventure to a man north of fifty years old.

US Treasury building in Washington on March26, 2009

State Department has long been a popular place to work and the FS never has any trouble recruiting good people.   BTW – it is a good time to be looking for a job as an FSO.   They are hiring a lot this year.  This year, however, people government jobs are popular across the board.   I have mixed feelings about that.  It depends on why you want to work for the USG.  There is a special responsibly when you work for your Uncle Sam.   Government jobs should be callings, not refuges. 

I am glad that we have so many good people who want to work in the USG.  I welcome them in the FS – follow this link.  But we don’t want too much of a good thing.   America has been an exceptional country ever since our revolution and even before.  There are other models.  France has followed a different, more directed, strategy since its revolution, for example.  France is a great and beautiful country, but I prefer America.  

In France, the best students dream of getting secure jobs in the government. Young Americans have always had visions of being entrepreneurs or running businesses. I am delighted to have enthusiastic and smart young people eager to work with us and they are coming at just the right time.  We will face a wave of retirements in the next five years.  We will need them in the FS to accomplish our mission. But I hope they are doing it for the right reasons (because they want to do good service not just for security) and I hope that soon young Americans will recover their confidence in the economy and themselves.  I hope that some of them will still want to work with us, but maybe not so many.

March 26, 2009

Survival of the Fittest

I have been reading a book called Survival of the Sickest, about how seemingly deadly genetic factors can be explained.  For example, genes for a potentially deadly genetic condition called hemochromatosis helped protect people from the Black Death in the middle ages.  

Below is a mural at the 21st Street entrance at State Department,

Mural at 21st Street Entrance of the US Deptartment of State.

A that really matters for the genes is whether or not you can reproduce, so adaptations that help you do that will be maintained even if they have downsides.  This is especially true of traits that appear in later life.   Throughout most of human history, people rarely lived beyond around thirty-five years old, so anything that happened after that age just didn’t matter. Usually you just had to make it into your early teens in those days to send your genes into the next generation. That explains why a lot of deadly conditions are manifest in later life.  (BTW – It is not survival of the fittest with regard to being strong and good.  Evolutionary fitness just means you succeed in reproducing.  In this respect, the Ocomom has us all beat.)

The book also goes into the interaction between genes and environment and choices.  In that respect, I read a very interesting article today in NYT called “Mugged by our Genes.”  It seems a lot of genetic factors are manifest more in later life.   This doesn’t make much sense at first, since your body and brain are finished developing by the time you are twenty-one.    What is important here is choice.  Many personality traits are genetically influenced and we make choices based on these traits.   A person with a risk taking personality may have chosen a lifestyle that exposes him to more dangers, so is more likely to be injured etc. 

Science sure has changed since I was in school.  Back then if you talked about genetics having a role in society you were shut down by your professor and labeled a racist, sexist etc.  It was a generally accepted idea that people were influenced only by their environments.  As I recall, when the famous and now honored geneticist Edward O Wilson came to speak at my university in the 1970s, somebody tossed a sandwich in his general direction (who knows what that meant, but it wasn’t a sign of acceptance.)  

Wilson, BTW, studies insects and he observed that Marx was right that socialism works; he just has the wrong species (good for ants, not humans).  

Today we understand that both genes and environment play roles and it is the combination of influences that makes us human.   They influence each other to an extent that it is often impossible to separate the causality.  Another interesting book I read called Nature via Nurture explained how some genes are activated by particular environments.   The author talked about a particular gene the produce a propensity for violence that is activated by the experience of violence in childhood.  If the kid doesn’t have the gene, violence in his youth doesn’t doom him to be a violent adult. And if he has the propensity but doesn’t experience violence as a child he will not turn violent.   But in the case when the gene and violence are present, the problems come.  (I read the book three year ago so I didn’t explain this perfectly.Look at the book if you are interested in the longer version. Here is an article re.)

Anyway, we have a significant ethical dilemma and it gets worse the more we can understand and predict behavior.  A person may be violent through no fault of his own, but he still IS violent.  It is unethical to restrict someone for crimes they have not yet committed.  It is also unethical to allow someone to be hurt or killed when we have a moral certainty that it will happen. 

March 25, 2009

Television These Days

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

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

SouthPark episode re the economy

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

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

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

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

Car accident near Capitol on March 24, 2009

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

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

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

March 24, 2009

Popular Names

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

US captiol at 8 am on March 23, 2009

Below are a few interesting links. 

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

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

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

Map showing Matel listings in telephone book

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

March 23, 2009

Don’t Get Fooled Again

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

Slap Chop

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

Pizzaz Pizza Oven

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

Below – magnolias are flowering near the Smithsonian.

magnolias near the Smithsonian on March 23, 2009

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

March 22, 2009

Geriatric Wards for Trees

Trees in established urban areas often are be bigger than trees in rural areas. This is counterintuitive until you think about it.   Although urban trees suffer more stress from human activities, they are also protected and fertilized as individual specimens and are usually spaced farther apart, so they are not in close competition.   Beyond that, trees are harvested in rural areas when they reach or pass maturity, or the bugs get them and they just fall down.  In urban areas, they are often patched, pampered and propped up.  It is unnatural.  We do it for our own artistic tastes.  It doesn’t make much ecological sense, but we humans develop attachments.

Forty-five year old pine plantation near Lottsburg VA on March 20, 2009

I recently visited a stand of forty-five year old loblolly.   This stand is past prime.  Loblollies are sprinters.   They grow fast and although a few can live as long as 200 years, most don’t.  (The oldest known loblolly pine is 245 years old, but none other is more than 200). They grow a lot slower after they reach the age of around thirty-five and don’t grow much at all after they are fifty.  If you look at the picture above, you will see that the trees are planted too thickly. This and the stagnation of age make them much more vulnerable to disease and attacks by insects, such as the southern pine beetle.   Most succumb to disease or accident long before they reach the century mark.  Their lifespan is actually very much like three score and ten, mentioned as the lifespan of a man.  Some of the individual trees are very impressive, and it is good to have a few of them, but the forest itself is not as healthy as it could be when it is dominated by over-aged trees.  In fact, an over aged tree stand is much like a person with a disease such as TB.  Their poor health may adversely impact the health of those around them.

Below – my guess is that these trees are around 80 years old.  They remain healthy because they are isolated and w/o competition and are about as big as loblolly get.  They really are not part of a forest.  They are up against a pasture, which is well fertilized by the grazing animals.  They look good, but they are growing almost not at all anymore.  Notice that they are not much bigger than the forty-five year old trees pictured above

Old loblolly pines on estate where George Washington was born.

I feel bad whenever I see a large tree cut down, but I also don’t like to walk through the geriatric ward for trees in terminal decline.  Trees live a long time, but they don’t live forever and as with any other living thing, few will reach anything near their maximum lifespan.  A tree in decline is not a beautiful thing and it is not good for the health of neighboring trees. If we manage to save the old tree this year, it is not like it will live on forever.  The best choice is to replace the old tree with a couple of new ones and admire the big and healthy old tree somewhere else.  Think total ecosystem, not individual specimen.

I visited George Washington’s birthplace (below) on the Northern Neck the other day and I wondered if little George played under some of the big trees.  I doubt it.  Those trees would have to be around 300 years old and few trees, even most of the long-lived oaks, don’t make it that long.   It is easy to be misled.  An oak tree grows very slowly after it reaches 100 years old, so a 300 year old oak tree is not very much bigger than a 100 year old tree.  

trail on Pope Creek farm where George Washington was born

It is fun to think of the trees as a living link with our past, but unfortunately some of our past is too long ago.   There are still some trees at Monticello that remember Thomas Jefferson & some at Mount Vernon planted when George Washington owned it, but they are up against their maximum lifespan. We are now reaching the edge of the Civil War trees.  I can remember a time when there were living trees at Gettysburg that still bore the marks of the battle. Each year they are fewer and many of us alive today will outlive the last of them.    (The longest-lived trees in Virginia, BTW, are bald cypress found in the southeast corner of the state.)

Below is Pope Creek divided by a sandbar from the Potomac River.  The Potomac is miles wide at this point; from this place it looks like a really big lake or even the ocean.

Pole Creek and the Potomac River on March 20, 2009

The point is that you have to think ahead.    Assume that the big old tree will die and plant similar little trees somewhere else.    Nothing lasts forever, but working with nature we live with sustainable change.

March 21, 2009

Happy Birthday Mariza & Alex

Today we had the Mariza/Alex birthday party.    They were born two years and two days apart.  Mariza came down from Baltimore for the event.  We went to Outback Steakhouse and had some cake.    They are both full adults today, as Alex has now turned twenty-one.   It has been a long time, but  the time flew by when I look back.

Kids on March 21, 2009

Mariza was born in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.  She was born on a hot fall day (seasons are reversed down there).   The hospital was a nice place built by Germans many years ago.   It was on a beautiful street lined with jacaranda trees.    But it was old fashioned.   It didn’t have air conditioning and the windows didn’t have screens, so it was not the most comfortable place.  Mariza was very blond as a baby.  Well… blond but not much hair in general.   Chrissy sometimes taped a bow to her head to tell the world she was a little girl.  Mariza lived her first two years (almost) in Brazil and her first words were Portuguese.   Brazil was a good place for babies and toddlers.   The Brazilians are very child friendly and there was easy access to play groups and day care.  

Below – I carried the kids on my back all over the place.  This is Mariza in the Brazilian pine forest.

Mariza & John in Brazilian pine forest in 1985

On the down-side, there were shortages.    Mariza was born about the same time the Brazilian government set up the Cruzado Plan, which imposed price controls.  Predictably, goods disappeared from the store shelves, including pampers, baby formula and related products.    Big bugs were annoyances.   They have giant tarantulas in Porto Alegre and we were careful that Mariza didn’t try to play with them. 

We had a little pool on the roof of our apartment.   Mariza always liked the water and was never afraid of it at all.  She couldn’t actually swim, however, so we had to watch her closely. 

Mariza at the pool in Porto Alegre in 1987

We chose a Brazilian name for Mariza, since she was born there, but we spelled it with a z instead of an s (Marisa) as they do.   Brazilians pronounce the  “s” more like the way we do “z” (not exactly of course, but closer).  For example, they spell their country’s name Brasil.  We hoped that people would pronounce it with the “z” sound, as they do in Brazil.   Most people still call her Marissa at first, however.

Alex was born in Lacrosse, Wisconsin.  He is the only one of the three kids born in the U.S.  Chrissy and Mariza had to go up to the U.S. earlier.  I had to stay down in Brazil and finish my work there.   They stayed in Wisconsin with Chrissy’s parents.  Chrissy’s sister in law, Barb who is a nurse, was very helpful.  I was in Washington for Norwegian training, but I was lucky enough to get to Wisconsin exactly the right time for Alex’s arrival.   He arrived right on time and right fast.

Mariza, Alex & Espen in Norway

Alex came to us during a disrupted time.  I was in Norwegian training and we were on TDY in Washington living in temporary housing.   By the wacky definition they use today, we were “homeless.”   All joking aside, it was stressful to not have a permanent place.   Alex was a good baby.   Our apartment had only a bedroom and the living room.  Alex had a crib in the living room, so he was always with the family.

We moved to Norway when Alex was six months old.   Getting to a “permanent home” (we stayed there four years) helped calm Chrissy and me and it had an effect on Alex and Mariza. 

Alex and dinosaurs in Norway

I used to take Alex to the swimming pool at the NATO element as Kolsas, not far from Oslo.  I would wrap him in water wings and floaters and he would paddle around the pool.  He developed a lot of endurance.   

We had a townhouse in Norway, with a big room downstairs that opened onto a small yard.   That room became the playroom for Alex and Mariza.   Alex always loved dinosaurs and teenage mutant ninja turtles.  He seemed to like these things before he could talk.   We had a lot of educational tapes.    I suppose he saw it on them.

Norway is one of the most beautiful places in the world, but it is a strange place for a new baby because of the winter darkness and the midnight sun.   In the middle of the summer, it never gets completely dark.  It was hard to get the kids acclimatized.  During the summer they did not want to go to sleep until it got dark and it never got really dark.

Below is Alex at Gettysburg in 1993. He has always been interested in history.

Alex at Gettysburg in 1993

As I said, all that was a long time ago.    It is a strange wonderful thing being a parent.    Past and present mingle.  When I look at the kids, I see them as they are now, but I also have images and feelings accumulated over the previous decades.   


I didn’t have a blog back when Mariza graduated from UVA and I didn’t make a web page.We are lucky in Virginia to have such a good public university system and I was glad that she went to Thomas Jefferson’s university.    It is not easy to get into the University of Virginia these days and I was proud that she got in and thrived there.

Below is Thomas Jefferson looking over our family.

Mariza graduation

March 19, 2009

Learning Organizations

The U.S. Marines are a learning organization.   During the year I was lucky enough to serve with them in Iraq, I was continually amazed at how fast information spread among them.   Then it would mutate, improve and become better adapted to the situation at hand.   The USMC skill and alacrity as a learning organizing was a necessary and key component of our success in Anbar province in 2006-8.   They adapted to changing circumstances and overcame obstacles.    

Marines talking to tribal leaders in Al Anbar province

Like all greatness, the USMC success is based on apparent contradiction. The Marines manage simultaneously to be hierarchical and egalitarian.   The also have very strict rules and at the same time very flexible execution.  The commander’s intent is very important even if it turns out that the specific instructions did not survive first contact.  Finally, virtually all Marines are intensely interested in helping other Marines, although this is sometimes masked by their tough exteriors.  Officers take responsibility and interest in their men.   They spend a lot of time mixing and talking with them.   This is one of the things that make them a learning organization.   A lot of information passes informally.  The leader, in one sense, provided the organizational connective tissue. Anyway, scholars have studied Marine leadership for literally centuries and I know there is a lot more, but those are the lessons I took and the ones I think apply generally.

The Marine organization I saw in action in Iraq contradicts many of the stereotypes we hear about them.  I realize, however,  that if I say that I want my organization to be more like the Marines, most people will conjure up an image far different from the one I envision.   So let me fall back on some other ideas that have stood the test of time and are similar but civilian.  

I read In Search of Excellence when I started my MBA in Minneapolis in 1983.  It is hard to recall now what a ray of hope that book was for me and my classmates.  We were coming off the terrible end of the 1970s and had recently suffered double digit unemployment, double digit inflation and mortgage interest rates that reached 20%.  Pundits told us that America could not longer compete in the world.  We were doomed to become the hinterland for the Japanese juggernaut.   Our business models were defunct, they told us, and we better get used to being second rate, or at best a clumsy dysfunctional giant.  This wasn’t how it turned out, but the future didn’t seem very promising when the book came out in 1982. 

In Search of Excellence came along and told us about American companies doing excellent things and succeeding and it told us how.  In some ways the ideas were revolutionary, but in most ways they represented the traditional American adaptively. It was our American wisdom encapsulated.  This is one reason In Search of Excellence became one of the best selling business books of all time and why it remains in the core of classics on management and organization.  

The book identifies eight characteristics of excellent organizations.

  1. A bias for action, active decision making – ‘getting on with it’.
  2. Close to the customer – learning from the people served by the business.
  3. Autonomy and entrepreneurship – fostering innovation and nurturing ‘champions’.
  4. Productivity through people- treating rank and file employees as a source of quality.
  5. Hands-on, value-driven – management philosophy that guides everyday practice – management showing its commitment.
  6. Stick to the knitting – stay with the business that you know.
  7. Simple form, lean staff – some of the best companies have minimal HQ staff.
  8. Simultaneous loose-tight properties – autonomy in shop-floor activities plus centralized values. 

 Burgers of Calis in Hirschhorn garden on March 18, 2008

We can dress them up in terms more appropriate to 2009, but I think, precisely because they were distillations of successful practices, they still form the core of what a good organization should be like.   The only one I would explain is # 6.  It sounds less adaptive than it is.  The authors did not mean and I don’t think we want to stay with what you are doing now.   They were simply admonishing leaders not to just jump into the latest fads or spread themselves too thin with disjointed priorities.   They wrote the book at the tail end of the great merger mania, when giant conglomerates were making it difficult to identify core values or core competencies.  

I think the longer and updated version would be to branch out from core competencies rather than being distracted by every new thing that comes along.  I also think this should be modified with a little more systems thinking, but overall it stands.

March 18, 2009

A Continuous Process, Not a Plan

It was a nice warm spring day.  I ran around the Mall at lunch and had some random thoughts on using the new media.  I know that is nerdy, but it is what I do. 

Below is a pickup game on the Mall.  I am not sure what they were playing.  They had a soccer ball, but nobody seemed to be kicking it.  They were just wandering around.  BTW – I ran past them near the start of my run, and when I got back around them 20 minutes later they had made no progress. Maybe they were just enjoying the warm weather.

pick up football game on Smithsonian Mall on March 18, 2009

·         The New Media is NOT about technology any more than what you say on the phone or watch on television is about technology.    The new media is about using appropriate technologies and techniques with audiences or organization based on cultural, personal social, anthropological or organizational logics.   It is – in short – an intensely human paradigm.  Technology is the easy part – the transparent part.

·         The fluid and protean nature of the new media requires more flexibility and individual responsibility than we have seen in the past, and maybe more than many of us are comfortable with.  

Magnolia trees in front of Smithsonian on March 18, 2009

·         In the new media, you not only learn by doing but you shape the reality by what you do.  That means that nobody merely observing the activities can properly understand the reality because it is in the process of being created.

·         Most organizations have a fantastic amount of expertise and knowledge locked in our people.  Together we can come to good decisions faster and better than committees of experts.   Our biggest challenge is to tap that power and channel it w/o ruining it by over directing the resource.    

Train passing 6th St in Washington on March 18, 2009

·         In general, I do not think a plan is possible, if what we mean by a plan is a specific set of things we will do and specific resources we will use.  The technological and social tools we will depend on five years from now or even next year have not yet been developed.   What we can bring into being is a process that will take us toward our goals, w/o specifying exactly what actions need to be taken.  In this way we can take advantage of all our aggregated knowledge, skills and passions for the work. 

March 17, 2009

Dinosaurs Die; Lizards Soon Starve

Everything must be produced before it is consumed but it is easy to forget the roots when you are enjoying the fruit.    I fear this is happening in the media in regards to the “new media”.   Pew recently issued a report on the media.  It is rich in detail and hyperlinks.  I recommend it.  The new media is killing the old media, but may not provide a viable alternative. 

Tyranosaurus exhibit in Orlando FloridaI am an avid user and producer of the new media, but I recognize that the way the new media lives off the mainstream media is more parasitic than a symbiotic. Most of the reliable information gathering is still done by professionals and paid staff of traditional media.  The new media repackages and reprocess it.   In doing this, they sometimes add significant value.   Maybe the resulting remix is objectively worth more than the raw material.  But you still need the raw material. 

Everything must be produced before it can be redistributed or consumed. The new media produces a lot of free riders.  They consume the information products of the mainstream media (MSM) w/o paying for it. You can get away with this as long as there are strong institutions doing the grunt work. You can even disparage these plodding pedestrians.  They denizens of the old media are not nearly as quick, cool or beautiful as those in the new media, but they do what needs to be done. 

Many people in the new media work for nothing.  Some do this voluntarily and they know it; others think their big idea will catch on or they will someday figure out a way to make money off that blog.  Just enough make the breakthrough to bucks and/or fame to keep the others running after the prize.  It is a great way to have fun and foster innovation.   It is not a very good way to produce a product day-in and day-out.   For that you need the plodding pedestrians and you need an income stream. The business model that supported the old media is collapsing.   I don’t know what will take its place.  Newsweek featured a cover story where the author advocated a kind of iTunes business model.    Others have talked re the problem of making this work.  Micro payments might work, but probably will not.

One of the secrets to iTunes is the long tail. I mean the “tail” on a normal distribution curve.  Most of the sales are made near the center, but iTunes has found that the tails, i.e. the less popular to obscure titles, go on forever.  While they don’t sell many of any particular title, the non-mainstream titles are a group sells very well because there are so many of them.  These titles are often practically free for iTunes and w/o iTunes they would be practically unattainable. Yet iTunes gets $.99 for each of them with almost zero transaction or inventory costs.  The volume of the obscure is a major source of revenue. (Somebody still wants “Cool Water” by the Sons of the Pioneers.) I don’t think you will be able to do that with newspaper articles.   Yesterday’s news is not very valuable to anybody.  Nobody feels nostalgia for the news story their father read back in 1965, as they might for an old song.  So who will buy it?

Giant ride at Orlando  Most participants on the new media are self-taught, self-regulated and self-directed.  We write about what we like and cover stories as we like to.  The new media is more about opinions and personal viewpoints than it is about facts.  Let me speak as a new media person.  I try to be factual in my writing, but I don’t try to get all sides and I don’t pursue a story after I get sick of it.   I hope what I write is interesting and it may be a supplement to the news, but it is not the news.  All I know about what I don’t see myself comes from the media.  W/o that, I would not know much. 

Some people in the new media like to think of the old media as slow-witted dinosaurs, deserving of extinction.  They see the new media as the quick-witted and adaptive and they are right.   But the new media depends on the old media to an extent most don’t appreciate.  When the dinosaurs die off, the lizards that live off their droppings soon follow

March 16, 2009

The Ultimatum Game

We often “know” things are right or wrong w/o being able to express exactly how we know it.    And that is why we instinctively recoil at various types of injustice and immorality even when we can find no intellectual or legal basis. 

Elephant at Busch Gardens Tampa

In our skeptical age, however, it is nice to have more empirical evidence.  Here I would point to the ultimatum game, which shows how people will seek justice even when it doesn’t do them any good.   In the game one participant is given a sum of money (say $10) and is supposed to divide with another participant.   The giver can offer any amount he wants.  The receiver has the option only of taking it or leaving it.  They don’t negotiate, hence the ultimatum.  If the recipient accepts the offer, both get to keep their share.  If the recipient rejects the offer, both get nothing.

A rational theory (or a cynical one) would suggest that the giver should offer as little as possible and that the receiver should be happy to get it, since the alternative is zero.   Yet wherever the game is played, the givers usually offer about half and in those cases where an unfair offer is made, the receivers almost always reject the offer, even though it means getting nothing.   This is a very human nature choice; it is not rational.  

Justice is not rational.  It is moral and emotional.  It is based on our humanity.  As GK Chesterton said, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason.  He is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” 

The variations on the ultimatum game also show that it is not only about equality.  If both participants believe one of them has a better claim to more money, from expertise, work etc, they are willing to offer and accept different amounts.    What we are evidently looking for is shares corresponding to fairness, not mere equality.  I think this makes sense.  We should give people what they deserve tempered with compassion.   It is not fair to treat unequal efforts equally, nor is it fair to treat equal efforts unequally.  This is justice. 

I think that is why I am annoyed, like many Americans, about the AIG bonuses.  I don’t begrudge a bonus IF the person is doing a good job and deserves it.   A reward comes from doing a good job.  But it offends the fundamental concepts of justice to take taxpayer money to reward those who evidently didn’t prevent their firm from being destroyed – i.e. did a bad job.  It is like rewarding the captain of the Titanic for not hitting an iceberg – oh wait …maybe there should be no bonus.

How much more shameful is it to make a bonus for sinking the ship?  Even if it is only a figurative ship in the case of some of our financial institutions; they are still at the bottom of the economy and dragging many others with them. 

It points to the moral hazard with any kind of bailout.   It tends to protect bad behavior.   It may be unavoidable to protect the bad behavior that got us into this mess.  It will do us no good if we let it drag us all down to prove our point.  But we should not reward it.

It seems like we have been given an ultimatum.  What do we do?

March 14, 2009

Markets for Environmental Services

We are all excited that natural communities offset some of the carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels, but we have to put it all in context.   We have to recall that carbon offset is only one of the thousands of ecological services performed by natural communities.  I will say more about that below, but let’s start with the carbon.

Below is construction on a Hot-Lane interchange on I 495.  This area used to be covered with trees.  We traded trees for travel time. Everything we do is a tradeoff.  We should just be sure we know what trades we are making and make them well. More on congestion pricing at this link

Hotline construction on 495 near I 66 and Tysons Corner Virginia on March 11, 2009

Carbon is as necessary to life as oxygen.   Growing plants covert carbon dioxide to biomass and release it when they decompose or respire and this cycle has been going on for billions of years.   The processes have been roughly in balance.  

Carbon cycle, Source: J. Lehmann, “A Handful of Carbon,” 2007. Nature 447, pp. 143-144.They have to be; otherwise all the carbon would have been used up billions of years ago and life on earth would have perished.  This explains why a mature ecosystem absorbs little carbon dioxide.  And this is the problem with offsets.  An established old growth forest doesn’t remove much carbon from the atmosphere.   A rapidly growing new forest soaks up a lot of carbon, and that is what we are growing now, but eventually it becomes a mature forest.   In the short run, offsets can compensate for a small percentage of industrial CO2 emissions but in the long run carbon absorption will balance carbon release.  The USDA has a good online calculator for how much carbon is sequestered in various types of forests.   Forests can sequester carbon in the branches, roots, soils and understory of living forests, as well as long-lived wood products (the wood that in your house will be around a long time.)   Offsets will buy us some time and they are worth doing for that reason alone, but there are lots of other reasons to preserve natural lands and maintain the ecological services they provide.   

Below is a clearcut.  This was covered by a mixed hardwood forest and I don’t know why the owner decided to slick off the trees.  I don’t like it, but it is not my business and this is not necessarily the end of the forest.  It can be replanted or grow back naturally, unless it is coverted to other uses.  By the end of the summer, this bare ground will be covered with vegetation and provide good wildlife habitat.  In three years, it will be ideal bobwhite quail habitat, for example.  It looks really ugly to human eyes, however.

Cutover land on SR 623 in Brunswick Co VA on March 6, 2009


Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone

We are used to getting ecological services for free or by imposing costs on others.   Economists call them externalities.   Among ecological services these include things like carbon, sediment removal, water, air, biodiversity, open space and natural beauty.   But it’s getting harder to get these things free and others are increasingly unwilling or unable to provide them as a public service and we are facing a tragedy of the commons.  By 2025 Virginia will probably welcome 3 million new residents and we are projected to lose a million acres of forest land to development.  (When a forest is harvested, it can grow back.  When it is converted to other uses, such as homes or parking lots, it is lost for a long time or essentially forever.) As our populations grow and demands increase, it becomes clearer that we have to find prices for these priceless goods.    Otherwise they will continue to be wasted and abused.

Markets can handle risk, but they do less well with uncertainty.  A market in ecological services requires a lot of the same things as other markets.   It is harder in the ecological services market because definitions and measurements are difficult.  Any measures have to be science-based and compatible with regulations.  Beyond that, markets thrive when transaction costs are low; rules are clear; there are credible measures; an adequate number of buyers and sellers and – perhaps most important , trust – trust that contracts will be honored, goods and services will be more or less as represented and trust that markets will persist for a reasonable amount of time.

Below are matrure beech trees in front of a new pine forest. This is great wildlife habitat, since it combines old woods, young woods and ground vegetation.

Beech trees on Johnson Matel Tree Farm, Chrissy's Pond unit, on March 6, 2009 showing wildlife habitat

Given the unusual nature of ecological service, the dominance of regulation and the need for a long-lived authority to define products and enforce agreements, there is a useful role for government to jump start the creation of a such a market.   Section 2709 of the new Farm Bill gives the USDA the responsibility to study and foster markets for ecosystem services.   In our region we also have things like the Bay Bank  

Markets are usually the best way to aggregate information,  allocate resources and organize diverse needs and contributions.  Now is an exciting time for ecological services markets.    This is how it looks at the early stages of a market formation.   There are lots of entrants, a plethora of good ideas and chaos.  We have to tolerate ambiquity, while reducing it.  From all this ferment I am sure solutions will come.

March 13, 2009

Priceless Ecological Services

The problem with not putting a price on nature is that it becomes too expensive.    Landowners may dread a visit by an environmental activist.   They fear the discovery of a rare species or a sensitive ecology on their land.  Why should that be?

Below is the Lewis & Clark monument in Charlottesville, near the Omni Hotel where our conference on ecological services was held.

Lews & Clark statue near Main Street in Charlottesville, VA on March 13, 2009

Think about what should be an analogous situation.   What if a geologist shows up at your house and says that he thinks there is gold on your land.   Do you throw him out of your house and avoid him next time he comes around?     If someone wants to show you a better way to grow pine trees or crops on your land, do you feel you have to call your lawyer to protect you?   Why not?

Of course you are delighted to find gold on your land and you are enthusiastic about making it more productive in terms of crops or timber because it makes your land more valuable and gives you more options.   Finding rare species or having local environmentalists take unusual interest in your land will have the opposite effect because the benefits of the ecological services are widely shared by the greater community, while the landowner bears the expenses and the downside risk.  This is more than unjust; it is stupid.

I am continually astonished by the passion among landowners I meet to be good stewards of their land.   Most want to leave a legacy to future generations.  They are willing to spend money and time to protect and improve the environment, but landowners need to be concerned about open-ended liability and uncertainty related to changing standards.   And they are afraid that self-appointed “stakeholders” will dictate expensive or specific solutions and that they will lose control of their land.

Charlottesville, VA on a spring day March 13, 2009

Above is spring-time coming to Charlottesville, VA on March 13

Environmental gold

Endangered species are rare and precious, like gold.  Ecological services are valuable and useful products of the land, just like timber and crops.   But unlike gold, timber or a corn crop, we lack a good way to price most ecological goods and services.  I am not advocating that we find the price of everything and value of nothing.  But value has to have some relation in price society is ready to pay.  As it stands today, beyond the rewards of virtue, landowners have few incentives to produce ecological services and little financial support to make needed investments.  

Let me return to my gold analogy.  You discover gold on your land. The estimated value of the gold is $1,000,000 but it requires a $50,000 investment to get it. You would be foolish not to make this investment because you will make twenty times as much as you spend. Now imagine that you still are required to make that $50,000 investment and let the miners use your land, no matter how inconvenient, but all the gold that you get from your land is distributed equally to everyone in the country. How generous. Your share is less than a penny, but you also get the satisfaction that you have done something nice.  Of course, other stakeholders might still demonize you (it cost them nothing to complain) if you are less than 100% enthusiastic about paying the full costs or if you cannot come up with the $50k.  Welcome to the priceless world of ecological services.

The incentives are wrong.  We have to change them and make it more profitable to produce or protect clean water, air, wildlife and natural beauty.  This will give the incentive and the means to those who do the work and make the decisions.  When I mentioned this incentive problem to an apartment dwelling friend, he scoffed and told me that landowners just had obligations and that we should just pass laws forcing them to comply.  Let’s overlook the totalitarian aspects implied by this statement and consider only the practical implications for our environment.  Is a command, compel and control paradigm the best way to move forward or should we try to get cooperation?   

Governments can make all sorts rules, but enforcing them is difficult w/o general support. (Many of the most environmentally degraded countries in the world have beautiful laws on their books, but nobody pays attention.  Don’t be fooled by so-called international comparisons,)  This is especially true in out-of-the-way places, i.e. places like forests.  A lax & casual attitude toward rules you don’t support is easy when nobody is watching.   But making one-way, difficult to enforce, rules has worse implications than simple non-compliance.  We also lose the ideas and intelligence that may solve some of our worst problems.

Enthusiasm needed, not mere compliance

Nobody is saying we should just get rid of the rules.  Anybody who remembers how things were thirty or forty years ago knows that we needed to take action and it worked.  But a generation ago, environmental protection was simpler.  Big sources were easy to identify.  You could look up to the smokestack or down to the pipe and make a rule to stop it.  We did a good job of cleaning up and we have eliminated most of the easy ones already.   I tried all day to find a dirty smokestack so that I could put the photo with this post; I couldn’t find one.  Today we not only have a challenge controlling pollution; we have even a bigger problem finding and identifying them.  More than 70% of the pollution entering Chesapeake Bay comes from non-point sources.   It is no longer the end of the pipe, or even the end of the cow, but pollution may be run–off from suburban lawns or fertilized fields.  It might be from your house or car.   Beyond that, environmental degradation can occur both from things you fail to do and from things you do.  We have a big storm water problem in Northern Virginia because people make sure water quickly runs away from their houses, but they don’t provide a place to soak in.  And drivers demand that tons of salt be dropped on any ice or snow that dares form on roads.  (BTW – we essentially require people to pollute the Bay by allowing the threat of lawsuits to fall heavily on anybody who fails to salt.  Sometimes bad things happen because of not in spite of our best efforts.)

In this more complicated environment, we really need to use the power of people’s imagination and intelligence. But you cannot force people to be creative.  The rule makers cannot even know which rules to make. With the right incentives, however, individuals all across America will be actively looking for opportunities to make things better.  The best way to  harness this “people power” is through a decentralized, distributed decision-making method, where individuals are autonomous but aggregated.   That way we can take advantage of all the information available to the masses of unrelated individuals and allow those people closest, most affected and most knowledgeable to have the greatest impact.   All these things together is what we usually call a market.    We need market solutions to environmental challenges.

March 12, 2009

Comparing Apples to Apples

Ecological services seminar in Charlottesville Virginia on March 12, 2009

Typical economic statistics do not include most of the things that keep us alive.   A big reason is that we just don’t understand that “ecological services” we get for free because we have not figured out good ways to measure them.     Estimates of the true worth of ecological services can range from near zero (a free good) to absurdly astronomical figures.   I suppose we can say that they are priceless in both cases.   

But we do indeed need to find a way to measure these services, because anything that doesn’t get measured gets wasted.  Anything that belongs to everybody gets abused by anybody.   And anytime the ones getting the benefit are not the ones paying for it … you get the picture. 

Robin near the road to Charlottesville VA on March 12, 2009

Above is a spring time robin.

We discussed how to value and compensate ecological services and compare them to more conventional economic measurements at an ecosystems services seminar in Charlottesville.   There was a lot to think about and  I will write more about it tomorrow. 

Until then, there is a good Congressional Budget Office (CBO) explanation of how a Federal cap & trade on CO2 would work

March 11, 2009

Carbon Tax Shenanigans

John Matel in Hirschhorn glass sculpture on March 11, 2009 

A solution is elegant if it isgracefully concise and simple; admirably succinct.  Elegance also implies beauty and a profound understanding.   The opposite of elegant solutions are clumsy, complicated and cumbersome.  The parts fit together poorly and there are too many of them.  We are working toward this sort of non-elegant solution to our problem of CO2.  

I read today in Scientific American that the EPA will begin a carbon register.  This will be a sort of Doomsday Book of carbon emissions, detailing emissions great and small with the eventual intent of regulating and taxing them.   (You will recall that William the Conqueror commissioned the original Doomsday Book precisely so that he could squeeze the maximum taxes out of the newly subjugated Saxons.) 

William the Conqueror
The announcement of the carbon Doomsday Book was greeted with ecstasy and enthusiasm by the chattering, regulating and taxing classes.   They anticipate this will be as useful to them as the medieval version was to the Norman barons.  If it moves, tax it; if it keeps moving, regulate it and if it stops moving subsidize it.   This becomes much easier if you have detailed records.  

I am not against taxing carbon.  On the contrary, I think we should tax it a lot.  It is the most elegant way of reducing greenhouse emissions and weaning us away from oil, which is often controlled by bad men in unstable places.  (We don’t fight wars FOR oil, but we certainly have trouble BECAUSE of it.)  The carbon tax is elegant in its simple form.  It creates the proper incentive and it has a minimal effect on freedom.  It actual solves the problem while letting people and firms use their intelligence, imaginations and energy to find innovative ways to  benefit from the new situation.   That is why we won’t get the simple version.  Kiosk at Smithsonian across from a bubbler but still with $2.50 water on March 11, 2009
Inelegant solutions persist because they create opportunities for well-placed people to squeeze out fees, skim off profits & collect tolls.   A good metaphor, in fact, is a bumpy, winding toll road full of steep turns and choke points.  Lots of people can collect tolls at these places.  Others exploit the traffic charging higher prices to those who inevitably get stuck on the road.  Garages make money by fixing flat tires and broken axles.  The authorities can reward their friends with permits and special exemptions.  And all the crooks can pretend that they want to fix the problem. They probably hold telethons; celebrities attend; politicians make promises. All this frenetic activity distracts the mass of people like a shinny object.  They may even thank the perps for being inconvenience and ripped off.  Occasionally, someone will smooth down a few bumps or fill some pot holes.  Regulators will force some of the greediest exploiters to lower their prices, and everybody is grateful, but those who could really solve the problem in a systemic way make sure that nobody builds a bypass that will improve conditions at the expense of their sweet deals.
So the carbon Doomsday Book will form the basis of some kind of cap & trade.  Cap & trade can work. It worked beautifully, inexpensively and elegantly to reduce the pollution (SO2, NOX etc) that led to acid rain.  But it requires as preconditions a relatively small number of participants with an easily measured output working under roughly similar conditions enjoying available alternative options all subsumed under a system that can ensure against cheating and/or excessively gaming the system.   Carbon cap & trade meets none of those conditions because carbon is everywhere. 
Every human activity produces CO2.  Notice I did not use the qualifier “almost”, because you are producing CO2 as long as you are breathing and even after you stop doing that, you continue to emit CO2 when you decompose.  When you include other greenhouse gases, such as methane, you covered almost anything you can think of doing beyond breathing.   

Globe sculpture at Hirschhorn on March 11, 2009
CO2 is not pollution.  It is a necessary part of the ecological system.  We just may have added a bit too much of it for the current balance.   That means that regulating this is extremely difficult through anything except a very simple tax on the fossil forms of CO2 (oil, coal, gas etc). 
You can imagine the absurdities & shenanigans that will come from a political interpretation of the cap & trade on ubiqutous carbon.  Politically powerful groups will get exemptions.  Others will figure out elaborate ways to game the system.  Maybe if all our employees just held their breath … I am not completely unbiased.  My forests produce carbon credits, which I could sell to rich celebrities, who can then devastate the atmosphere with guilt-free impunity. I explained how I rationalize this in an earlier post, but you will find people a lot smarter than I am with even better rationalization.  They will all form long lines at the government trough.  Most will get more than the couple hundred dollars a year my forest land earns by doing things less useful than growing trees.  

Cars along the Metro line on I 66 in Fairfax VA on March 11, 2009
The cap & trade will cost us at least $646 billion (yes billion with a b) by 2019.  I think that is a price we must be willing to pay.   Price is the only thing that reliably stimulates conservation and energy innovation.  Experience shows that CAFE standards just make activists feel good and provide political cover.  And all the talk about conservation is just people talking until the prices go up.  In 2006, the U.S. succeeded in reducing its CO2 emission during a time of rapid economic growth.  No other major country had ever done that.  How?  The only thing that was different was price of oil.  
Besides, it doesn’t have to be all downside.  The potential energy solutions are related to some very cool technologies (nanotech, biotech, better materials etc) and the advances might well be worth more than the cost – IF the incentives are right.   We need to keep it simple and elegant.  A simple tax on carbon will do that.    Cap & Trade might work for carbon too, but given the fecklessness of politicians it will probably cost more than it should and produce less innovation than it could.

You can read more about the advantages of a carbon tax v cap & trade at this link.  

March 10, 2009

Targeted Online Advert

I wanted to experiment with Facebook advertising, so over the weekend I made a simple ad directing people to one of my blog entries and ran it for three days in to college students in Germany and Poland . It took less than five minutes to make and submit the ad. I just wanted to see what would happen.

West Falls Church Metro station on March 7, 2009

The complaint about advertising is that it mostly falls on those who don’t notice the ad or don’t care about what you are selling. (Many people treat commercial breaks as bathroom opportunities.) So, you don’t know who saw your ad. You don’t know if those who saw it paid attention. You don’t know if people who paid attention cared about it. And you don’t know if those who cared were committed enough to do anything. For Facebook ads, you pay only if someone clicks through to your site. The completed transaction indicates that the person is interested in your content because they took a required action to get to you. The ad may have appeared in thousands of places, but you pay only for the ones who saw it, paid attention, cared about it and took action to get more information. Google, Yahoo etc, offer similar deals.

Coca-Cola pavillion at Universal Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida in March 2002

You get the advantage of precise targeting, the Holy Grail of marketers through the generations. You can be reasonably certain that your advert for Denture Cream is not reaching an audience of mostly teenage girls. It is a fascinating new world for marketers and public affairs professionals, but it seems like nobody has figured it out how to thrive sustainably in this embarrassment of riches. Maybe those who know are not saying, but those who say clearly don’t know. Anyway that is why I did my experiment.

It cost me $16.93 to reach thousands of people over a three day period and get 180 new visitors to my blog entry on forestry. That doesn’t sound like many, but when you consider that on an average day I get only around 500 visitors to all the pages put together, it starts to add up. Mine is not a commercial site and I don’t sell or promote anything, but for someone who is in business a prospective, interested customer in the shop (so to speak) is probably worth the nine-and-a- half cents it costs.

Advertising Age has an article about this. They say that Facebook is now sending more traffic to some sites than Google. I believe it. In addition to targeting, Facebook has the community aspect going for it. It is a pseudo-personal relationship, but it can seem real, elevating a targeted online ad to almost a word-of-mouth recommendation.

Interesting implications. Will Facebook steal market share from Google? Will Google create its own verson of Facebook? Will both be displaced by an idea not yet formed and events that haven’t yet happened? The world of new technologies changes so quickly and it is possible to identify the winners only after they have come and gone. Sic transit gloria mundi – much faster than ever.

March 09, 2009

U Street & Black Heroes

U Street was a cultural center in the past and is so again.  It was where Duke Ellington played.  For a while it was the biggest and most prosperous black community area in the U.S.   It fell on hard times in the 1960s, but recently has bounced back. 
U Street True Reform building on March 7, 2009

My friend Victor bought a townhouse in that neighborhood about fifteen years ago.  He got a really good deal on the place, but the neighborhood wasn’t nice back then.  We went to dinner at his house one time and somebody set a car on fire a couple of houses down from his.  Victor assured us that this had never happened before and it evidently was an abandoned car.   The fire was set more out of boredom than malice.  Still, it is not something you see every day and it is an unpleasant smell.  Things are much better now. A big plus is the Green Line Metro stop.   Development follows the Metro in the suburbs and redevelopment comes to neighborhoods near city Metro stops.  
Building on U Street on March 7, 2009

At the Metro stop is the African American Civil War Monument.  It looks a little out of place.  Most civil war monuments are in the midst of fields and forests.   This one is a little cramped in the city, surrounded by streets and pavement.   There was not very much to see at the monument itself.  I walked around a couple of times, but there was a sign for a museum a couple blocks away, so I walked up there.
African American Civil War monument on February 7, 2009

The museum was worth the trip because of Hari, one of the curators.   He had an obvious love for the history and a knowledge that went along with that.   He told me that around 10% of the Union Army was made up of African Americans.   They were often employed in reconnaissance and what today we would call counter insurgency.   They protected the camps and the supply lines.  It is a crucial and very dangerous task, but one that by its nature is largely done away from the main body in relative obscurity.   You can read more re the museum at   It is worth going to see.  It covers a neglected part of our American history.  We should remember bravery and honor sacrifice.

Hari told me about a John Wells Jefferson, who was a colonel in the 8th Wisconsin Infantry, raised Wisconsin in 1861 and served primarily in the Mississippi Valley.  Jefferson was a descendent of Sally Hemmings and probably Thomas Jefferson (DNA evidence has recently indicated that Sally Hemming’s children were at least related to Jefferson).  John W. Jefferson was part African American, but passed as white, according to what Hari told me.  The connection is with Chrissy’s ancestor, who was with a Wisconsin regiment during the Civil War. I don’t know if he was in the 8th Wisconsin.  He wrote a series of letters home.  The originals are in Norwegian (the family had immigrated from Norway to Wisconsin only a couple years before). I saw translations but I don’t remember the details.  I will have to find the letters and see what I can find out.

President Obama's favorite restaurant, Ben's Chili Bowl on March 7, 2009I also saw Ben’s Chili Bowl.  It has been more popular since Barack Obama went in there for a bowl of Chili.  I like chili, but there was a big crowd so I didn’t go in.  I wasn’t that hungry.  Anyway, I have to be careful with chili.  I don’t get along with the commonly used chili spice – cumin. I cannot really taste it, but it gives me awful heartburn and is better avoided.

Statue of Winfield Scott Hancock near Archives in Washington DC on March 7, 2009 

Above is the equestian statue of Winfield Scott Hancock, one of the heroes of Gettysburg.

March 08, 2009

Tree Farm Visit

I went down to the farms today.  I had nothing special to do, but diligence and vigilance demands attention.    The new growth on the loblolly will start in a few weeks and the old needles are a drab in anticipation of the energy that will go into the new.   None of the hardwood trees is budding out.  Although Brunswick is more than 150 miles south of Washington, spring comes just a little bit later.    I don’t know why.   Maybe it is because Washington is a heat island, as most urban areas are with all their heat absorbing surfaces and heat producing human activities.  One problem in measuring changes in overall temperature is that as the measuring stations are surrounded by urban areas, the readings are biased by the buildings nearby.

Stream bed on CP forest site

Above is one of the streams near the road.  The banks are just starting to green up.   In back is a wetland about two acres.  The stream shifts.  I have seen the main bed in three different places.  It ranges over around 100 yards and I am never sure where I will find the main stream.  Below is Genito Creek that runs through part of our land.  Look carefully.  The creek is very wide at this point and the bottom is reddish clay, so it doesn’t stand out clearly in the photo at this time of year. The creek changes course and sand bars build and disappear.   The forest near the creek is mature, but the shifts tend to knock down the big trees.

Genito Creek at Johnson Matel farm March 8, 2009

Stream management zone on CP farm on March 8, 2009

Above shows the stream management zone between two areas of pine.  The SMZ protect the streams and provide corridors for wildlife. Some of the trees in the SMZ are very big.  According to the records, the zones were established in 1958.   don’t know how old the trees were when the zones were established.  When the leaves are on the trees, you cannot see how they interact with the pines.  Below – I have been exploring the new property in Freeman, VA. The forest is a little older and the ground is flatter, so it is easier to get around.  I was surprised to find these big rocks in the SMZ.  You find these kinds of outcroppings in mountains.  This area is mostly flat. For my friends and relatives in cold climates, let me point out that the green leaves you see are holly.  It stays green all year long around here and thrives in the understory, so the woods are never completely bare.

Big rocks on Freeman property on March 8, 2009

A lot of water is flowing and the roads are muddy.   I am glad to get my truck muddy again.   It is not a real truck unless it has the red clay spray marks up the wheel wells.

Although this is the least attractive part of the year – the wear of winter just before the burst of spring – it is also the easiest time to move around.   Last year’s brambles are as weak as they will get and I can push through them.   The ticks are active if it gets at all warm, but chiggers are not out yet; snakes are not active, no mosquitoes or flies.    This year it is easier than before.   The thinning and fertilizing operations of last fall made some paths.   Beyond that, the trees are just getting bigger and starting to shade out some of the brush. 

I walked around the SW boundary, down to the creek.  My neighbor cut timber year before last.  The boundary trees stand like a row of sentinels.  He had a lot of hardwood brush.   I don’t think he is going to replant.   The guy who sold me my property called to tell me that this place is on the market.   Not many people replant before they sell.   Replant might be the wrong word, in any case.  It was natural re-growth before.   If he just leaves it alone, it will come in with tulip trees, some oaks.  This is what he had before and it will come up from the roots.   The pines cannot compete with this.    The problem is that a lot of the re-growth will be inferior.   They tended to selectively cut in the old days, which meant that they took the best and left the worst.   This pattern will persist into the next generation if they come back from the roots.  

Genito Creek sand bars on March 8, 2009 

Above is part of Genito Creek.  You can see the sand bars. They form and disappear.  You can also see how the water undercuts the trees on the banks and eventually causes them to fall in.  I also found some signs of beavers.  They probably cannot do much harm here, and may be beneficial if they make a little pond at this point.  Judging from the composition of the forests along the flats, I don’t think this would be the first time beavers have damed up this creek.

March 06, 2009

The Mall

Not many people know the National Mall area better than I do.  During the winter, I get off the Metro at Smithsonian and walk across the Mall every workday.   When I commute by bike in the summer, I ride along the Mall.   When I run during lunch breaks, I run on the Mall and if I when I have time I walk from SA 44 along across the Mall to Main State.  

Today I got off at Federal Triangle.  It was a longer walk to work, but it is a nice walk.  I like the mornings because I have the place mostly to myself.  I also like the afternoons when it is crowded with people.  It is nice most of the time.

I have posted dozens of Mall pictures on this blog, so please look through the files if you want to see more.  Below are the branches of an elm tree.  Notice the buds are swelling.  Spring is on the way.  

Early spring buds on elm tree on National Mall on March 6, 2009 

There are always complaints that the Mall is getting a little scruffy.    This is nothing new and it is part of the charm.   Our National Mall is … OUR national Mall.  On warm afternoons it fills with citizens enjoying their capital’s front yard.   People play football or Frisbee on the grass.  They walk between the Smithsonian buildings.  There are various exhibitions set up along the Mall paths during the warm seasons.  Thousands of us crowd the Mall on the 4th of July.  Millions of Americans watched the President’s inauguration.  People think of it as their own and it is.  Of course, all this is hard on the grass and it makes the place a little scruffy.

Below – I am reading lots of complaints that the crowds at the Obama inauguration killed the grass on the Mall.  It is damaged, but not dead.  I have seen it worse.   It will be back, as usual.

Greening grass on the National Mall on March 6, 2009

Scruffy is a point of pride for me and beauty.  Each of the bare spots is an indication of use.   The Smithsonian staff does a great job of keeping the grass reasonably healthy.   They rotate the fields to give grass a chance to recover.   And the fields are diverse; they have their share of clover and other “weeds”.   The Mall is not home to that chemically produced living Astroturf we too often see in our verdant manicured suburban lawns.

Recovering grass on National Mall on March 6, 2009

Above – this is how the rotate and manage the grass.  There is always a section closed off.  The grass there gets a rest.   Then they move the fence to protect a different place.  The grass on the Mall gets trampled every year, more during years with big events or inaugurations.   It grows back.

This link has information about proposed restoration and improvements on the Mall.  It also shows the proposed location for the Martin Luther King Monument and other changes.

BTW – the bees are back.   A couple of years ago we were worried that honeybees were disappearing for mysterious reasons.  The reasons are not really mysterious.  Read about it at this link. The bees are back in town 


March 05, 2009

Gender Wage Gap

The Economist magazine features an article about how much less women make.  In the EU, men make still 17.4% more than women and this is after 50 years of strenuous social-democratic effort to equalize outcomes. There is always a lot of gnashing of teeth on this subject.  The gap persists all around the world – America’s gap is above the EU average and about the same as Germany or UK – and everybody infers discrimination.   I don’t know if that explains the difference.   

Gender gap chart from Economist magazineFirms will move their operations to other cities, across state lines and even to foreign countries to save some money on labor costs.  The cost of labor is usually the highest cost of doing business.  Imagine if you can get the same amount of work for 10, 20 or even 30% less. 

We have to assume that firms that have more women must be more profitable if women are indeed paid less for the same work.

In Estonia, they pay women more than 30% less.  If firms in Estonia can get the same work done for 30% less, I wonder why they don’t hire only women and I wonder why companies from all over Europe don’t move to Estonia and hire these wonderfully economical Estonian women so that they too can profit from the low labor costs. 

Could it really be that business owners all over the world are just too dumb to take advantage of this wage differential?  Or maybe they are just not interested in making money or they are not greedy enough to pick up a 17.4% profit opportunity that is dropped in front of them.  

Maybe the astonishing statistics are misleading. 

Choice makes a difference.  I read that men suffer 92% of the workplace fatalities.  That is a frightening statistic, but it has little to do with discrimination and a lot to do with choice of jobs & lifestyles.  Choice explains more things than we like to admit.  (The most dangerous occupation, BTW, is good old forestry.  Look on page 15 of that report linked just above.) 

Forestry machine at work near Portland Oregon October 2008Doing different things produces different outcomes.  This simple self-evident truth seems to offend some people these days.  Maybe it is too simple.  They prefer complexity.  It provides more places to hide, more excuses for screwing up, more opportunities to blame others. Iraq, forestry and I ride my bike to work in Washington traffic.  Maybe I should rethink my choices … naaah. Besides, office work is the safest of all occupations and that is what I do most.  It evens out in the long run and in the long run we are all dead anyway. 

Above is a tree cutting machine at work in the woods near Portland Oregon.  I saw it when I was there for the foresty convention in October 2008.  The machines make it safer for the workers.  Few things are more dangerous than cutting in thick timber with a chain saw.  The branches of the trees are laced together a long way up.  The big danger comes from snagged branches falling down and landing on the poor guys down below.  Even small branches fall hard when they fall 100 feet. They call them “widow makers.”

March 04, 2009


Soldiers smoking cigars in Iraq

I am not a tobacco person.  My father could knock down three packs of unfiltered Pall Mall a day.  I always disliked the smell but I didn’t know how bad it was until I went away to college.  When I came home a few weeks later for my first visit, I couldn’t believe the smell.  All those years I smelled like stale smoke and never knew.  You get used to almost anything.  I suppose most of the other kids in school smelled the same.  Almost everybody smoked in those days.   I was never tempted to try cigarettes.  My generation came of age just as the dangers of smoking became clear.  Besides, I was on the swim team.  You cannot be a good swimmer if you smoke.

I am glad that smoking is no longer allowed in the office or on buses or airplanes. I remember how bad it used to be on long flights.   But I do feel sorry for those suckers who have to stand outside in the cold to get in their smoke.  We may have gone too far in the other direction.   Smokers are one of the only groups left that can be disparaged with impunity in this PC world.  Many of the farmers near my forests in Brunswick County still grow tobacco and it grows wild on my land. Tobacco was America’s first cash crop.  The colonies around Chesapeake Bay probably would have failed if not for the noxious weed. Tobacco is hard on the soil, so its cultivation tended to push the colonists into exploring new land looking for new places to plant. Tobacco built Virginia, so its not all bad, but many of the soils still have not recovered.

I understand how much the troops in Iraq loved their cigars.   I wrote a posting about the Marines’ love affair with the cigar.  Somebody read that post just yesterday and told me about the way his company provided cigars to the troops.   This is the link.

A Walk up the Hill

I went up to Heritage for a lunchtime lecture.  It was funny and amusing.  You can watch it at this link.

Capitol in the morning on March 2, 2009

On a tangential subject, this video is also funny.

Path on Capitol Hill on March 2, 2009

It was cold today, around 20 degrees and wind out of the north, so the walk up Capitol Hill was a little uncomfortable.   It was not so bad on the way back and it looked nice in the bright sunlight with the blanket of snow.   I have included some pictures.

Oak trees on Capitol Hill on March 2, 2009

It is supposed to be warmer by the end of the week.   It is hard to believe, but spring will be here really soon.

Robert A Taft Memorial on March 3, 2009

Above is the Robert A Taft Memorial and Carillon.

Teamsters' Union HQ on March 3, 2009

Above is Teamsters’ Union Headquarters.

Japanes Zelkova near Grant Memorial on March 3, 2009

Above is a beautiful zelkova.   Notice the graceful curves.    I have been passing this tree for around ten years.  It is growing fast and its curves are getting thicker.

It remind me of why Americans are fatter today.   It is not the only reason, but it is a reason. 

Years ago, Pepsi couldn’t compete with Coke because Coke had a very attractive vase shaped bottle.  The bottle is important because it is part of the total package.  Most people really cannot tell the difference by taste alone.  Pepsi tried lots of bottles; nothing worked.  But Pepsi executives knew that the actual soda cost almost nothing. The big expenses were in marketing, bottling and distribution.   They also knew that people would finish off a bottle, even if it had more in it.  They call it unit gluttony.  So they could afford to make bottles bigger, give away “free” soda and still sell as many bottles.  Coke had to match the offer, but as you make the curvy bottles bigger, they become less attractive.   This is a curse of all curvy things. 

Fat woman at Universal Studios Orlando Florida in March 2002

Pretty soon lots of things came in bigger packages and super sizes.   People finished them off and demanded more. Today everything is bigger and lots of things are thicker around the middle, just like my tree.

March 03, 2009

Evolution not Intelligent Design

I give up.   For many years I have been looking for a grand unified theory of persuasion or at least of public affairs.  I have read hundreds of books about the subject and thousands of articles.   I have listened carefully to skilled practitioners and tried a lot of things out for myself.  I have achieved success, suffered failure and tried to apply the lessons of each.  I have looked for the pattern; inferred the pattern and imposed a pattern where none really existed.  But the long search has reached a dead end … and an insight. (The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk.)

Below is the Library of Congress.  There are several other buildings which together contain the accumulated knowledge of humanity.  All you have to do is look for it.

Library of Congress on February 27, 2009

I could not find a grand unified theory of persuasion and public affairs because none exists.   I have to be content with tactical success and experimentation.   The best strategy is to follow up and double down where things work and abandon failure as quickly and cleanly as possible. 

An organization that can do this is not omniscient; it is robust and opportunistic.  In an uncertain world, we are always playing the probabilities.  It is a world where the best plan might fail and the worst succeed, but in the course of repeated tries and many actions, the better ones make progress. It is an evolutionary system that unfolds through iterations; the truth is revealed conditionally and gradually.  It cannot be choreographed in advance.

I remain a believer in truth and in seeking truth.  It is just that I do not believe that we humans have the capacity to find the big truths.  Actually, I am not giving up the search, but I am switching methods. Repeated inquiry and intelligent analysis of both process and results will bring us to an approximation of practical truth, wrong in many details but useful for decision making in the situations for which it was developed.   

You don’t need to know the whole truth to know what to do.  We have to walk the line between recklessness and paralysis.  At some point we know enough to jump.  That point comes when we estimate the probabilities are good enough – not perfect, but good enough – when the probable outcome of doing something is better than waiting.   We will be wrong a lot.  We need to be robust because omniscience, or even understanding most things, is not an option available to mortal man.  We are always wrong to some extent.


“Often wrong, but never in doubt.”

That is how they described MBAs when I was at the University of Minnesota B-school. It was meant pejoratively, but it is not a bad strategy.   If you more likely to be right than wrong and the rewards of success are significant while the cost of failure is not catastrophic, the smart decision is just do it.  If it works, do it again and improve it.  If it doesn’t work, figure out why and do something better. 

Just because you don’t have a detailed plan doesn’t mean you don’t have a plan. Often the best plan is the structure of the choice architecture in the organization itself.  Giving people a broad goal in an organization structured to take advantage of opportunity and can learn from experience is the best plan you can have in a changing world.  After it works, you can take credit for prescience if taking credit is important to you.

Clean stream in New Hampshire fall 2003

Ask the guy in the kayak about his precise plan before he hits the white water around the bend.   It is better to know you can adapt to what will come than to develop a bogus detailed strategy for everything that could be on the way.  

March 02, 2009

Loving the Suburbs (& the City & the Country)

So why not have it all together.

The ostensible arbiters of taste hate the suburbs.  They critically acclaim crappy movies like “American Beauty” or “Revolutionary Row” that fit into cognoscenti stereotypes of life in the suburbs.   Maybe these wise guys won’t understand, but suburbanites are the happier with their lives than those people who live in small towns or big cities, according to Pew Research.

Barge traffic in Frankfurt on the Main River

I feel uniquely qualified to speak to this issue, since I work in the city, live in the suburbs and spend a lot of time on my farms in rural areas.   Each has its attraction and I would not want to have to choose among them and I don’t have to, so in many ways it is a false choice.  Let me address it anyway.

View of Frankfurt from top of bank building

The key advantage of the city is that you can walk to the places you need to go, although this advantage is lost on many urban dwellers, since they don’t walk much anyway.  Suburbs are a little too much car culture for me.  Of course, I am a bit spoiled in Washington, which is one of the world’s most pleasant and walkable cities. Washington really isn’t a city.  At least around the Capitol, it is more like a nice park with magnificent monuments and musuems.  Who wouldn’t like that?   In many cities these days you cannot really walk around much. 

Boston street scene

Diversity used to be an advantage of cities, but not anymore.  Today that is an advantage of the near-in in suburbs.  Fairfax County, where I live, is more diverse than Washington DC.   My homeowners’ association has people from all over the world interacting and getting along, which is true diversity.  People in cities tend to have more defined and sometimes antagonistic group identities.   Group identify is not diversity; it is just a kind of standoff.  The suburbs are now doing a better job of breaking down archaic group-think.  I suppose that sort of homogenization is one of the things that offends some people, but I prefer to interact with people, not “representatives.”   Rural areas tend to be less diverse, in my experience, because fewer people are moving in.

Iraqi village

The advantage of the rural areas is space and I love to hike in the big natural areas and I really love MY forests, but absent those things, rural life holds few attractions for me.  The countryside is a place to get away to … and then get away from.  It is not a place I would like to live permanently.  We lived in Londonderry in New Hampshire, which was an interesting exurb.  It has the demographic characteristics of a suburb, but the density of a rural area along with a little bit of a small town. We lived in a kind of cluster development, which I found very pleasant. 

Century Village in Londonderry NH 

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

Road in Century Village in Londonderry, NH

I like to see my neighbors, but be able to leave them behind when I want to be alone.  This may be the blueprint for the community of the future.  You can have fairly dense development amid green fields connected to urban amenities.   The old suburbs, where everybody has a rambler or ranch style house set on a half acre lot are soooo 1950s.   The gritty urban environment is too unpleasant and the countryside is too vast.  Put the three together, and you have something nice.  I guess that is why I am happy where I am now in Fairfax.   Of course, I will be keeping my eyes open for something better.   That is the American way.

Strawberry Bank in Portsmouth NH

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

Roadside in Navajo Nation in Arizona

Speaking of that, Pew has an article about the middle class (available here) and I read the Economist special report on the growing global middle class (here).   The middle class is also much maligned by the cool ones.  The cone headed intellectuals used to call us bourgeois.   But when you think about it, most of the good values come from the middle class.   The poor are too screwed and screwed up to think about the better things in life and the rich are too spoiled and effete to care.   Read the articles, and I bet you will agree. 

Street in Brussels in September 2006

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

Open air market in Barcellona in December 2002

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

Keene, NH in May 2004

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

Train station in Frankfurt

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

Parking lot near Arlington Bvd in Fairfax County

A lot depends on not on the location or the life station but on the person.   No matter what how much you make or where you go, you have to live with yourself.  If you don’t like the company, you are out of luck.

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

Art at Hirschhorn on February 27, 2009

March 01, 2009

Beginner’s Guide to Investing in Forests

I wrote this article about investing in forest lands for the next issue of “Virginia Forests.”   It is based on a posting I made a couple months ago, so it should look familiar.   Below are five-year-old pines.

Five year old loblolly pines on CJ property in Brunswick, Co VA after precommercial thinning in July 2008

We own lots of things during our lifetimes but we form special bonds with land; it is our connection to the earth and our legacy for future.   There is no surprise that people have deep feelings for land that has been in their families for generations, but it is astonishing how fast the same sorts of connections form with adopted land.

I have loved forests and wanted to have my own part as long as I can remember, but owning a forest is not something you can easily do.  Many forest owners inherit their land.  Others have long connections with the forestry community.  I was completely new.  I would have to think about it long and hard.  I thought about it for more than twenty years.  I couldn’t afford to buy a forest as a luxury.   My forest had to be an investment that would at least break even, so I started to study the economics of forestry.   I was surprised and encouraged to learn that forestry is an excellent, if illiquid, investment.    According to “Forbes magazine, timber investments from 1990 – 2007 timber produced a compounded annual return of 12.88%.  You can’t beat that if, and only if, you have the time and ability to wait for nature to take its course.   There are several ways to invest in forestry. 

Below are twelve-year-old pines.  They are growing very well, but are a little thick.  We will probably thin early – in two or three years.

Twelve-year-old loblolly pines on Johnson-Matel tree farm in Freeman in Brunswick Co VA in July 2008

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

Of course finding the right forest is harder than buying stocks or bonds.   I needed to find a place close enough that I could visit but far enough from my home in Northern Virginia that I could afford the land.   My research took me to Southside Virginia on the Piedmont south of Richmond.  I quickly learned that successful forestry on my tract of land requires successful forestry on the land in the neighborhood.  Timber is heavy and hard to transport.   Unless you have enough nearby forested acres, skilled forestry contractors and mills to process the timber and sustain a forestry industry, you cannot grow trees profitably.   The forests of Southside Virginia meet these requirements.  

Twelve year old loblolly pines in Brunswick Co VA in July 2008

The real estate broker didn’t think I was serious when I called and he probably didn’t change his mind when I showed up at his office in Lawrenceville.  He tried to steer me to small tracts of land suitable for a getaway cabin.   I told him that I wanted a place for forestry – real forestry.   “You would never be able to build your cabin,” he warned. This is just land good for growing trees.  He smiled when I told him that is exactly what I wanted. 

We looked at several tracts of well developed timberland and then told me about a recent clear cut, which was less expensive.   The trees were two years old, but there was good site preparation and I could see the tops of the little pines poking above the weeds, slash & brush. I loved the potential. I also liked the streams and the mature hardwoods left near them.  

Clearcut pine forest with new little trees starting to show up in 2005 in Brunswick County VA

Above is the land as we bought it in 2005.  Below is three years later in 2008.  Trees grow.  The ones in the lower picture are thinned to make them more resistant to pests and improve wildlife habitat.  Notice the different density compared with the twelve-year-old trees in the picture with the truck.  Those are planted a little too thick, IMO, which is why we will thin early.  There is disagreement re how thick pines should be planted.  The latest practice is to plant thinner for the wildlife and pest benefits I mentioned, as well as the idea that a thinner forest will produce more chip-and-saw and saw timber … eventually.

Five-year-old loblolly pines with John Matel in Brunswick Co VA in October 2008

The smartest thing a new landowner can do it to get to know the neighbors and make some local friends.  They are the ones who protect your land … or not.   Fortunately, the land I bought already had a hunt club associated with it and they were happy just to keep on doing what they had been doing.   The hunt club maintains the gates and the “no trespassing” signs.   In this rural area, everybody knows everybody else, so it is helpful if they know me too.   Local friends are also very helpful in suggesting contractors. 

Below you can see some of the diversity of the tree farm. In the front is a food plot (a little beaten down because they used it as a staging area for the thinning and biosolid applications.  It will better next year.)  The pine plantation is in the middle and you can see the mature hardwoods (oak, beech, tulip poplar & sweet gum) in the background.  This provides a balanced habitat for wildlife.  I think it just looks nicer too.

Wildlfe food plot and small pines in Brunswick County VA in November 2008

There are lots of things a forest owner needs to know and do.  Fortunately, there are lots of people and organizations eager to help.  One of the first things a new owner should do is become a certified tree farmer.  Sustainable forestry is becoming increasingly important and the American Tree Farm System helps landowners understand and use the best practices on their own tree farms.   The ATFS requires a forestry plan, which informs choices and is a key to making better decisions.   It pays off.  Another of the first stops is the local forester.  The Virginia Department of Forestry can hook the new owner into networks of helpers and information and help fund programs benefit forests all over the state.   The Virginia Forest Landowner Update is the place you can find out about events and programs for forest owners.   Many of the events are free or inexpensive.  I attended many field days and I learned about things like soils, pests, invasive species, better trees, taxation questions and a lot more from events available through the update.   Finally, getting a good forestry consultant is a must.  I hope someday to know how to do many of the forestry activities on my own (or make my kids do them), but I will never have the expert knowledge of a trained forester who works full-time on these issues. 

I joined the Virginia Forestry Association and got the communication director job for the Virginia tree farm project of the ATFS.   It is a great privilege and learning opportunity.  My job mostly consists of writing articles for the Virginia Forests magazine four times a year and I get to write the story of the tree farmer of the year.  The more successful tree farms you see, the more you understanding your own.  I have never met or even heard about a tree farmer who didn’t love his forest, and everybody you meet is eager to talk about what they did on their own land and help others do good things too.

I have been happy with my forestry investment and the forestry community it opened for me.  You cannot rush the trees, so I sometimes wish I had got into the business sooner and been further along. But I then I remember that I couldn’t.  Besides the obvious lack of money (or more correctly mortgage credit), I didn’t have enough understanding of the forestry business.   Liking trees is not enough.  You need to know a lot more than I do, but I get along with a little help from my friends.    

Forestry on Televison

Forestry seems to be enjoying some popularity.  There are two competing logger shows on cable TV.   The first was Ax Men on History Channel and now we have Extreme Loggers on Discovery and American Loggers.  Of course, these programs show the most exciting, challenging and dangeous part of forestry.   For me the growing and environmental aspects are most interesting, but those processes unfold slowly and prosaically.  It doesn’t make good TV.   They also show the forestry in big, natural forests.  Tree farms are more civilized and easy to work.  Nevertheless, logging can be  indeed a tough job.   Here are some pictures of logging machines.

Very good is the Ax Men 3D Logging Tour.  


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