July 2009

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July 29, 2009

Hierarchy & Order

Totem pole at SmithsonianHierarchy has long been unpopular – even among those who benefit most and enforce it most enthusiastically on others – and it is especially loathed by those who see themselves as low men on the totem pole (and even high men feel like that sometimes). It violates our fundamental feelings of fairness and equality. 

Besides, none of us really likes being told what to do or when to do it and that is what hierarchy implies.  Being against hierarchy also brings with it the appealing opportunity of “sticking it to the man.” 

We all enjoy that, since even the most timid and conventional people think of themselves as free spirits or rebels. Hierarchy is easily abused, easily ridiculed and easily hated, but you have to have some of it because we have to choose priorities and we have to set standards.

The establishment of a type of hieratical order is part of all human & natural systems.  After some kind of disturbance or radical change there is a lot of chaos and experimentation.   It is an exciting time.   It is also full of uncertainty and waste, since many of the experiments will fail and many of the paths chosen will lead to dead ends.   After a while, a pattern asserts or reasserts itself.   Some patterns may be very persistent, lasting a long time until knocked down by outside forces or sometimes they just kind of wear out on their own.   I won’t go into the principles of natural succession or various theories of historical dynamics.  Suffice to say that this is what happens and this is what we are now experiencing.

I have written a lot about the new media being applied to public diplomacy because we are currently in one of those exciting transition times.   Lots of people are trying lots of things and even more people are talking about, pretending to or “going to” try lots of things.   We are reaching out in many directions and in many of those directions it is becoming clear that our reach is exceeding our grasp.   And as the management guru James March wrote, “The protections for the imagination are indiscriminate. They shield bad ideas as well as good ones—and there are many more of the former than the latter. Most fantasies lead us astray, and most of the consequences of imagination for individuals and individual organisations are disastrous.”

Now comes the hard part of trying to create some patterns and order in the chaos w/o chocking off the imagination and initiative that fuels all this innovation. This is a rough and narrow path to walk, especially for us.  Government is not especially relaxed about innovation but is exceedingly comfortable with hierarchy.  Government, after all, is hierarchical by nature because its main function is to determine who is in charge with the power to set priories and limit options.  If you don’t believe me, think of why we have laws, rules and regulations and what institution is the final legitimate authority in creating and enforcing them.

Anyway, I hope that we (and I am referring very broadly.  I don’t have much overall influence on this) have the wisdom to pull off this important transition change and can expand the use of new media to promote our country’s interests, but I fear that there will be less total life in the system a year from today than there is now.

July 28, 2009

Fort Christiana

Fort Christiana in Brunswick Co VA on July 25, 2009

The webpage for my webchat on forestry and carbon is now available at this link.   I made a PowerPoint as an intro, so please take a look.   You can just sign in as a guest under whatever name you please.

I visited Fort Christiana on the way home from the farm.  It is one of those places worth seeing, but not worth going to see.  You have to go down a gravel road and then you find … nothing.   The fort is long gone.    All that is left is the outline of the fort, a little toilet and some markers.  You can see the gravel outline in this picture below.

Outline of Fort Christiana in Brunswick Co VA on July 25, 2009

If you Google Fort Christiana you will find the wrong place.  There is a fort in Delaware by almost the same name.    That was not a very important place and this place is even less.   So if you want to know about Fort Christiana in Brunswick County, I am your lasts, best hope.

Robert Byrd official portraitAccording to the signs, Virginia Royal Governor Alexander Spotswood built a five sided wooden fort near the Meherrin River in 1714.   (Spotsylvania County VA is named for the governor.)   It was an outpost on the edge of the Virginia Colony at that time designed to trade with the friendly Indians.   Inside the Fort was an Indian school, with about 100 students.  The Indian students inside the fort helped ensure continued good behavior of the local tribes.   

The British withdrew support for the fort in 1718 and when William Byrd (an early member of that very prominent Virginia family and the ancestor of the current W. Virginia Senator Robert Byrd … or given how long that guy has been around, maybe it was him) passed through the region in 1728 he reported that the fort was abandoned.   Not much of a history.    There have been nearby roads that have been under construction for a longer time.

I don’t know why the picture of the sign turned out so green.    That is not the real color.  I must have had it on a strange setting.

The picture that I took of the monument was even worse, so I didn’t include it.  The funny thing is that it was erected by the colonial dames.  I know that dames is an old title of respect for ladies, but I can’t stop thinking of Frank Sinatra, “Guys and Dolls” or “South Pacific.”  There’s nothing like a dame.

July 27, 2009

Learning from Locals

Larry Walker, the guy in charge of the hunt club on our CP land, took me around to some forestry work sites, where they had recently thinned or done controlled burns.I learn a lot from looking at how different approaches produce different results.   

Recently burned loblolly forest in Brunswick Co

Even a very severe thinning grows back in a couple of years.  Larry thinks it is better to thin early, since that releases the better trees to grow faster and concentrates resources on the stronger trees.  Prices for pulp are low right now, so many landowners are putting off thinning operations, but they shouldn’t wait too long. In Southside VA, you can probably thin at fifteen years and it is a mistake to wait beyond eighteen years.If you miss that window, your trees are stunted and more vulnerable to disease and bugs. In other words, it makes sense to thin even if you aren’t making money on that particular transaction.  

Pines fertilized with biosolids

Larry’s son Dale runs the thinning cutter and Larry thinks he is a virtuoso.You have to cut rows in the trees to get the machines through, but after that a good thinner can take out the inferior trees, the ones that are small, twisted or have multiple stems.  he newly thinned forest is in some danger the next year from ice storms, since they grew up leaning on each other.It is best to thin early in the season if you can, but it is not always possible to arrange and/or spring rains and mud can make it impossible for equipment to properly function.  You can do a winter burn the year after that and then apply biosolids, followed by a summer burn to take out the competing hardwoods. With any luck, you can do the second thinning at twenty-two years.

Forestry machines

Larry told me that there are more trees growing in Brunswick County now than any time he can recall.  Many of the old fields that used to grow tobacco are now planted in trees.  That is good, since you need a density of forestry operations to support the saw mills, which support the forestry operations. It is a symbiosis.    

I am really lucky to have the hunt clubs on both my forest properties.  They protect my land, maintain the roads and signs and give me good advice.We have a convergence of interests.   We all want a healthy habitat.These guys and their families have been hunting on these lands for generations. 

We have more of a partnership and sometimes I think I am the junior partner.They have more history with it than I do and they make improvements.  For example, the guys on the Freeman property planted some soy beans for the deer to eat and Larry promise to make an herbaceous corridor down to the creek, which will feed the wildlife and make it possible for me to get to the creek overlook w/o getting torn to pieces by the brambles.  

July 26, 2009

Bee Colony Collapse

Sunflowers on Matel Johnson tree farm July 21, 2009

My clover meadows were full of bees this spring.  They were still around the sunflowers, although I didn’t plan to write re bees, so I just took a picture of the flowers.  It is a very pleasant thing.   Today I watched a depressing program on “Nature” on PBS talking about the collapse of honey bee populations.   I read about that a couple years ago, but thought that it was mostly studied and addressed.    As I recalled, the colony collapse (called colony collapse disorder or CDC) had multiple causes, but none of them really extraordinary.    There were some mites and parasites.  A lot of the bees were not getting a good and balanced diet and some were overworked (they move colonies around to pollinate different crops). 

Sure enough, the “Nature” show was made a couple years ago.   More up to date information can be found here and here.   It is a problem, but it is manageable.    The USDA is vigilant and we can be too w/o going nuts.  I worry a lot about things like the emerald ash borer, gypsy moths, pine beetles etc and with the help of extension services, DOF and others, I help address them.

The thing I object to is the apocalyptical tone.  Many things will or could be disastrous if not properly managed or addressed.   That is why we manage and address them.    We always get that BS saying something like, “if nothing is done…” or “if current trends continue …”   But something always is done and current trends almost never continue.

Of course the news that a problem is not going to mean the end of life as we know it is not big news.  People like to be alarmed and they also look for extraordinary causes to ordinary events.In the bee case, they blamed pesticides, global warming, GMO and even cell phones.  Society’s general malcontents take the opportunity of an impending catastrophe to attack the things they don’t like and they are a little annoyed when the catatrophe turns out to be a dud.

Anyway the bees are back, which is good because we need the bees.They pollinate many of our crops, but, of course, we need bees because of the plants we introduced from Europe into America.  Honey bees are not native to North America, so no native American plants require honey bee pollination.The Indians in colonial Virginia evidently called honey bees “white man’s flies” and were astonished that the colonists even put flies to work.Honey bees are in North America because we brought them.It was a good move.  Not all invasive species are bad.But it does show once again that there are no environments in the world unaffected by humans and we need to make sure manage well rather than abdicate and claim we can separate ourselves.

July 24, 2009

Lucky to Live in Washington

Alex with Robert E. Lee at wax museum in Washington

I spent the day with Alex in Washington showing him what a great place it is to be.He is finishing with NOVA this summer but will not start JMU until spring semester and worries that his brain will atrophy, so we are working up a work-study-exercise regime.  I think he is beginning to understand how lucky he is to have this opportunity.I don’t think there is any place better than Washington to pursue this kind of self-education, since we have all the free museums around the Smithsonian, think tanks, parks, monuments … But you have to do it deliberately.

Alex with Harry S. Truman

We started off at AEI with panel discussion on regulation of greenhouse gases.  Alex thought the guy from the Sierra Club made the best presentation. You can read about it here. I agree.He was mostly talking about the problems of coal.Coal is cheap but dirty from start to finish.In Appalachia, they remove whole mountains and dump them into the valleys.   We can reclaim these lands with good forestry, but we all probably better off not doing it in the first place. 

John Matel with George Washington

After that, we just blended in with the tourists.   Our first stop was the wax museum.   You can see some of the pictures.    You really feel like you are standing with the person.   They are very careful to get the heights and shapes close to the real person.  

Invasive snakehead fish now damaging the ecology of the Potomac watershed

We next went through the aquarium.   The National Aquarium in Washington is not nearly as good as the one in Baltimore, but it is worth going if you are in the neighborhood.     This is the first time that I saw a living snakehead.   These are terrible invasive species that can wipe out the native fish.  They are very tough and hard to get rid of.   They are semi-amphibious and can literally walk from one pond to another.    The take-away is that if you see one of these things crush it with a rock or cut it with a shovel, but do not let it survive. 

Sea turtle at National Aquarium in Washington

Finally, we went over to the Natural History Museum.We have been there many times before, but I learned a few things.Alex pointed out that the Eocene period was warmer than most of the time during the Mesozoic and, of course, much warmer than today.  According to what I read, the earth was free of permanent ice and forests covered all the moist parts of the earth, all the way to the poles.  It is interesting how trees adapted to living inside the Arctic Circle, where it is dark part of the year and always light in summers, but the sun is never overhead and always comes as a low angle, so trees needed to orient their branches more toward the sides. 

Eocene panorma at Smithsonian

Alex rolled his eyes when I was excited by a new (I think temporary) exhibit on soils.  I didn’t learn much new, but I like looking at the actual exhibits.  Soil is really nothing more than rock fragments and decaying shit, but very few things are more complex, more crucial and more often ignored.

Alex with Johnny Depp at Wax Museum

Anyway, we had a good day and “met” lots of celebrities like Johnny Depp above.  We had lunch at a place called “the Bottom Line” on I Street.  I had a very good mushroom cheese burger.   Alex has the Philly cheese steak sandwich.

Alex with giant sloth

The skeleton above is a giant sloth.  I don’t know how that thing could have survived.  Must have been one big tree that thing hung from.

July 23, 2009

New Media: Exceeding the Carrying Capacity

Zebra and Lions attachment-disorder.adoptionblogs.com/c811I have the repetitive task of trying to find the various types of new media outreach.The constant change means the job is never done and it is getting bigger all the time.   But it is like the expanding area of a balloon as you blow it up.  As we expand the area we cover, we are simultaneously thinning out coverage.   This goes for any kind of new media and, in fact, for any media in general.   It is a broadly applicable formulation.  But I am observing this most with wikis, so I will talk mostly about them, with the stipulation that it is more broadly related to any attempts to aggregate knowledge. 

Everybody seems to have discovered the wiki concept and is trying to put this useful model to work in the service of aggregating their particular knowledge and making it useful to the members of their organizations.   But there is a problem with the proliferation of wiki style systems.  A wiki exists in a kind of ecological relationship with its customers.   In order to be healthy, each wiki requires enough interested and knowledgeable people to contribute their experience.    If the population of potential contributors is too thin, or there are too many wikis competing for their attention, wikis will be unhealthy.    (It is like too many zebras eating the too little grass & too many lions trying to eat them) Articles will not be updated.  Not enough will be contributed and the advantages of the wisdom of the crowds will be lost.

Most people are passive consumers who do not contribute to wikis and the smaller number of contributors passes through stages of enthusiasm and burnout.   Even if they retain their desire to write, they may exhaust their store of useful knowledge they have to share.  That is why you need a much larger population of potential contributors than most parts of any organization or even most entire organization can provide.   

Of course, we are assuming we even have passive consumers.   Many wikis are imposed by a boss who has just read some management literature about the necessity of becomes a learning organization or by someone trying to impress that boss.  They may start out well, with a few good postings, but w/o the large community using them, they quickly atrophy.     A wiki is a network good that increases in value as more people sign on.  If users wander off after a few visits, or never come at all, there is no living wiki. 

I don’t think we should try to eliminate little wikis or interfere with their proliferation, but we should break down the barriers among them.  Some people might prefer to contribute on a specialized platform.  This is okay, as long as there are no difficult walls to climb walls that keep some participants out and others in.   In this case, I believe that wikis will merge.  The specialized ones will not become extinct, but rather be subsumed into the larger ones. 

One of the most formidable walls is mere ignorance.   It may be that a specialized or small wiki doesn’t actually wall out potential users, but others just don’t know that it exists.  I frequently find that smaller groups boast that their wikis are so great but unnoticed … that exist for a time in splendid isolation and soon pass, still unnoticed into oblivion.

It is like that doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove.   You have to tell people about it or it doesn’t work.

July 22, 2009

New Media: Common Sense & Walled Gardens

Walled garden in Istanbul

Lots of things are easy when you don’t have to do them yourself.  In theory it is easy to lose weight (eat less/move more), save money (just say no) and be reasonably successful (work hard/avoid bad habits).Nobody should be fat, sad or poor, but it doesn’t always work out that way. The same is true of using the new media.It is really easy, as long as you don’t have to produce results.As with most good v bad habits, the solution to all our problems is simple, just not easy.

I include the caveat paragraph since I am about to proffer some of the advice and lessons I took away from the new media workshop and everybody will know it already.  They are actually about all communications.   The new media just amplifies them. (To err is human, but to really screw up you need computer or government support.  We have both.)  Like the good advice about eating less and moving more in order to lose weight, these are not profound thoughts, but they bear repeating because they are the simple things that everybody knows we should do, but not many people really do.  Here are a few.  They overlap. 

·    Engage before you explain.  This is the simple idea of tuning in to your audience.I talked about it more extensively in my post a couple days ago. I don’t think I have ever met anybody who doesn’t “know” this, but most communications efforts remain inwardly driven.   We are telling them what we (or our bosses) want them to hear in the manner and on the media that we like best.    

·    Use information you gather about your audience or don’t bother to gather it.This is a corollary to the first point. I have observed that organizations often do not fail to gather information, but the fail to gather useful information.  If you cannot or will not change your approach based on the information you obtained from research, it is worse than useless, since you have wasted the time and money you spent on the study AND lulled yourself into a false feeling of security.

·    Connect all the parts of your organization, but leave them autonomy.  This is a variation on the “In Search of Excellence” formula or simultaneous loose and tight controls in a learning organization.It is made more relevant in the new media age by the various technologies, such as wikis and blogs that leadership can use to communicate with a light or heavy hand.  ·    Don’t build walled gardens.It is tempting to create your own systems or groups using technologies and techniques perfectly suited to your own unique situation. Don’t. You are probably less unique than you think you are and beyond that you almost certainly cannot keep up with technical improvements that will make even the most exquisite made-to-order system obsolete in a few months. Besides building a walled garden will almost certainly keep out other ideas (see the first point above.) 

·    Leverage existing systems and products. You can still have a great garden w/o the walls.  There are always existing communities where you can participate and after you have participated maybe invite others into your own system to participate with you.   Remember that there are always more smart people outside the organization than within it.

·    Be platform flexible.   Your message is important, not the medium it is delivered on.You have to be flexible enough to choose the appropriate delivery mechanisms and not fall in love with any one of them.They pass quickly.  Just ask Jeeves. 

·    Give up some control.  If you want to influence others, you have to be prepared to be influenced by them.  My way or the highway works only in rare instances and if you demand what you think is perfection; you may soon find that you have that perfection all to yourself, since everybody else has wandered away from you.   ·    Try lots of things and know that most of what you try will fail, usually publicly, sometimes spectacularly.  Revel in it.  Embrace it. It is impossible to predict outcomes in the new media. Even if you had perfect knowledge of the current situation, it will change in unexpected and unknowable ways. The best strategy is a statistical one of spreading your bets and then responding to changes as they happen, rather than try to set out with certainty in advance. Those who try nothing, get nothing and it is small consolation that they are never wrong.  

Have I written anything that wasn’t simple or that you didn’t know already?  Why don’t we do it? 

July 21, 2009

Biking at State Department

Rental bike at State Department I thought it was a joke, but it true.  The State Department now has a bike lending program.You can borrow a bike at State and peddle to your meetings around town, at least until 4:45, when you have to bring it back.  The bikes on offer seem a little lame, but I like the idea.I hope it catches on and I also hope that it provokes a bit of culture change at the Department and in the wider community.

I have been using my bike to get to work since my very first real job,  when I rode clean across Milwaukee to get from the South Side to Mellowes’ Washer Co on Keefe Street.  That means I have been commuting by bicycle since 1973 – around thirty-six years, so I know something about bike commuting.Overall, it has gotten better, at least in Washington. They have built some good bike trails and put some bike lanes on the road. I can ride the 17 +/- miles to work almost completely on bike trails or lightly traveled roads.  (Of course, that required some planning. When we bought our house in 1997 we made sure we were near both a Metro Stop and a bike trail. The W&OD bike trail is a mile from our door.) But we still get no respect when we mix with traffic.  

For example, part of my bike ride to work goes down a city street – Clarendon Boulevard – in Arlington.   There is a nicely marked bike trail along the road, which is a one-way street most of the way I go.  It is also mostly downhill on the way to work, which would make it a nice ride except for the cars.  People treat the bike lane like a drop off zone.  They pull in front of me and then abruptly stop and sometimes pass me and then make a right turn right in front of me into a side street or parking lot.  Since they just passed me, I assume they should be able to see me, but they don’t seem to care. They know that I have few options.  I don’t get as upset about this as I used to, but these clowns endanger my safety. I especially hate the people who talk on cell phones. 

There really is no such thing as multi-tasking when driving.  There is just driving poorly.     

I have had a few close calls and one bona fide bike & bone crunching accident –  in Norway where I got seriously hurt and had the pleasure of experiencing socialized medicine – but I really cannot complain when I consider how many miles I have logged.Most people apologize and lamely claim they didn’t see me.  Sometimes they are aggressive and tell me that I should not be on the road.  I would caution drivers that it is probably not a good idea to do this when the bike is at the side of your car, since we have metal pedals and can easily  scratch the paint on the side of the car door with those pedals “by accident” w/o anybody noticing until later.That is what I used to do … in my younger days of course.

The daily practical problem with biking is lack of showers. I am lucky because Gold’s Gym is across the street & I keep clothes in the office to change into. Otherwise you cannot really ride if you work near other people.  You will get sweaty even on a short ride, especially in a climate like ours in Washington.You also sometimes get rained on and spattered with dirt.State Department, like most other big organizations, talks a good game about bikes, but does not provide showers and changing areas.

I figure the State Department’s bike lending program is mostly a PR gesture, but it is good if it gets people thinking about riding bikes to work and appointments. The world has become friendlier to bike commuters. Thirty years ago, almost everybody thought I was crazy; today only about half think so.

July 20, 2009

Engagement: Seek First to Understand

http://johnsonmatel.com/2009/May/Istanbul/hagia_sophia_2.jpgIt is habit # 5 of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective people and it is highly effective when communicating with others. Seek first to understand and then be understood.   We need to be reminded of this simple rule and encouraged to apply it to different situations.  When trying to communicate in the new media, it is especially important because the age of the semi-captive media audience is over.People have options beyond three channels and the hometown newspaper.   

Organizations and individuals accustomed to wielding power are particularly likely to forget the necessity of seeking first to understand.Government organizations can compel attention and we usually think our messages are so important that we have the right to interrupt and just start telling our story. This can bring short term results in terms of notice and attention, but it just doesn’t work for long term persuasion. People learn to filter out what they don’t want.We have to get into the subjects & venues where our potential audiences are already interested in participating.After we build trust, or at least after they get used to us, we can make more useful & credible contributions. 

As you can see from my recent posts, I am back thinking about on the new media. This time it is because I just finished a very good course on new media at FSI. We discussed some practical how-to topics like how to properly use hash tags in Twitter or the strategic use of key-terms. I also learned a few fascinating things about commonly used technologies such as Google. For example, I had no idea that there was a function called “wonder wheel” where you can see the types of subjects associated with a term you Google. I did myself and found that the associated terms made general sense.

All this is related to search engine optimization that makes it more likely that your information will come near the top of a Google or Yahoo search.   No matter what you think of the social media, most people probably still find you based on search engines. Google is the most successful search engine – for now – but it keeps it algorithm for determining ranks a secret and changes it when anybody starts to figure it out.   The basic structure, however, is that it is a kind of information market mechanism.  As in a market, not all the inputs are equal. In Google it matters if a lot of people read your posts, but it is much more complicated.It matters more who links to your posts AND who they are.   So if you want to be high on the search engine, you need to be popular and credible (or notorious) enough that people link to you. 

Anyway, it was more a seminar than technical training.You can figure out how to do most of the new media by yourself, so you don’t really need “hands-on training.  You mainly need to discuss the appropriate mix of media and what they are good for in public affairs and that is what we got. this was the first rendition of this particular course and it was one of the best FSI courses I ever attended.   We had a very good instructor called Eric Schwartzman. Do click on the link and read about him.   He was passionate about the subject, engaged and very interesting, and he brought some insights from the private sector to our government mindsets, as you see above, but I also think he was impressed with how much we in State Department have been using the new media.

The more I see what others are doing (or not) I really think that State is a leader in applying new media to public affairs.We did a live webcast of a presidential visit from Warsaw in 2001 and I know others were there before us.  (We were probably TOO early on this one and it went largely unnoticed.)  We have been building our social networks using webchats and outreach for several years and we got into Facebook and Twitter almost as soon as they were generally available.  I am very interested in our internal Wiki, called Diplopedia. It is really getting good and I have been using it to find out things I need to know about our activities and the Department. As I have been writing in other posts, we have been working on these things for long time, but they are now reaching critical mass and takeoff stages, phase shifts. 

My picture, BTW, is the Church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.  It was built by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian the Great.  Istanbul is one of my favorite places.  It is a place of wonder with its mix of Turkey with the lost civilizations of the Greeks and Romans who were there for thousands of years before … and then were gone.  It is a place think about understanding.

July 19, 2009

New Media: No Garden w/o the Gardener

New media, social media, no matter what we call it everybody loves it. It is revolutionizing communications with the public and within organizations.  Whole theories of management are developing on how leaders have to use new media tools to run their organizations. 

But there is a flaw in how it is usually portrayed and I fear how it is understood. New media is often treated as a technique, section or method that is separable from the rest of the organization.    Organizations have computing and IT departments, why not a new media department?  Create a capacity, put some specialists in charge of it, and then let it work on its own.   

The problem is that the new media already permeates everything & cannot be separated or put on autopilot. It cannot be deployed by management and then left to do its work because communication is the essence of management and the new media has become integral to communications. If leadership gives the new media to someone else, they will also be giving them the real leadership. 

I am not saying that the boss will need to master all the nuts-and-bolts of the technologies.  The beauty of the new media is that the applications have become much simpler as the technologies have become more complicated. Most people do not understand how their car or their telephones work – technically – but they can use them just fine.   

I remember hearing a story about a guy who wanted a garden that would just take care of itself while he would get the benefit of flowers, fruits and vegetables. It just doesn’t work that way.   The gardener can pass some of the digging and hoeing to others but he has to specify the types of produce he wants and has to understand enough about the system to know what results he can expect.    The analogy with new media is that leadership has to be using the new media.   You cannot get the advantages of real time, hands-on experience by reading the report a couple of weeks later.   You cannot just deploy and forget. There is no garden w/o a gardener.   

I did recently find this somewhat contrary opinion, however.  

July 18, 2009

Walking Trees

Sunset near Williams Arizona

Species moving is nothing new and I was glad to read about serious efforts to think ahead and planting trees in new environments to adapt to global warming.   The tree you plant today will be around for a long time and if the climate changes it will still be there.  Of course, humans moving tree species is really nothing new.   Foresters have pushed the loblolly pine north and North American trees dominate the plantation forests in South America, Australia and South Africa.   Sometimes trees grow better someplace other than their native range.    A most famous case is the Monterey pine, which grows poorly in its narrow native range in California, but thrives magnificently (some think invasively) in the Southern Hemisphere.  

As environments shift, global warming will redefine what we mean by “natural” or “native.”   Environments won’t merely shift north or uphill.  They will be different from what we have today.   We will soon be seeing environments that have not been around for millennia or maybe even millions of years.   There have not been temperate forests north of the Arctic Circle for millions of years, for example.   The relationships among species will be new.     It will be an interesting time to be alive and we have to be involved in the dynamic of changing environments. 

Anyway, read the article.

I wrote a post covering some of these issues, BTW.

July 15, 2009

That’s a Fact

Encyclopedia Britannica

The printing press created facts by mass producing books and papers that were relatively difficult to alter w/o detection and could be traced more or less to a printer.  Lots of what appeared in print was wrong, but it came with some authority and some authorities became the authorities that most people agreed to accept.    We had the Encyclopedia Britannica for the almost erudite and the Guinness Book of Records to settle barroom disputes about the facts.

You could never be sure of a fact in the pre-print age.  Most information passed by word of mouth.  It was oral history, susceptible to unreliable memories, wishful thinking and ordinary mendacity.   The written word was literally written.  Each copy was different.   Specialists can date manuscripts by the errors that have entered them.   Think of it.   You say something; I hear something else.  We dispute what you said and neither of us remembers correctly.   This is the pre-print world where everything is a matter of opinion and subject to interpretation.

Welcome back to this old world, brought about by new media.   The Internet lets everybody “print” anything.   Finding the facts on Internet may require a kind of triangulation.   You have to compare different sources and then decide which version you believe.    You can also alter what appears on the web.   Well, technically there is a record somewhere, but you can “update” and perhaps overwhelm that.   Truth often means what appears on the first screen of a Google search.

The general level of information has greatly improved.   I am amazed at the extent of what you can find on Wikipedia and the accuracy is very good in many cases.    Wikipedia is essentially an information market.    It works very well when there are lots of participants w/o very much controversy.   Where it falls down is where the market is thin (i.e. few participants to check and correct) or where there is enough controversy to attract lots of people with their own deceptive agendas.   It never stands still.

I have a set of Encyclopedia Britannica.   I used to love those books.  I would just pull one out and read what I found, a kind of a random walk.   I used to like to have the true facts.    I am looking at my Britannica from my chair.  They are nice books to look at, but they are no longer accurate.  Populations have changed since this edition was printed nearly thirty years ago.   Some whole countries have been created or disappeared.   New things have been invented.    My Britannica’s certainly are not worthless, but it would be very foolish to trust them on science, politics or current affairs.   Actually, the only thing they are really good for is history.   I am sure that they have not changed since I got them, so I can trust that those were the “facts” of around 1980.   But overall I am better off with Wikipedia.

This makes me sad.  I liked the idea that I had all the accumulated knowledge on my bookshelves, which now contain facts of antiquarian interest and opinion.   On the other hand, I have the information of the world a few key strokes away.   Decent trade, IMO.

But it is still cool to have the real book, printed at the real time and touched by real people.  Below is from my Britannica Atlas, which is older than I am.  When this map was printed, during WWII, the editors did not know what the map of Europe would look like before the ink was dry, so they went back to the pre-war map, which was only valid for a few months.  This map points to another print v Internet difference.  This obsolete map is in my book unaltered.  I can find the same map onthe Internet, but I have to look for it.  The Internet piles new information on old, like a sediment w/o outcropping.  In a book, you might just find something intriging like a map that doesn’t make sense and bids you learn more.  In the Internet age, if you don’t dig, you don’t find.

Europe map 1938

July 14, 2009

National Arboretum

Big catalpa tree at the National Arboretum in Washington

The weather in Washington this year has been superb, cooler than usual w/o too much humidity.I took advantage of a warm pleasant afternoon to go over to the National Arboretum.It is not very far from where I work, but I had never been there.   It is actually astonishing when I think about it.I go many miles to see trees in other states and even countries, but never bothered to make the short trip. I will have to wander back and spend more time.

Switchgrass at National Arboretum

It is located in the middle of one of DC’s less nice neighborhoods.  That is one explanation.  But it has been improving.  Washington has gotten better in general.  In 1988, when I was here for language training, the place was going to hell.  Things have gotten a lot better since Washington elected reasonably competent and non-crooked mayors.  It was depressing back in the 1980s when Marion Barry kept getting reelected, but that is another story.

Cottonwoods at National Arboretum

The Arboretum is very pleasant.   It reminds me of Whitnall Park in Milwaukee.I had the place almost to myself.  I thought the trees would be thicker, but there is a lot of open space.    They also had some plant exhibits about how farm plants could produce energy.You can see the pictures.   

The top picture is a big catalpa.  We used to call them Indian cigar trees, because of the long pods that hang down.  Catalpas are native only to the area around Indiana, Missouri and Illinois, but they have been planted all over the U.S.  My Aunt Loraine had one in her front yard on Whitnall (again with the Whitnall) Ave.  It was still there last time I passed.  The next picture is switch grass.   The last picture shows cottonwoods.  They are tough trees.  Their leaves quake in the wind producing a nice gentle sound.  They grow very fast, but don’t live very long (for a tree).

July 13, 2009

Hanging Around

As long I am wallowing in doubt and indecision, I have a few more thoughts about work, making a contribution and retirement. 

Retiirement chart showing that people are planning to work longerI could retire today… in theory.  FS is like the military in that respect.  We can get our full pensions after 20 years if we are at least fifty years old.  I have achieved both.  We have an up-or –out system.   Had I not been promoted in 2007, and presuming no promotions in 2008 or 2009, they would be kicking me out come this October.  As it is now, I can stay until February 2016.  My last promotion bought me six years and they gave me an extra year as compensation for my year in Iraq.

We are only allowed to stay in each pay-grade-class a certain number of years and we only get 27 years to jump into the Senior Foreign Service.  The grim reaper is always taking the hindmost.    The system, IMO, has a major flaw in that it puts faster risers at greater risk, since they come sooner up against their time in class.   We also have an interesting concept of “opening your window.”  You cannot be promoted into senior FS unless you open your window.  When you do that, it starts a clock ticking.  You get six evaluations and if you don’t make it to SFS by the time the clock runs out, your window shuts and you are involuntarily retired.    Your life can be extended if you go to a place like Iraq or have a year of training (as I did at Fletcher School, which is why I would have gotten the boot in 2009 instead of 2008).  A cautious person would wait until he had been in the FS for 21 years.  That would mean that he would lose nothing if he did not get promoted, since he would get kicked out of the FS in general in 27 years.   Of course, anybody who does that is probably not very ambitious. 

I opened my window as soon as I was eligible.   I didn’t want to hang around like a fart in a phone booth.   I could have survived as an FS01 until 2012, so that would have been only a four year difference (w/o the long term training year).  On the other hand, they could promote me and I would have more options.  I honestly didn’t think I would make it.  The odds are against you.  I knew that I should not hang around too long, but I also knew I would not have the courage to just set out w/o the boot.  So it was a kind of play or trade option.Get up or get out.

There is a kind of FS life-cycle and I fell into it for awhile.  When we are around forty-five, we complain about the lack of recognition and start bragging that we will be out the door the minute we become eligible for retirement, presumably earning the big bucks in the private sector.When we turn forty-nine, we go silent.  We stop talking about retirement in general and start to count the years until our time in the FS runs out.  A couple years later, we start complaining again, but this time it is decry the injustice that a “good worker like me” may be forced out while “I still have so much to contribute.” 

My question is about how much I still have to contribute.   As I wrote a few days ago, I am concerned that some of the new media is passing me by.  A lot of my skills have become obsolete.    Of course, I can learn new ones, but is it really a good deal to taxpayers for somebody like me to retrain to learn something that a lower-paid newer employee can just do out of habits learned as a child growing up with computers?  

It is always a dilemma to weigh experience and judgment against raw talent and brain-power.    Experience improves judgment, but only within a range of similar situations.  In times of rapid or discontinuous change, experience with former systems may be as much as an impediment as an advantage.   Old generals know how to fight the old wars.  They always are in danger of being overtaken by a revolution in military affairs.  The tank means changed tactics.The same goes for all walks of life, if somewhat less dramatically.That is why you have to clear out experience sometimes and let younger people in.  The experience of the past hangs on their necks less heavily or not at all.   Our up-or-out system is supposed to guard against this sort of complacency, but eventually you get to the end of the trail and maybe you get to the end of your own trail before they vote you off the island.

This is not a problem limited to the FS.In fact, we are relatively better off than many others precisely because of our up-or-out system.  The economic downturn has changed the equations.   All over the country people are delaying retirement.This is good in that it saves money on pensions and keeps people productive.   But it also clogs the arteries of an organization.   You need people leaving at the top in order to give people on other rungs of the ladder the opportunity to climb.

IMO, older people should keep working as long as they want to and as long as they can.  In fact, given the upcoming Social Security and entitlement crisis many will have to do just that, like it or not,  but maybe not in the same jobs or even the same professions.  You get stale after a while, as the pathways your good ideas and sound practices have blazed become ruts and craters that limit options for yourself and others. 

My baby boom generation is the biggest, healthiest and best educated cohort of soon-to-be senior citizens in the history of the world.  We see old people running marathons, discovering new things and opening new businesses.   We still have a lot to contribute and a duty not to sponge off the smaller generations that follow us.  I think we will see an amazing flowering of entrepreneurship among older people.    The Internet will greatly facilitate this trend.  

But maybe we need to be bumped out of our ruts.Our experience is valuable to the extent that it does something valuable.   It is a tool and like any tool, it must be used.It does not entitle us to anything, any more than the ownership of a hammer entitles you to pound.

I don’t know where I am going with this.   It is the time again for me to look for a new assignment and so the thoughts like this are clogging my brain.I have options where I can use my experience in new ways.  But I am not sure what to do.   Should I go down a path where I can use the skills I have developed, where I am reasonably sure of success, or try to cut a new one? 

July 11, 2009

New Media For the President

My colleagues at IIP did a superb job of supporting President Obama’s address in Ghana on all new media platforms.   

Co.NX program during President Obama's speech in Ghana on July 11, 2009

The center of the program was sending SMS highlights of the President’s speech as he delivered them.   Three of our colleagues watched the live coverage and released the highlights at the appropriate time.    Computer penetration in Africa is not as extensive as it is in most of the rest of the world, but Africans have innovatively connected themselves to the world with cell phones, so SMS is a way to go there.  I thought President Obama gave an excellent speech.    It helps to have good and interesting content. 

BTW – I feel no compunction in bragging about this shamelessly because I had almost nothing to do with the success except that I was standing nearby.That was the beauty of this operation. It was largely self organizing, with everybody not only doing their jobs but being proactive in taking leadership roles where appropriate and following the lead when it made sense.  In my time in government, I have rarely seen such a large operation run with so little tension and so much good humor.Life doesn’t have to be tough.  You can usually get better results with happy and engaged people. Obama in Ghana

Chrissy asked me why I thought it worked so well.   It might be too soon to tell, but I think there are several things that have been working and growing, as I mentioned the previous post, that are now flowering.   IIP has been building new media skills for years now.   It takes years to grow people, acquire skills as an organization and build trust.  We have grown people with skills and more importantly the innovative attitude that overcomes obstacles and finds opportunity.     Into this mix, we have added some really great young people, who have grown up using the new technologies.   They feel as comfortable with the various new media as I do watching television.   By a combination of foresight, planning and luck, we just have the right kind of people for what we are trying to do right now.

On the cynical side, IIP currently has no political appointees, which is rare enough, but even more remarkable is that our big boss is a career FSO who has been in charge at IIP for about three years, so we have had stable, non-political leadership across two administrations.  This meant that our programs could continue to develop w/o the transition hiccups.   Don’t get me wrong.  We all love the energy, enthusiasm and skills brought by political appointees, but sometimes the reach of their enthusiasm exceeds their grasp of the realities of the situation.

What was so remarkable?Lots of things just worked.  When everything works as it should, you really have achieved excellence. And some things were outstanding.

Second life doing virtual program with President Obama's Ghana speech on July 11, 2009

I am not a big fan of Second Life, but I have to admit that it worked well in this case.   Our colleague Bill May had some friends who organized a virtual discussion group that featured viewing of the speech and discussion by/with experts.  IIP let them use our “island” in Second Life (for those unfamiliar with it, Second Life is a virtual world, where you can set up virtual events and build your own online communities on your own virtual islands.) but interested individuals carried the load.   The new media requires that you relinquish some control in order to achieve better results, and our leadership was wise enough to let it be.

Beyond that, IIP’s bloggers blogged and twitted the program.  CO.NX did their usual interactive good work.   We distributed translations in English, Portuguese, French & Swahili important for Africa, and of course the usual Persian, Arabic, Spanish, Chinese & Russian.   And everything got out and posted almost immediately. 

Of course, our overseas posts, especially those in Africa, localized our products and did their own programs. I understand that our post in South Africa got 250,000 participants in their own SMS outreach in the first 24 hours.

It was just excellent all around.It worked. I am proud to have been standing nearby.

Punctuated Equilibrium & Phase Transitions

Fountain at Hirshhorn sculpture garden on July 9, 2009

It is a type of evolutionary theory.   I won’t vouch for my grasp of  the biological details, but I think it well applies metaphorically to societies and lots of things in life.   Events seem to go along more or less the same for a long time and then they jump to something else.  In fact, little changes are building up over time, but they are not apparent and counterbalanced until the system just cannot hold.   This is what happened in the old Soviet Empire and it may be what is happening in Iran today.    It is hard to understand how people of the time could have not anticipated the change because it is so easy to see … looking back.Prediction is a lot harder.

The concept that goes with this is “phase transition.”  The standard example of this is water.  It is a solid ice until it reaches 32 degrees.   Then it turns to liquid.This doesn’t happen gradually.  20 below zero looks like 31 degrees above, but get above 32 and it is completely different.  After that it stays the same from 32 until 212 degrees, when it suddenly turns into steam. 


No matter what you call it, I feel like I have just experienced it with the new media.  All those webchats, twitter, Facebook, Flickr, webpages etc have been kicking around IIP for a long time.  Some people were working on them.   But today I noticed that we have made a kind of phase transition.   We are a new media organization.  President Obama is speaking in Ghana today.   We at IIP are supporting with SMS, Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr.  We even have a place on Second Life, where avatars will discuss President Obama’s words … and it all seems natural, business as usual, NBD to everybody but me. 

And I am feeling like I just missed a train.I liked blogs.I felt reasonably comfortable with Facebook.  But I really don’t have much use for SMS or Twitter and I positively don’t like Second Life.   I used to be kind of a leader in new tech methods of public diplomacy.  I was a pioneer, a mapper of strange new waters – at least that is what it seemed to me.   Now colleagues are swimming effortlessly in the new media ocean, while I am looking out after them like a beached whale.    The wonder is that this all happened in the course of about a month.  The world I have known for some years have shifted, hence my thoughts of punctuated equilibrium and phased transitions.

I am not sure I can go along on this phased transition.Maybe I walked along this trail as far as it can take me and I need to leave further progress to others.Maybe it is just that it is almost 3am and I can’t sleep. Maybe things will look clearer in the light of day. President Obama will speak on a from a far away continent in just a few hours and our new media will shrink the distance to something inconsequential. What a wonder.

Anyway, I suppose there are other things I can do. 

July 10, 2009


I will participate in a live webchat on August 12 (see below).  Please sign up so that I am not embarassed by lack of interests and send in your comments and questions.  Thanks. 

Click on this link to go to the Facebook page.  

Sustainable Forestry and Climate Change
Join forest owner, carbon credit producer and sustainable forestry advocate John Matel for a live chat on August 12

Co.Nx: See the World

Wednesday, August 12, 2009
9:00am – 10:00am
Washington, DC

Date: August 12, 2009
Time: 9:00am EDT (1300GMT)

Experts estimate that 20% of greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation. Yet forests are the ultimate in renewable resource. A well-managed forest can produce wood, help clean the water and air, as well as provide a home for wildlife and a place for recreation now and essentially forever. In addition, rapidly growing forests remove and sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide. (Growing one pound of wood in a vigorous young forest removes 1.47 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and replaces it with 1.07 pounds of oxygen.) In short, while good forestry practices are not the only solution to the problems of climate change and environmental degradation, there is no workable solution without them.

John Matel is a forest owner who is working to put sustainable forestry into practice on his land in the U.S. State of Virginia. In addition, as Communications Director for the Virginia Forestry Association Tree Farm Program, he helps foster good forestry stewardship on private lands around the Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond. Pine forests in the southern U.S. supply around 58% of the U.S. demand for timber and account for more the 15% of the world’s timber production. This is done sustainably and each year landowners in the southern U.S. plant more than a billion trees.

Drawing on his experience with things like the sale of carbon credits, the environmental value chain, prescribed burning and sustainable forestry, John Matel will be available to answer your questions on a live webchat.

Please read more at his webpage at http://johnsonmatel.com/blog1/forestryecology.

July 08, 2009

A Cool & Green Season

The weather has been great this year.  This evening it is actually chilly.   It will get down to 60 degrees tonight.   I don’t remember it ever being so cool in Washington in July.   I read that last month was the coolest June since 1958 and one of the coolest since they started to keep records.   It has also been usually rainy, so everything is very green and robust.

Below are a few pictures from around SW Washington.  

This is our shredder truck.  We are moving to our new building nearer the Main State.  Some stuff needs to be shredded.   This truck brings us the industrial strength shredding power.

Shredder truck at State Annex 44

Below is a very big Japanese Zelkova.   The green picture is from today.  The leafless one is from January looking in the other direction.


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

Below is construction near Waterfront metro stop.  The first is today, the other is from January.


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

Below is construction on the Arena Stage.  I really cannot picture how this is going to look when it is done.


July 07, 2009

Broadcast Monitoring System – The Rise of the Machines

Flowers in Vienna VA

Years of science fiction make big real-world advances look puny. All of us have seen the fantastically multimedia computers on Star Trek or the James Bond and have come to expect instantaneous processing time, perfect video delivery and trouble-free operation.   Of course we know that the real world data systems don’t work like this, but even when we know the real world, it is the illusions we recall.

I thought about that at a briefing today.  I saw a broadcast monitoring system that lets you to search broadcasts using key words, as well as set up permanent watch lists, much the same way you can do now for text.   It monitors major satellite broadcasts and produces machine generated transcripts in original languages.

And I thought, “So what?  No big deal.” But it is, actually, a big deal even if it looks a lot like what we imagined we had before. Consider the analogy of search engines.  Think of how much better you can search with Google than you could with Lycos, Magellan, the aptly named “dogpile” or so many of the others whose names we forget. But all Google does is the same thing as the most primitive search engines; it just does it better. That is how progress is made, by making incremental improvements until at some point you have something new, but nobody notices.

Untethered imagination is much overrated. It is funny to hear people say that Leonardo da Vinci invented helicopters, tanks or submarines just because he imagined the concept and drew some unworkable sketches or that Jules Verne pioneered space travel because he wrote a book about going to the moon. Yet when a helicopter flies overhead, you could say, “NBD, da Vinci invented the thing nearly 500 years ago, it just didn’t fly; this is just a minor improvement.” And I hate that childish notion that this or that modern machine was “really” invented by ancient Africans, Arabs, Chinese, Greeks, Incas, Persians, Russians … Who cares?

It matters less who imagined something first than who make it work first and then who keeps improving it.    It also matters who tells others about.  If you make a great discovery, but nobody else knows about it, you really didn’t make a great discovery. You just indulged your idiosyncratic curiosity.

Returning to the subject at hand, the broadcast monitoring system takes the place of those bored guys that used to watch TV and take notes (Presumably, sales of coffee and cigarettes will decline.)  The advantage is that the machine never sleeps or has to take a bathroom break.  The disadvantage is that the machine doesn’t think or make free association.  It only produces exactly what it is asked to give, although more sophisticated programs are allowing them to branch out with a kind of artificial intelligence.

The original language transcripts are good, the translations, not so good.  They have some of the comical aspects we associate with mistranslation.  However, retrieval is more important than perfection.   Skilled human translators can make whatever changes necessary after the machine does the initial sorting.

The systems I saw can do Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, Persian and English. Bahasa, Hindi and Urdu are planned.  It takes at least six months to “train” the program.  They need enough of a sample.   For example, if you let it go for only a short time, for example last week, you might have nothing but Michael Jackson stories.  Your machine would have a strong vocabulary on plastic surgery, gloves, music videos and bizarre behavior by aging man-boys, but maybe not enough on more important topics.

The system is around 80% accurate, but it depends on who is talking and about what.   It can pick up around 95% of what an anchorman says when he is speaking directly to the camera, but starts to decline when there are multiple participants in a conversation and/or when people start slipping into dialects or even idiolects.

It works a lot like Google for video and you could probably start using it in less than ten minutes.  The hard part is to know what you want to get from the system and how to use it.   Translation is more an art than a science. Of course, decision making requires even a greater use of judgment.

I think this is very promising for understanding big trends. As we get more data points to smooth out outliers and the quirks of special situation, we can start seeing the simpler patterns in the ostensible complexity. But despite the coolness of this technology, it provides essentially the same sort of service for video that a reasonably skilled user of Google can achieve with texts. Of course, while Google is very useful in finding information, we still have not really figured out how to use it as an analytical tool for audience research or evaluation.

Still not as cool as I saw on Star Trek many years ago. I suppose Leonardo da Vinci invented the concept.

July 05, 2009

Vines Take Over the World

Vines covering trees along I66 in Fairfax County VA on July 11, 2009

It looks like vines are going to take over the world.   I am fighting vines on the tree farm.   The recent thinning and biosolids fertilization on the Chrissie’s pond tracts has benefited them as much as the trees.   I am not sure of all the kinds, but I have at least oriental bittersweet, wisteria, trumpet vine, Virginia creepers, Japanese honeysuckle and wild grape.    (I don’t have kudzo and I am thankful for that.) Each presents different challenges.

The oriental bittersweet is the worst, although not the most pervasive.   It is destructive because it winds around the truck and branches of the trees.   It deforms them and I think it would kill them in time.   The trumpet vines are very pretty, but they overtop the little trees.  Virginia creepers are just heavy.  They cover trees and weigh them down but are not very hard to control if you keep at it.   Wild grape is like that too.   All vines are vulnerable to controlled fire and I look forward using this tool to taking care of the vines, along with some of the ticks, next year.   

Until then, I am doing the holding action.   Yesterday I tramped through the brush and physically cut down the clinging vines.  I also trimmed off some of the lower branches of the pine trees.  It makes it easier to see what you are doing and besides the lower branches act as ladders for the vines.   I must have done this for more than 1000 trees.   Of course, there are 500+ trees per acre and +/- 110 acres of pine on CP, so it is a little like peeing in the ocean and anticipating a flood, but not all the trees are affected by the vines and I have gone after the worst infestations.   That ought to hold them off until I can burn them up. 

The Japanese honeysuckle is only present on the Freeman property.  I have not seen any on CP.  It is also pretty and the scent is nice, but it ruins trees. I have a problem only at the edges. They don’t grow well in the shade.  I have not been expending too much energy fighting these invaders.   The trees on the Freeman track are tall enough and thick enough to resist for a couple of years and in a couple of years we will do first thinning and then I can do controlled burning.    This is essential, since the opening to the sun and the biosolids applied after the thinning will encourage them.  The first burning will control the honeysuckle, as well as those other vines that will grow up, and a second one a couple years later will essentially wipe them out.

My fight against the tree of heaven, on the other hand, is going well.   The boys helped with hack and squirt (where you whack the tree with machete and squirt in the herbicide) using Arsenal from BasF in 2006 and we made a big dent in the thickets, but I think the most effective after that was when we converted much of the area that had been covered in tree of heaven to wildlife pasture. Some are still sprouting out, but it is much easier to get at them.  I can control the meadow and when the pine trees get big enough to shade out the new tree of heaven, they will not be much of a menace in the woods.

Of all the things I do on the farm fighting back the invasive species is probably the most useful.  If not controlled, they can take over wide swaths of acreage. I believe that my efforts over the last couple of years have saved acres of my pines.  When I come across places I missed, I sometimes find deformed little trees strangled by vines. The tree of heaven had already taken over at least five acres before we pushed them out. Most of these plants were introduced because somebody thought they were pretty or good (Chinese use tree of heaven in folk remedies) and they are indeed good at growing in North America. There really is nothing wrong with them except that they are too good at the competition.  If you don’t mind having nothing but vines and tree of heaven, you really don’t have a problem. Of course, I am trying to grow an American forest.   

You can see what happens when people stop caring by driving along the freeway on Route 66.   Everything is blanketed in vines.  It looks like somebody dropped a green cloth over the landscape.   The trees below are gradually dying.  Vines have a great, if parasitic strategy.   They don’t have to waste energy making woody stems.  They just grow up and cover whatever is nearby. 

If left alone, I suppose in thousands of years some kind of balance would assert itself.   Of course, none of us will live long enough to see it happen, so I will keep the balance on my little acres.  

July 03, 2009

Crap TV


When I was in Norway, one of the local television stations constantly played reruns of Ricky Lake and Jerry Springer.  I used to wonder what kind of image of our country these clowns created. They were bad enough, but now we have a whole slew of reality shows.    They show unattractive people being venal and selfish.  We live here and we have a wide variety of other impressions.   But I was imagining if I was to see something like “Bridezillas” w/o other context I might not want anything to do with the culture that produces such monstrosities. 

Americans are no more venal than people in other countries and our television shows are really no worse than other.   For example, the Dutch invented many of the reality shows, like “Big Brother.”   But most of these offerings don’t get distributed around the world.   The Brits seems to have developed the perfect television PR.    I have been to the UK and seen some of what they watch back home.   It is not very uplifting.  Yet in the U.S. and around the world, we get “Masterpiece Theatre.” 

I am not the only one to worry about the coarsening of America.  I don’t know how much television is reflecting changes in America and how much it is driving them.    I also am not sure of how people are looking the programs.   When I see people being selfish and demanding to be covered in bling, I look down on them.   Everybody needs somebody to look down on and the low-lives on reality TV provide an outlet.

There is an old saying that the bad man is a lesson for the good.  You can see what not to do.

But are negative role models enough?  Are they really seen as negative?  A lot of the bad people get what they want by being aggressive.   Maybe some people see that as good thing.

We should not underestimate the power of television.    Advertisers understand that a fifteen or thirty minute commercial can sell a product.   Maybe a thirty minute or an hour program can sell a lifestyle.  I watched a lot of television when I was a kid and I know that I consciously modeled some of the behavior and habits of some of the television characters.     It sometimes surprises me today when I watch an old show and see one of my traits in embryonic form.    Maybe I was just more impressionable than most kids, but I don’t think so.   I hear too many stories, jokes and tag lines from movies. 

Television characters help define the boundaries of what is acceptable.   For example, when did it become acceptable to call women “bitches,” much less use the word on TV?  But both things are now common.   How is it that the “poor” people on reality TV can afford and think they deserve fancy cars and jewelry?

I grew up on science fiction and westerns.   Both were common when I was a kid.They were actually very similar.   “Star Trek”, for example, was a lot like “Wagon Train.”   They travel through unexplored territories meeting strange people, with whom they alternatively cooperate and conflict.    And they all were morality plays, very simple and clear.   They seem very naive today, but they are certainly no more simplistic than “Bridezillas” and they have a better purpose.

I have to stipulate, however, that television has generally improved.The production values as well as the complexity of programs are much better than they used to be.  In addition, we have many fine productions on history, science and human affairs.   But this is a result of a general widening of offerings.  There is much more choice now.    You can choose to watch well produced dramas (like Law & Order), good news programs (Newshour on PBS), technology (Modern Marvels) or any of the great variety of history programs.   Or you can watch crap all day and night.

Choice is enhanced (exacerbated) by the ability to time shift and save programs.  At one time television united the country.  We watched the same things at the same times and that made us more similar.  Most Americans watched the evening news with Walter Cronkite.  Half the country tuned into the final episode of “The Fugitive.”   Now we all watch different things at different times.  I suppose that will make us all more different.  Unequal inputs produce unequal results.

July 01, 2009

What You Measure is What You Get

Some people have come up with ways to measure the value of a standing tree.   Not surprisingly, there is some controversy and a lot of disagreement about the values going in.    Most of what I have seen so far seems to overvalue individual trees and undervalue whole ecosystems.   It is sort of a tree rights movement and it seems to me that much of this valuation is designed to be used as a club to pummel developers.   This is unfortunate, because there is a real need to develop markets for environmental services, as I have written on several occasions.  But everything must be viewed from the system point of view.   When you get down to the level of individual tree, you are just being silly.

I got a link to a system called I-Tree.   It purports to help value trees in urban settings.   I haven’t really done much with it, but I admit that I am a little suspicious of an overarching measurement system.    We always have to be careful not to outsource our brains and judgment either to consultants or to systems.    As long as these are only tools, it is good. 

The I-Tree had a study of the forest in Milwaukee that surprised me so much that I doubt its validity, although I question my own observations too.   According to the report, nearly a quarter of Milwaukee’s tree cover is European buckthorn.   This is a kind of bush.  It is an invasive species, but I just cannot believe it is that common.    The parks I know well are covered in oaks and maples.   Buckthorns, not so much and even then they are growing in the understory.    I suppose there are lots of them because they are small.  Supposedly, they make up only 5.5% of the leaf area.  But still, that seems out of whack. 

I am looking at the places I know well in Milwaukee on Google Earth.  Most of the forested and park area is dominated by basswoods and maples, with a lot of oaks and beech trees near the lake.   There are also a fair sprinkling of cottonwoods on some of the slopes. Anyway, the report paints a picture of my native city that I don’t recognize.   It could be that I just don’t see the vast world of European buckthorn dominating the landscape like dark matter in the universe.  I read once that more than half of all the species in the world are a type of beetle.  Sometimes things can be strange and not obvious; or it could be that the information fed into the I-Tree tool was faulty.   Mistakes in input produce mistakes in output.   The problem with a tool like this is that you cannot know for sure w/o taking it apart and the ostensible precision of the graphs and numbers gives you a false sense of certainty.

According to the report, Milwaukee is dominated by buckthorn, box elder and green ash, which together make up around half of all the trees.Green ash is planted by homeowners and the city as street trees, but buckthorn and box elder just grow by themselves.Box elders grow down along the railroad tracks and anyplace you disturb the natural cover, but they are early steps in succession.They don’t live long and are replaced by other treesas the site matures.They are also weedy, weak, short lived and generally undesirable trees.You don’t have to do anything to encourage them.In fact, it is almost impossible to get rid of them if you want to.  How depressing is that if they are the forests of Milwaukee?

But I don’t think they are, no matter what the report says.

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