October 2009

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October 31, 2009

America Lags Behind …

We hear that all the time. Today I read an article saying that America lags behind THE WORLD in processing e-waste. I heard on the radio yesterday that American higher education is at risk. You would think we lived in the worst place it world.  Yet anybody who has lived or especially worked anywhere else knows that America is one of the best places in terms of almost everything people really want. 

Is everybody just stupid for not seeing this?  Is it anti-American propaganda?  Do “they” hate us? Are we betrayed by the opinion-making elites in our own country?   I think the answer often is simpler and structurally-based on a few factors that seem neutral in themselves but produce the negative buzz we have come to expect from the chattering classes in the American and international media. 

Doom and gloom industry

There are definite concrete and often money advantages to looking at the negative side of life.  Various NGOs have organized to solve the world’s problems.  They depend on bad news to fund raise.  What are the chances they will announce that the problem they have been fighting for years has been substantially solved?  This incentive system goes double for lawyers, who can often get courts to use their coercive power to get money directly.   Of course, this doesn’t apply only to America, but it applies especially to America where the money going to NGOs and lawyers is by far the largest in the world.  It makes sense to go after the deep pockets.

Cherry picking comparisons

One of my jobs was to give talks about America to foreign audiences.  I used to start with the statement, “Everything you have heard about America is right.”   This is true because the U.S. is so big and diverse.  We have the some of the best schools and some of the worst.   We have the fattest people and the fittest people.   We also have fifty states, each with its own problems and personality.    We like to make lists and it is very easy to pick the comparison you want and usually those comparisons are negative.

The U.S. is a continental country.   In many ways, it can be compared only to other continental units, such as China, Russia, Brazil, India or maybe the ENTIRE EU. Otherwise we get inappropriate unit comparisons of the whole U.S to whatever are the best performing countries in any particular category.   It would be like comparing the average of 1000 people in various categories against the best individuals – different ones depending on the need.  We could do the same with states. For example, the relatively poor American state of Arkansas has a per-captia income about that of Germany.

There are also problems of scale.  A country like Norway has only around 5 million people and they are relatively homogenous.  Many things can be done on a small scale that cannot be scaled up. I lived in Norway for four years and thought it was a great place to be but I understood that the institutions that work for them cannot be scaled 60 times, even if all the 300+ Americans wanted to do it.

What they say, not what they do

Surprise.  Not everybody does what they promise.  This is especially true among leaders of less democratically oriented countries, since they have less of a domestic check, but it works for everybody.  My personal indicates that America promises less than many other places, but delivers more.Many countries declare the RIGHT to things and may even assign a government bureaucracy to deliver, but they don’t.  Citizens get stuck with long waiting lines or defacto rationing.   For example, I observed that people found it very difficult to get day-care in Norway.  It was a RIGHT, but there was a long waiting list.   Sometimes the problem was solved when the kid got old enough not to need it.  We have fewer official social rights in the U.S. but we can often GET things easier. 

One problem is that REALITY in America is compared with promises or aspirations elsewhere.  It is always easier to make plans and promises than to deliver results.   But it gets even worse when the promises are compared.    We lose whenever we get into a rhetorical bidding war.  Reality is more important but harder to measure.

Government v private & theories of history

The government even today has a smaller role in American society than it does almost every place else.  This goes back hundreds of years.  Alexis de Tocqueville described it in 1831.  We Americans rely much more on self-organized groups and volunteers.  No other country has such a large charity and volunteer sectors.

Related to the role of government is a deeply embedded theory of history and storytelling.  Stories have heroes and villains.   Actual events often do not.  The American system is decentralized and much more self-organized than the average country.  But people still look for some human agent even when something happens for diffuse and impersonal reason. They always find one.  That is why conspiracy theories are so popular.  It is usually not true, but we get blamed anyway.

The Katrina Effect I was listening to NPR as I was writing this an on came Daniel Schorr with a tangential example.  He was talking about the shortages of H1N1 flu vaccine and how people were blaming government incompetence. People get very high expectations that government can control natural disasters, he said, and when things work less well than can be imagined, they get angry.  It was a similar problem with Katrina. I was a little surprised that Schorr used the Katrina example. I guess as we get farther away from it, it becomes less politically charged. 

Improvement actually makes things look worse

I wrote about this in a previous note. Continuous Improvement Makes Everything Look Bad Looking Back

Anyway, these are a few of the thoughts that came to me after seeing those articles.  I am not saying that there are not bad guys out there that want to give us a hard time, but even absent ill will, we still face structural challenges.  The sad part is that there is little we can do about them.   In many ways it would be better if it was the work of our opponents.We might be able to identify them and contain their propaganda, maybe even change some minds.  With structural problems … we just have to live with them.  I would say that we can slowly change them, but I am not sure we can.  Sometimes you have to choose between actually doing something and seeming to do something.Promises are great, but it is usually better to get something really.

October 29, 2009

Mongomery, Alabama

Alabama Capitol

Montgomery is on a flat site so it spreads out easily.  The central part of the city is very quiet.  It is easy to drive and find your way around the grid pattern streets, and there is ample parking all around.   The country’s first electrical trolley line was set up here in 1886.  That started spreading out the city’s population.  There are no natural barriers, so since it was easy just to move a little farther out and since the city’s population is only 200,000 (a little less than Arlington) the whole place has more the density  of a suburb than a city. Above is the state capitol.

Below is the Confederate White House, where Jeff Davis lived.  Montgomery was the first Confederate capital. The woman running the reception desk was originally from Czechoslovakia.  Her parents fled Sudetenland when Hitler took over, only to be subsumed when he took over the rest of the country after the Munich sell-out.  After WWII, her family wisely got out when the communists took over.  Although she came to the U.S. when she was only eleven, she still had a trace of a Czech accent, overlaid with the Alabama drawl.

Confederate White House

I was a couple hours early for my appointment at the Alabama Forestry Association, so I got a chance to walk around the Capitol area.  The buildings are classical revival built with white marble from Alabama or the neighboring states.  Below is the Alabama Archives building. There is a museum inside.  Notice the classical style with the white marble again.

Alabama archives

The city has clearly gentrified.  Near the river are a lot of old warehouses and railroad buildings, now converted to loft apartments and nice restaurants.  I didn’t take pictures of them, but below is the Dexter Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King served as pastor 1954-1960.  It was from here that he organized the Montgomery bus boycott.

Dexter Baptist Church

At the Alabama Forestry Association, I met Rick Oates.  Forestry is an important industry in Alabama.  Although the state tree is the longleaf pine, loblolly is a lot more common. Mr. Oates said that woody biomass looks like it will take off and some of the pulp firms are worried about it.  I wish.  The price of pulp is so low now.  It would take a big change in biomass to bring it back up.  You can find out more about Alabama forests at this link.

Police memorial in Montgomery, Alabama

Above is a memorial to police officers at the Alabama Capitol.  Below is a traditional Alabama cabin.


October 28, 2009

Time Travels

Clock in Hershey PAI used to daydream about how much better life would be if could go back in time with the knowledge I have now and make changes.  Used to.  My daydreaming was cut short by the anxiety about what I would lose. I couldn’t go back any farther than January 1991, for example.  Otherwise Espen wouldn’t be born.  Nothing could make up for that loss.  But even stipulating that would not be a factor, it still is problematic. 

The dangers & unintended consequences of using foreknowledge to change the future have been a part of literature since there has been literature.   It captures the human imagination, usually with the ironic twist that the very attempt to change the future is the catalyst that brings about the predicted outcome.

The farther back you go, the more small changes would have big and unexpected consequences.  There is no such thing as destiny.  Things did not have to develop the way they did in the past and the farther back you go the more leverage you would have, but you could never guarantee a better outcome.

It is probably a good thing that we fallible and conflicted humans cannot travel in time. But we can benefit from imagining the possibilities.Analyzing alternative possibilities in the past can allow us to make better decisions about the future.Thinking about what might have been is not a fruitless pastime for dreamers as long as you keep it in its place.

I found imaginary time travel a more useful tool after I stopped daydreaming about the real past and started to think about the present and near future in the past tense.It is easier to think backward than forward.I believe I have avoided some regrets this way. I decided to be less career oriented and devote less time to work way back in 1998.I got more time with the family and – unexpectedly – better at my job.  Proper work-life balance makes you more effective all around.   A few years ago I used a similar analysis to decide to buy the forest land.It turned out to be a great decision from the personal fulfillment point of view and not a bad one from the investment angle, at least compared with stocks in recent years.   

Bridge at Maxwell AFB

Now I am trying to analyze a retirement decision.This is not the first time I have thought about this.  I planned to stay in only seven years when I joined the FS, but they always gave me something fun to do before I could organize myself to move on.I have been eligible to retire since my birthday in 2005.Of course, I couldn’t retire and just not work. I could retire with the FS pension and do something else; there are some enterprises I might try before I get too old.  But the present intrudes in the future.  I still have two boys in college and there is always a risk in giving up familiar work for the promise of something new. I hated looking for a job. I don’t suppose the process is much improved since I did it back in 1984. My resume has improved, but my perceived potential has declined.

How will this decision seem looking back five or ten years?  I will probably do as I have done in the past: make it contingent on my next job.  The FS has always given me good jobs before I could organize to leave. Opportunism is a strategy, or to say it more elegantly, sometimes a series of tactical decisions becomes a strategic decision. Anyway, what I decide to do now … or not will change the “future-past” but my method of prospective hindsight is not working very well this time.

Will continuity or change be the better choice?  Who know?  Nobody knows.  That is precisely the problem with the future, no matter how you look at it. 

Bees Exposed

Exposed bee nest

All the bee hives I have ever seen were rounded or in protected places like hollow trees.  Then I saw this up in a tree in Montgomery.  It looks like the bees didn’t bother to put up any defenses or walls, maybe because it never gets very cold.I noticed that many of the houses in the Deep South are also open to the elements.

Bee nest in Montgomery, AlabamaBTW – I would not have seen this bee hive except for a stranger telling me about it.  I found the people of Alabama extraordinarily friendly and open.  People at shops and restaurants talked with me and were very happy to tell me about their town.

October 27, 2009

A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations

Vista of Cairo

The article I read about education in the Arab world was depressing.   There is controversy about the evolution debate in the U.S., but even in the most evolution-hostile fundamentalist environment, there is a debate.  But only around a third of adults in Egypt have ever even heard of Charles Darwin.  There is no biological science w/o Darwin.  That started me thinking about communicating with people who not only disagree with us but may not even share fundamental facts and assumptions.  

We tend to assume that our public affairs programs will resonate if only we craft them right or that a good policy will get the support it deserves.  These assumptions are not justified, overambitious and probably unnecessary.  Let’s do some reality checking by putting the challenges into familiar terms.

We have the controversy within America about bias on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC among others. Some people disagree strongly with people like Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity or Keith Olbermann, accusing them of bias or not being “real” journalists. But let’s put them in the international perspective.  I chose examples from right and left of the spectrum and we would expect much disagreement among them, but the differences among these guys are small potatoes when put in an international context.   And their journalistic ethics and commitment to accuracy would certainly put them much above the international average. 

Alex in Lazenki Park

We have to look at the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

So before we tear our hair out about what the world thinks about us, let’s be clear.  Overall, the world information environment is not open, not fair, not balanced and not friendly to us.  The problem is worst precisely in the places we have the most trouble and this probably is not a coincidence. It is useful to keep in this in mind when we talk about lack of popular international support or approval of America and its policies.   Or let’s put this in our own context.  Glenn Beck would get a fairer shake on the Rachael Maddow show (and vice-versa) than we get in the media in much of the world.

The world is a big and diverse place.  Of course it is true that parts of the world enjoy standards of living & openness similar to ours, Democracy, prosperity and freedom are more widespread now than ever, but the blessings of liberty are still a minority proposition among the world’s people.  The Index of Democracy estimates that only half the world’s population lives in some sort of democracy, but only 14% live in full democracies.  Despite advances in democracy, more than a third of the world’s population still lives under authoritarian rule.  Economic freedom is about as widespread (The most democratic countries with the freest markets also tend to be the richest and most competitive.)  And according Freedom House’s press freedom report, in 2009 only 17% of the world’s people live in places where the press is free.    In one of our key areas, the Middle East, there are NO countries with completely free media and the region has more to worry about than that.   

Let’s again take this back to our terms.  Imagine a fundamentalist polygamous community living someplace in the remote mountains.  They spend significantly more time teaching religion than science or math.   They inculcate a general impression that the outside world is vaguely hostile or at best out to cheat or disrupt the community.   We have all seen such communities in the news.  Get the picture in your head.  Now imagine that your job is to convince them of the fundamental goodness and trustworthiness of the Federal Government.  This would be a daunting task.  Now imagine that most of them don’t speak English and a significant number cannot properly read in any language.  

Much of the world’s population presents a challenge like this, or worse.

That is why it doesn’t make particular sense to try to reach the WHOLE world or even very large numbers.  Most people don’t really care very much about our issues.  Others don’t really understand them.  Some are hostile to the messages or have contrary interests.  That is why it makes more sense to target carefully and make our interventions transactional.I don’t really care if people love me in general if they cooperate with me on mutually important specific issues. 

All that requires, however, that we understand our audiences, our goals and our own limitations. 

I spent a lot of time learning not to blame other for my failures. I tried to be proactive and figure out what I could do, no matter what others were doing.  This is a useful and valid outlook.  I have not abandoned it, but I have moved beyond it.  I now understand that sometimes my problems are indeed caused by others. I still have to be proactive, but mostly in ways to avoid the obstruction.  Some people cannot be brought around and it is not my fault.  There are even some people who you DON’T want as friends.  Lay down with dogs and you come up with fleas. The same goes for public affairs. Some people & groups cannot be reached – for all practical purposes – and some shouldn’t be reached because of THEIR characteristics.  There are things you just cannot have and if you look carefully you find sometimes you don’t want them need them.

October 26, 2009

Unlearned Lessons

Kayaks in Lake Michigan

I participated in a seminar led by guy who had been on a CORDS team in Vietnam.CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) were supposed to do some of the development and coordination activities done by PRTs.  I was aware of CORDS but through talking to some older guys who knew about them. You cannot find much about them otherwise. It is the forgotten war and maybe the forgotten victory.

The professor pointed out that the insurgency in South Vietnam was decisively defeated after the TET offensive and CORDS cemented the victory.   After that, it became a problem of invasion from North Vietnam.  The popularly held idea that a bunch of insurgents, living with the people in the countryside, overthrew the South Vietnamese regime is just wrong.  We all remember the fall of Saigon, but we often forget that it was conquered by the armies of the North; big armies complete with armor and air support.  It wasn’t little guys in black pajamas.     

The successful counterinsurgency, including CORDS operation, was linked with the disastrous fall of Saigon and because we got the history wrong, usually w/o even thinking much about it, we were unable or unwilling to learn the lessons.  

The strategy associated with the surge worked in Iraq.We went from near defeat in late 2006 to a clear success (call it victory) a year later. I personally saw the change and felt its effects.  It was literally a matter of people dying or not.You can do all the academic analysis you want and round the words until they fit into square holes, but I am morally convinced that thousands of people are alive today because of what we did. PRTs were part of the surge and people like me contributed to the victory in Iraq. 

Our work at the PRTs may be following CORDS down the memory hole.It just doesn’t have many powerful champions and there are detractors. Some people are almost embarrassed that the surge worked, since they had so vociferously predicted its failure. Others have convinced themselves that success would have happened anyway.  Still others deny that we were successful at all since the situation is not a perfect as they could imagine.And then there are those who imply that victory or defeat in Iraq were/are just irrelevant.    

Some of the participants in the seminar asked me how State Department had taken advantage of the unique experience I had gained in Western Anbar.How had we absorbed that knowledge as a learning organization.  This is what they wanted to know.  I thought about it.I thought about it again.   The Marines invited me to Quantico to discuss my experience, several times, I told them. An independent scholar contacted me.  He had read my blog and wanted to see if I could tell him anything else.  At State Department … well, FSI asked me to present to classes of PRT folks going to Iraq.  I was on a panel with four other people and collectively we talked for about an hour.  That was good.  I sponsored my own brown bag lunch to discuss Iraq.   Five people came, all of them my friends just trying to be nice. I wrote a few entries on our State Department wiki, Diplopedia.  I don’t know if anybody read any of them, but information gets stale anyway unless it is converted to knowledge.

The follow up question was something like, “then how do you all learn?”  I mumbled about “reading in” to the cable and reports.

It is hard to be a learning organization because it is hard to turn experience into information and even harder to turn information into useful knowledge. We too often content ourselves with information on paper, or these days on computers.  We can gather all the numbers, metrics, whatever you want to call it, but it has to be converted to useful knowledge and categorized by human intelligence.  Creating useful knowledge usually means putting it into understandable context.  It usually also requires that the person digesting the information is also someone who can make decisions.  You cannot outsource your brains.

As a PRT leader, I had first-hand, primary knowledge.I sometimes didn’t know the significance of my information or how it fit into a bigger picture. It was helpful when someone had the secondary knowledge to evaluate and figure out what my information was part of. That is why a learning organization is stronger and smarter than the individuals in it.  If the information contained in individual minds remains un-harvested, the organization doesn’t learn.  It can be full of smart people who are adept at learning and improvising solutions, but it will lack the synergy of a learning organization. This is our problem.

I have been observing organizations for a long time.  You have to look at the organization as a whole with its own behaviors, not only at the separate individuals because groups are more than a the sum of individuals.  They develop a culture. We all know that individuals can learn, but so can organizations under the right conditions.

I see that many can be episodically learning organizations.  Much depends on characteristics of individuals in charge and the culture they engender.People have to talk and exchange information informally and non-judgmentally. The learning episode stops if anybody gets in trouble for being wrong, stepping out of line or presenting information that contradicts a agreed upon course of action.  But it is clearly a lot harder than just letting people talk and engage.  There has to be a way to evaluate information.Someone might be 100% honest and open, but still lack the perspective to create accurate or useful knowledge.  On the other hand, the old saying applies that even a broken clock is right twice a day, so you have to listen to everybody. 

The Marines in Iraq had become a learning organization.  I wrote about it at this link.Parts of State Department have been learning organizations during some periods.  I have been involved in some.It was exciting but those flashes of lights tend to flicker out when personnel or priorities shift.

Maybe both personnel and priorities have shifted concerning PRTs in Iraq.  Maybe its just me.  Maybe the State Department has moved along.  Maybe the old Arab proverb applies, “The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on. I don’t suppose my banana index translates very well anyway. It even stopped working in Iraq before I left.

October 25, 2009

The Changing Face of Hate

Martin Luther King Fountain in Montgomery

It might be a positive sign that there are more hate groups.  This is counter intuitive, but according what I learned at at the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of active, affiliated “haters” has actually decreased while the number of groups has gone up.  That indicates a fragmentation of the hate culture.  Maybe some people are ostensibly members of several groups and not committed to any.In the 1920s, the KKK had an estimated 4 million members and was organized enough to influence politics at the state level.  Today there are fewer than 10,000 members, mostly unorganized losers. 

I didn’t know that the Klan of the 1920s recruited most of its members by its anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant stance.  In other words, they hated people like my Polish-Catholic grandparents.That probably explains why the Klan was not strong in Wisconsin.

The speaker said that 6-10,000 hate crimes are reported each year.  Most of these crimes are now aimed at Latinos and immigrants.  Ironically, some of the perpetrators are urban blacks who fear that new immigrants are taking their jobs.  This is in many ways a repeat of the anti-immigrant ideas of generations ago and is evidently the hardy perennial of problems.

We have to be very careful in the “hate crime” designation.  It is a very broad category that can range from name-calling and vandalism to actual murder.  Even in cases of actual violence, the hate motivation is slippery.  Murder is always a crime of hate, whether or not those involved are ethnically similar.  And as in any broad distribution, the very serious instances get the most attention but are very rare.    In a classic case of vividness bias; we more easily recall extreme events and our imaginations turn to frightful images when we may have merely a more comprehensive definition or reporting.

Pictures on the wall at Southern Poverty Law Center

It was much more dangerous in the past to stand up for civil rights in America than it is today and the Institute documented the history of the struggle, especially during the 1950s and 1960s.  There was a memorial listing the names of the forty people killed during those decades.   Alabama was in many ways the center of the struggle and the struggle was much more black and white and not only in terms of race.  When Martin Luther King led boycotts and marches, he was asking only for dignity that most of us agree that all humans deserve.  He was success precisely for this reason.   He appealed to the humanity, virtue and fundamental goodness of his opponents.  Some willing to use firehouses, dogs and worse against protesters, but most suffered pangs of morality.  Almost everybody could agree about what was right and wrong.

Non-violent methods work less well against jihadists or dictators willing or even eager to kill hundreds or thousands of innocent people to make their points and maintain themselves in power.  In Rwanda, Bosnia, Congo or the unfortunately many other places, murder was/is done on a vast scale and individual voices are silenced before they can be heard, sometimes even when they are heard – and murders are seen in the media – as in the recent case of the Iranian elections the regime rolls on. That is the fundamental dilemma of pacifism.  It requires a fundamentally decent society in order to work.

It has become a lot more complicated since then, which is why I think we often hearken back to those days when right and wrong were clearly defined.  Forty five years after the Civil Right legislation, it is much harder to know which side is right on debates on affirmative action, racial preferences or even – especially – immigration.  The people as the Southern Poverty institutes talked more about immigration than anything else.  Maybe it was just because of the nature of our questions, but I suspect that the direction has indeed turned.

IMO, immigration is much more nuanced and problematic as a civil rights issue.  Good people can disagree about fundamental values.  Of course, individual immigrants are entitled to civil rights and human dignity.  But the act of immigration is not a right and an immigrant who enters the country illegally has committed a crime, no matter what we consider the motivations.A country is also entitled to design its immigration laws as it sees fit. 

I am generally in favor of immigration, since it strengthens the diversity of our country, but there are plenty of problems I do not want to import.  I don’t want immigration that encourages things like the Russian mafia, human trafficking or drugs.  Most people would agree with me on the broad direction, but some of the details of procedures and laws would work against this.  And clever reading of rules can provide “rights” to some pretty bad people in situations that good people might not have envisioned.  I would hate to see the definition of hate expanded to encompass vigorous debate about immigration.

The discussion of immigration inevitably turned to race.  Most new immigrants are non-white, but race is not a necessary dominant factor.  The focus on race indicates a lack of historical understanding or perspective. There are plenty of reasons to advocate strict immigration rules that have nothing to do with race. I remember when our rejection rate in Poland was over half and as I mentioned above the KKK disliked Polish-Catholics.  It just now happens that no European countries now have the growing populations that export people, so that is no longer an issue. The problem with immigration is that immigrants bring different values and often create economic dislocation. Most people want SOME change; not many people want comprehensive change.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to keep change manageable or even not wanting much of it at all.  America is a great country.  It makes sense to be careful when changing a good thing, since usually more things can go wrong than go right.

Frankly I don’t want my country to become more like most countries I have visited in many ways. That is not saying we should just freeze in place.  A culture that doesn’t change, dies.  I like the America of 2009 better than the America of 1969 in most ways.I just want us to get the best, not the worst of what the world offers.  We don’t want to just open the doors and let whoever or whatever come.  It is our right to choose.That is why I want rights to remain attached to individuals, not activities, not groups.  If you protect the people, other legitimate things follow.  It doesn’t work the other way around.

October 24, 2009

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothin’ Left to Lose

south Alabama road

The only other time I was in Alabama was in March 1974, almost thirty-five years ago.It was cold in Wisconsin during the spring break so I decided to hitchhike to Florida. I memorized a map, but I got it wrong and ended up two days later in south Alabama.  It took me that long to figure out that I didn’t have enough money and no plan, so I turned around and headed home.This trip was my first big adventure and the first time I understood that being on your own was not always much fun.

I got a ride all the way from Nashville to Alabama state highway 10.This was a very local rural road back then. A guy in a pickup truck picked me up.  He talked to me for about ten minutes, and I understood not a word.   It worried me.  It was like being in a foreign country.   He dropped me off about two miles down the road, where a farmer was out working in his field.  He came over and talked to me (people were very friendly).  He had an accent, but it was easy to understand.  I mentioned my earlier problem and he just laughed.  “That’s old James.  He’s the town drunk.  Ain’t nobody understands old James,” he told me. 

graveyard in Brantley Alabama

My turn around point was a cemetery near Brantley, Alabama on the way to Opp.  I found the place and you can see it up top.  I spent the night there, actually right outside.  That was not my plan. I was talking to some guys at a local gas station.  They warned me about the poisonous snakes in the tall grass.  Now I understand that they were just giving me a hard time. As I walked out of town in the dark of early evening, I saw nothing but tall grass, until there was some short grass.  I thought it was a roadside, so I spread out my blanket and went to sleep.   

Brantley Alabama Main Street

In the morning, I saw that it wasn’t a roadside.  I was sleeping near the tombstones not far from a graveyard.  Had I known where I was, I think I would have slept poorly.  As it was, I spend a peaceful night with the quiet neighbors but that was enough.  I was hungry and lonely and I wanted to go home. I took a picture near the spot where I think I was.  Those leyland cypresses were not there yet.  There was just I was grass and some bushes.  Just being there brought back the feelings of those days.  I did lots of stupid things when I was nineteen, but I think this was the stupidest, on balance.  Above and below are pictures are Brantley what used to be the business district thirty-five years ago and some houses along the road.

Houses along Main Street in Brantely, Alabama

I started to hitchhike back north from the spot on the top picture outside Brantley, Alabama.  (For the last thirty-five years, I have believed that I turned back south of Opp.  I remembered that name because it is odd and I saw it in writing.  Now, however, I am 99% certain that the spot above is indeed the high water mark of my first lonely travel adventure.) I made it to Nashville by that night. 

I might have gotten there earlier.  I had a ride going all the way up there, but I got out near Decatur.  The driver was drinking whiskey.  He claimed that he was going to kill his wife and his former best friend.  The wife had run off with the friend. This didn’t seem to bother the guy too much, but they had also taken a couple hundred dollars of his money. This pissed him off. His story sounded a little too much like the words from a Hank Williams, Jr song.  I remembered the words of the old Roy Acuff song, “Whiskey and Blood on the Highway” (There was whiskey and blood all together; mixed with glass where they lay; I heard the moans of the dyin’; but I didn’t hear nobody pray) so I bailed.  I tried to pay attention to the news the next day and didn’t hear about any spectacular murders, so I figure he was just talking … and drinking.  People who picked up hitchhikers often were just looking for someone to talk at and they often are not serious.  But guns, booze, anger and cars are not things you should mix or mess with if you can avoid it.

I spent my last $7 on a bus ticket from Nashville to Evansville, Indiana.  I didn’t particularly want to go there, but that was as far I my money would take me.  What I really wanted was a warm & reasonably secure place to spend the night and the bus was the best I could do.  I arrived in Evansville just about dawn and set off up Hwy 41.  It was 5 below.  They had an ice storm the day before and then it got really cold. Hitchhiking was hard and I picked up only short hops.  The worst was when some A-hole dropped me off directly in front of a sign that said something like, “Rockville Prison.  Do not pick up hitchhikers”.  I later found out that it was a woman’s prison, but the sign didn’t specify. 

Old timey general store

I got up to Chicago about the time it was getting dark and a really nice guy drove me all the way home to Milwaukee. It is probably not a good idea to depend on the kindness of strangers, but I was glad that I ran into some good people. Besides the Rockville Prison guy and the homicidal boozer, everybody I met treated me okay, some were very friendly and shared lunches with me. I would have been a lot hungrier if not for that. 

The whole adventure lasted only four days, but it made a deep impression on me, so much that a half a lifetime later I can still recall details. This was the first time I was really alone and unconnected. I realized that a guy could just disappear.  I remembered how it felt to be “homeless” as I drove back from Brantley to my reserved room at Courtyard in Troy, Alabama. It is comforting to have a place to go. The most disturbing part about wandering is looking around for a place to bed down at dusk and hoping that it doesn’t rain or you don’t get rolled.  It is nice to be able to come & go when you want, but in the words of that great country philosopher Kris Kristopherson, “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

It was a good lesson and not a very expensive one for me.  It was good to learn it early, but it wasn’t smart to set off with no map, no plan and almost no money.I can’t even put myself back in that stupid young-man mindset.  I make much more sophisticated stupid old-man choices today.  I have always been lucky and luck can substitute for intelligence and foresight … until it doesn’t.

I didn’t stop hitchhiking, BTW.  That is how I and many car-free students got around in those days.  And I subsequently hitchhiked around Europe.  But I prepared better.

October 23, 2009

Air War College in Alabama

Model of Wright Brothers flyer at Maxwell AFB

The Air War College is located on Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery, Alabama.  It is a pleasant place and it is still summer in Alabama.  The housing is nice.  I am here for three days of seminars.  It has been interesting so far. I like to get away sometimes and think about the work.  I only wish I could translate the ideas better into practice.


Above is a B-25.  It is also called the Mitchell bomber, named after Billy Mitchell, who warned America that the Japanese could launch a Pearl Harbor style attack.  For his insight, he was court martialed, although later he was honored.  Too bad he was already dead.  He was a Wisconsin boy and the airport in Milwaukee is named for him too.

The Mitchell bombers planes were used in WWII and were the planes used during the Doolittle raids, when we showed the Japanese that we were serious about taking the war to them after Pearl Harbor.

Below is some of the housing on the base.

Housing at Maxwell AFB on October 22, 2009

Below is the Wagon Wheel restaurant, where we had breakfast.  It is simple eggs and bacon … and grits for those that like them.

Wagon Wheel restaurant

October 22, 2009

Golf, Pools, Horses and Sheep


Fork in road at Maxwell Air Base golf course

I don’t know if it is true, but several people told me that air bases are required to have golf courses, the idea being that all that flat, grassy space is available in emergencies for landing or at least the storage of aircraft.  It sounds a little glib, but who knows?  Home owners in some arid regions sometimes get a discount on their fire-insurance policies if they have swimming pools that can serve as reservoirs.   We got a discount on our insurance from USAA in New Hampshire because our house was within a convenient hose length from a pond.  I thought that was just a specious reason until the condominium clubhouse caught on fire and the fire department did indeed tap the pond water.   Their attempt to save the structure was futile but they did prevent the fire from spreading to the neighboring woods and homes.

Pond in Londonderry, NH in 2004

On the left is pond in New Hampshire.

A surprising number of people hate golf courses.  They are evidently offended by them and work themselves into a frenzy saying things like the land and resources devoted to golf courses could be used to feed poor people.I suppose if we were close to subsistence, this would be true and if we plowed up all the golf courses we could feed a few more people.  Of course, there are lots of other places food is wasted that would come first.  We have all sorts of fruit trees we don’t harvest and all kinds of unused land.  I think the real problem is that luddites associate golf course with affluence.   I don’t golf, never have.  But golf courses are usually attractive.  They provide nice vistas and often good places to run -around the peripheries; golfers get annoyed if you get to close to them.

Horses at Maxwell Air Force base on October 21, 2009

Maxwell Air-Base features another luxury item – horses.  Even the luddites rarely object to horses because they are graceful and beautiful.  I would not want to own one, since I don’t know how to care for them, but I am glad to have them around.  Mariza is very fond of horses.  If she (and we) lived nearer to the tree farms, we could buy one for her.

Longleaf pine at Maxwell Air Force Base

Grazing animals are good management; of course a couple horses are not enough. It is good to have different types of animals, such as sheep or cows or goats to rotate in the pastures.Animal species have different digestive systems.The sheep help slow the spread of horse parasites and vice versa and tend to favor different mixes of greens.Healthy pastures are diverse because of the different habits of species and the different characteristics of their manure. 

They have lots of nice trees on base and Alabama is a big timber state. Slash, Loblolly & longleaf pine together are called “southern pine”  and they sustainably supply around 58% of American timber needs.

October 21, 2009

Yesterday’s Solutions are Today’s Problems


Water on the ground near Gettysburg PA

We are starting to notice the remarkable, game changing development in energy.Scientists have discovered a new way to get natural gas out of shale.They call it hydraulic-fracturing. And there is a lot of potential. This new technique has increased American gas reserves by something like 39% in the last couple of years.   Experts estimate that we have as much usable gas in the U.S. as the Saudis have oil and if only half of our coal powered plants converted to cleaner burning natural gas we could easily reach our greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Gas is cleaner than oil and much cleaner than coal, both in terms of actual pollution and in terms of greenhouse gases such as CO2.  Another important consideration is that WE have our own vast new supplies of gas.  Most exportable oil is under corrupt, unfriendly or unstable countries.  It is better not to send American money to some of these guys.  Our gas, on the other hand, is in peaceful, pleasant American places like Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and West Virginia.  Many of these rural areas could use the jobs that domestic natural gas could bring.

I traveled though much of the area where the gas is when I drove from Syracuse to Virginia.  It is the same area where we did a lot of coal mining.  This is no coincidence.  The same forces that turned Paleozoic plants into coal also made gas.  The gas is trapped in shale formations and you can easily see how the roads were cut through the shale formations. 

Chesapeake Bay watershedBut I noticed something else about the geography of natural gas.It is also the geography of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and much of the water that isn’t running off into the Chesapeake flows into the Great Lakes. We worry about these bodies of water. While listening to local radio driving near Wilkes-Barre, PA I heard reports of firms extracting gas were asking permission to discharge water into the local streams.The HYDRO part of hydraulic-fracturing has to go somewhere. I don’t know the details of the process, nor do I know about the quality of the water discharge, but I do know that any discharge in large enough amounts is going to create disruptions in the local ecosystem, in this case the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Some people are already raising concerns.  The process may turn out to be benign.  It could even be beneficial if the water is clean, but we will have to think of this as a balancing among priorities. 

Yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems and it follows that today’s solutions will be tomorrow’s problems.   Abundant American natural gas will help free us from nasty foreign oil suppliers and help us reach climate change goals, no doubt at the cost of something in the future.  This is not necessarily a failure of wisdom or judgment.   It is an ordinary consequence of making choices, setting priorities and doing these things in the context of imperfect information.   All these things are part of the definition of decision making.

Shale gas

Future critics with access to much more information as well as the experience of the past can easily attack earlier choices, but the comparison is usually unfair, as it is always unfair to compare hypothetical solutions with a real ones.  

For now the smart move looks like going for the gas.

October 20, 2009

Farther Down the Road

Pennsylvania tree farm

I kept to the smaller roads out of Pottsville.This part of Pennsylvania is very rural.I passed several tree farms; as you can see from the pictures they grow Christmas trees.  I also passed a couple of places that advertised themselves as trappers, fur and hide buyers.  You would think that they would be more circumspect in this PETA soaked world.  It is nice to know that some people are still free enough to resist the pressures of the politically correct.  I suppose they are well armed and irascible.

Fall leaves in southern Pennsylvania

The PETA types that bravely throw red paint on little old ladies in fur coats tend to give a free pass to motorcycle gang members wearing leather coats and even PETA radicals understand that a well-armed guy living by himself who makes a living skinning animals in a dilapidated trailer is probably something you just shouldn’t fool with.

Hwy 15 scenic byway

Another “scenic byway” is old Hwy 15 past Gettysburg. The area along the road looks a lot like it must have back in 1863, of course with the addition of the statues and monuments. Many Civil War battlefields are threatened.  Most of the actual territory included in the battles is on private property.  When the countryside was rural, there was no problem keeping it looking appropriately … rural.  But today as shopping centers and subdivisions ooze out across the landscape the authenticity is threatened.  Eventually we could be left with a little patch of green & a few cannons surrounded by fast food restaurants and parking lots.  Following in the footsteps of Picketts charge across a Wal-Mart parking lot would probably not feel right.


Speaking of new buildings and parking lots, they built a new visitors’ center in Gettysburg.  It was needed.  The old building was too small for the growing crowds, but the new facility is a little too slick for my tastes, too organized.   Part of the joy of visiting historic places is discovering new things, or more correctly discovering old things for yourself.The organization will give more information, but GIVE is the operative word.  It is passive.  If you get it laid out for you by someone else it is not so much discovery.  There is a ridiculous amount of control as you can see from the picture of the sign. The wall in question is around three feet high.  It would be hard to fall off in the first place and if you did it would be hard to be hurt.  But I suppose the lawyers got at it.

sign on wall at new Gettysburg visitors' center

Below is an even more interesting sign, although this one makes a good point.  The picture says it all about which is the dominant animal in the relationship. The dog strides proudly off, leaving the man shuffling, hunched and simian-like to clean up behind.

Sign re dogs in Pottsville, PA

I took one more side road, as I got off the main road and went through Emmitsburg. Below is a monument to the fallen of  World War I in Emmitsburg, MD.

World War I memorial in Emmitsburg, MD

October 19, 2009

Business-Government PR Partnerships

SU symposium on public diplomacy

The keynote speaker at the SU symposium was Keith Reinhard, founder and president of Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA).   This is an advertising professional with an impressive resume.  You can read about him at this link but you already know his work.  He wrote McDonald’s “You Deserve a Break Today” and “Two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun,” as well as State Farm’s long running theme, “Just Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There.”

Mr. Reinhard said that American business is uniquely placed to lead in burnishing the U.S. image abroad, pointing out that Coca-Cola alone has more than ten times as many employees as State Department.  He also made some good points about travel to the U.S.  It is hard to get visas; we don’t welcome tourist well when they get here and the U.S. does little in the way of travel promotion.   All these things are true.People have been complaining about visas and trying to improve the travel situation for many years.

(IMO, the single best thing the USG could do to improve our image is improve how potential visitors are treated, from the minute they inquire about a trip to the U.S. until they put their foot back on their home soil. Most of the components of this are within the power of the USG, but this is a complex issue fraught with conflicting interests and priorities.  I won’t even try to address them in this space. Smarter people than I have tried.)

U.S. businesses are indeed very important in shaping the way the U.S. is seen abroad.  We have worked with businesses overseas and there are many venues for cooperation.  Business can help sponsor July 4 celebrations; they can be part of seminars and symposiums; business leaders often make great speakers at events. But cooperation can be oversold.  The notion that business will become involved in partnership with government to improve the U.S. image is one of those great ideas that seems always almost happening, but never quite arrives.

Buildings on Syracuse University campus 

Business-government PR enterprises don’t go as smoothly in practice as they do in concept for some good reasons.  Most people employed by Coke, for example, are doing things like bottling or distributing the product.  This is similar for all businesses.  Businesses do business.  We cannot expect them to devote much of their time or money to helping the U.S. government do image building.They already pay taxes.  They create jobs and build prosperity.  That is their role.    

Getting too close to the U.S. government can be a problem for businesses.  Government’s embrace can be suffocating and dangerous for business and business connections can difficult for government.  

Let’s say it plainly.  If business and government form partnerships, they both hope to gain something from the joint enterprise.  Unless everybody thinks the relationship through, much of what they expect might give the impression of impropriety and sometimes might actually be unethical.

It can be too easy for particular local firms to become the “go to” places for U.S. officials.  Pretty soon it looks like the U.S. is endorsing or backing their products.  Even though nobody says so, foreigners might treat them differently because of this.   When working in Poland, I found that many people assumed that they could get better treatment for things like visas if they worked with firms somehow associated with the Consulate.   We would sometimes have to distance ourselves from a firm that was in fact actively implying such useful connections.

You can easily envision situations where closeness to the USG would be a negative.  Unfriendly foreign authorities might not be able to effectively harass our diplomats, but they can take out their frustrations on U.S. firms or their local employees.

There is also a little disagreement about how much the general image matters anyway.  The numbers seem soft and volatile.  IMO, any opinion that can change week-to-week based on external events is not firmly held or predictive of behavior.  Mr. Reinhart mentioned an article in the NYT that questioned the efficacy of a being ostensibly popular.  (He did not agree with most of it, BTW, and the extrapolations in this paragraph are mine, not his.)Things like cooperation with U.S. policies and sales of U.S. products seem unaffected by the vicissitudes of popularity.  I have come to believe that public diplomacy can be very effective in specific areas and subjects, but is less useful with the general. In fact, I think that the general questions re favorability or approval of the U.S. are almost useless, especially when done across cultures that have a variety of ways of answering questions and interacting with researchers.

All things considered, I think the best things American business can do to improve America’s image is to make quality products, lead their businesses ethnically and respect local laws, culture & customs.  We can cooperate where appropriate, and we do all the time, but business is not going to become some kind of PD auxiliary and neither business nor government should want it to. 

I know that I am giving a negative accounting.   Let me mitigate that a little.  We already have succeeded.  USG cooperation with U.S. businesses is brilliant.  I know that from personal experience. I have worked with American firms since my first post in the FS.  They sponsor many of our events and in the process build their own images and get exposure for their products.  U.S. businesses participate in our symposiums and share their experience.   We all benefit. Of course, American businesses directly sponsor exchanges, investments, technology transfers and all tolled they certainly make a much greater impression on the world than our comparatively underfunded and understaffed efforts.  They do these things for good business reasons.   

Cooperation is good and where it makes sense it has been going on since before the founding of our Republic.  Ben Franklin, our first diplomat, combined representation of government with business. John Adams was less successful as a diplomat because he couldn’t really grasp the interconnections.  Read any of their biographies and you will be struck at how similar things were so long ago.  We have been doing it.  I just don’t see how business-government cooperation can be significantly expanded in the PR area.  We in government would have to ask ourselves what business hoped to get from the expanded partnership (i.e. influence).   Business leaders would have to ask what government wanted (i.e. money). And if all of us were thoughtful and honest the answers might make us rightfully cautious in pushing too hard for more. Some things you shouldn’t do, even though you can and some separate things should not be too intimately mixed.

Stone bridge arch along the Erie Canal

BTW – that is not Mr. Reinhard in the picture at top.  I just got a nice angle on the podium to show both the room and the nice day outside.  The middle picture shows some of the building on the SU campus. On the bottom is an interesting arch along the Erie Canal route.

October 18, 2009

Lane Change Needed in the Climate Change Debate

We talked about the public diplomacy surrounding climate change at the Public Diplomacy Symposium at Syracuse University.  Karen Akerlof from George Mason based her talk on a report called Global Warming’s Six Americas, which segmented the American public by their belief in global warming and stated commitment to doing something about it.

Traffic circle in Syracuse NY

I will let you read the report at the link above.Ms. Akerlof pointed out that these diverse groups had more in common in their actions than in their beliefs.For example, those who were dismissive of global warming were MORE likely to do things like drive fuel efficient cars, weather-strip their houses and conserve energy in general.  You could speculate that they were more motivated by the desire to save money than save the earth, but this reveals the biggest challenges in public relations/public diplomacy – people often do NOT act on their expressed beliefs. 

Public affairs professionals like to think that if we can convince people of the righteousness of our positions their behaviors will change in favorable directions, but the relationship between good will and good deeds is not strong.   In fact the gap between what people say they want to do and what they really do is probably the single most common inspiration for literature, myths and self-help books. 

People are Perfidious 

This is the gap between what people SAY – i.e. their stated preferences – and what they DO – i.e. their revealed preferences.  People don’t tell the truth to opinion pollsters when talking about complex issues.  I won’t call it hypocrisy or dishonesty because it goes deeper than that simple explanation.   

People often don’t know what they really think because they haven’t thought through all aspects of most issues.  When asked, they to follow along the familiar ruts of what they think others approve.They might even claim that they feel strongly about it but that doesn’t necessarily indicate their own commitment or their willingness to follow through.  It gets worse when we become more political.

Politics does not REQUIRE strong commitment or follow up among most supporters.   At a cost of about an hour of their time otherwise uncommitted individuals can convince themselves of their virtue once every two or four years and then do not much but complain and make demands in between.  Politicians figured this out long ago (read about it in what Tocqueville wrong in 1830), so they flatter and pander to the uncommitted by giving them an undeserved benefit of the doubt.  Focus on a one-time easy to do action works well campaigns.  The skill level required to make a mark on a ballot or pull a lever on a machine is not high.  But is not a good way to govern or get things done in general.

Old oven in Anthracite Museum in Scranton, PA

A Slowly Warming Oven

Climate change is perhaps the place where the one-time, short-term rhetorical – the political campaign – commitment works LEAST well.  The diffuse, slow-motion unfolding of climate change is almost the opposite of a political process.   In climate change, you have to pay the costs up-front and personally.  However, you may never get a personal payoff and the results of your work and sacrifice may not come for many years, may not happen near you and may not be apparently connected to your actions.  In fact, I cannot think of situation LESS likely to inspire consistent action on the part of individuals.Mark Meisner, Another of the SU panelist, laid it out nicely.  He said that the climate debate is hard because of doubts related to complexity, distance, time, visibility, responsibly and consequences.  To me this just means that we’re cooked on this one.

Advocates for climate change action missed major inflection point in the climate debate that happened a few months ago.   Until this year, they had a politically based task.  They had to convince people to SAY they believed climate change was real and that it represented a danger.This task was facilitated by the easy identification of villains.  Global warming deniers (following the construction “Holocaust deniers”) could be attacked.  It was implied that if these guys would just recognize the truth, the problem could be solved.   But this is wrong.Global warming deniers did not cause the problem and they cannot fix it because global warming is a physical problem that requires real, as opposed to political, action.  AND it requires long-term commitment, not mere involvement.

The inflection point that occurred in the debate this year is that almost everybody now recognizes the problem, at least rhetorically.The convincing part of the public diplomacy worked.  Now we have moved to the “so what do we DO?” stage.This is harder. 

Easier to Identify a Problem than to Agree on Solutions

Let me lay it out.  We now agree on the diagnosis of the problem, but we strongly disagree about what we should do, when we should do it, who will pay for it and who is responsible of taking the needed steps.  We have moved beyond the political phase of the problem and are now in the governance phase. They require different skills and methods.

On the one hand, this is to the advantage of the U.S.  Other countries have sanctimoniously hidden behind the U.S. for too long.  We didn’t agree to Kyoto, but Kyoto didn’t work anyway.Those that did agree to Kyoto generally reduced their CO2 emissions LESS since 2000 than we did. It is the difference between the political and the operational paradigms.  In the political paradigm you get credit for what you say you are gonna do.  In the operational paradigm you only get credit for what you actually accomplish.  America has been doing much better in the reality than in the perception of environmental progress.  So as a public diplomat, my life has become a bit easier because we can more easily talk about our practical success.  Clearing away the cover, calling the practical bluff of our detractors will be satisfying.   

Good Decisions Require Good Information, Incentives

But my anticipated joy at rhetorical victories in the public diplomacy game is mitigated by the anxiety I feel as someone concerned about the real environment. I am resigned to the fact that there will be climate change.   We cannot avoid it.  How much it bites depends more on technological developments than on political will.  Politicians can do two things to help.  They can raise the price of carbon, which will encourage alternatives, and they can reduce opposition to nuclear power.   But both these things have political costs, so I expect less help from this sector.

The atmosphere doesn’t care if you say you are an environmentalist.  It doesn’t make allowances for the poor nor does it give credit for good intentions.   It is not impressed by celebrities.  You cannot make progress by changing accounting procedures, borrowing from the future or blaming the past.  You cannot get credit for what you didn’t do and your good works will often by obvious to nobody. In short, the natural environment is a very un-political environment. 

Fortunately, the American people are greater than American politics, or as l like to say, the American nation is greater than the American government. This is true of other countries too.  We are developing new technologies and new techniques. The imagination, innovation & intelligence of the people will produce good solutions if they have the right incentives and information. Environmental protection is one of the places where market-based incentives and information is insufficient because we are dealing with external costs and long term consequences.  Government’s role is to make the needed adjustments in information and incentives, so that individuals and firms make realistic decisions.  But the authorities must resist the temptation to pick winners and losers and micro-manage.

Politicians & public affairs campaigns play indispensable support roles by creating conditions favorable to development, but they develop nothing by themselves.  

In the end, what you have done really is more important than what you say you are going to do.

Chicken & Pigs; Eggs & Ham

Bacon and egg breakfast at Denny's

Do you recall the difference between involvement and commitment?  Look at this bacon & eggs breakfast.The chicken is involved.  She drops the egg and has nothing to do ever again.  The pig is committed.  His ass is right there on the plate.   Involvement can be painless and ephemeral.  Commitment is hard and permanent.  You can see why it is easier to get people involved than committed.

October 17, 2009

Interesting Distractions

View from upstate NY roadside on Oct 17, 2009

You have to get off the Interstates.   I made a few short detours on my way back from Syracuse.  I only wish the weather had been a bit better.   It is a lot more fun to drive if you can see better.You can see from the pictures when the weather was clearer that fall is coming to New York and Pennsylvania.Actually, it was more like winter in some places.I heard on the news that they got as much as six inches in some of the Pennsylvania hills.   Never before has snow come this early.It stopped traffic at one point, as you can see from my picture. Doesn’t look like October, does it?

Snow on I-80 near Scanton PA on Oct 17, 2009

In Scranton was the anthracite coal museum.   I didn’t have time to see the whole thing.  The have a whole mine tour with an outdoor museum including miners houses etc.It would be a day-long study.I went only to the indoor museum.  Anthracite is hard coal with few impurities, so it burns cleaner than other coals.  It used to be important for home heating, where cleaner burning was important, but it has since been supplanted by natural gas, which is cheaper, cleaner and more convenient.Anthracite is too expensive for extensive use in power plants.  Below is a small engine used in the mines. 

small engine used in mines

Below is a typical miner bar.  It looks a lot like working bars everywhere.  Life sucked for the miners in the old days.  They were not well treated by the bosses and the work was inherently nasty and dangerous.  These guys were working class heroes and I can understand why they would want to hit the bars after a day in the mines.

coal miner bar replica

About an hour down the road, I visited Pottsville and the Yuengling brewery.  They claim that it is the oldest continuously working brewery in the U.S.  It is still owned by the same family that founded in 1829.   The brewery building is below.

Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville, PA

I had my first bottle of Yuengling when I stopped Gettysburg back in 2004, on my way to pick up Mariza in VA to take her back to New Hampshire.At that time it was just a local brew, but now it is available in Northern Va.  I am glad that they seem to be prospering, but it is a danger to grow too big.   The firm that gets too big loses its personality and ultimately its independence.  I remember that happened with Point Brewery, Leinenkugel and with G Heileman, maker of Old Style and Special Export.  You can still buy those brands, but now they are just part of the bigger corporation.  I mourned their passing, although their beers are still about the same and Leinies has come out with a good wheat beer.   We can all get what we want in this era of mass customization, but I long for the authenticity of old brewers.  

Street scene in Pottsville PA

Above and below are street scenes from Pottsville.  It is a cleans & cute town with lots of impressive old houses in a pretty natural setting.  The one below is the kind of house they could feature in a ghost movie, IMO.

Old house in Pottsville PA

October 16, 2009

Something New on the Erie Canal

vista of Syracuse NY from SU parking structure

The Erie Canal was a wonder for its time.  It could move stuff many miles at very low cost.  Water was much more reliable than roads of those times.  But it moved only as fast as a mule could walk.  The golden age of canals was cut short by the advent or railroads.There were a few dead ends, such as plank roads.  They were roads made of boards (planks) that elevated the traveler above the mud.  They were very good for swampy areas.   One of the first plank roads in the U.S. was build right here in North Syracuse.   Lots of them were built and they were all the rage.  But they cost a lot to construct and wore our faster than their proponent projected.  If you included maintenance they were a really bad, if picturesque,  idea.  Their memory survives in place names.

Description of Erie Canal

Those days were not really that different from ours.  That was also a time of great changes in technology, relationships and in their case geography.  Let’s make a comparison using technological milestones.  The first Apple personal computer came out in 1976 – thirty-three years ago.  The Erie Canal was completed in 1825.  Thirty-three years later half the U.S. had gone from wilderness to settlement.  Railroads had spread.  The telegraph had been invented and lines were being strung across the county, so messaged that had taken days or weeks now arrived in secondss.  A dozen new states had entered the Union but the Union itself was looking shaky.  A lifetime in the second quarter of the 19th Century was at least as eventful as ours. BTW, the canal had to pass over rivers with a kind of water bridge or aqueduct.  Below is what they look like.

Erie canal aquaduct

Great fortunes were made and lost betting on which technologies would come out on top.  Like today, the best didn’t always win out.  Sometimes you just had to jump on the one that had the most users.   

I went down to part of the old Erie Canal that was left near Syracuse.  Through town most of it is now filled in and forms the middle of Erie Boulevard, BTW.  There is a park along much of what is left of the old canal and it is very calm and pleasant.  The tow path is paved with gravel and it would make a beautiful running trail.  I didn’t have time to try it out myself. I can imagine it was not so nice when it was in use.  Picture the mud, mule crap, sewage and garbage.   This is how it often is.  We get nostalgic for the old facilities and they get better looking with time.  Think of all those Civil War battlefields or medieval castles.  They were once factories of war.  Now they are just pretty and interesting.

Phragmites along the Erie Canal

A closer look at the area around the canal shows that not everything is as it was.  Humans have totally remade the landscape and that goes way beyond digging the ditch that became the canal.  look at my pictures above and below.  The plants you see in the foreground above are phragmites, an invasive species of reed.  There are acres of them in the wetlands nearby.  Had you come to this place a generation ago you would have found native American cattails.  The phragmites are ecosystem changing species. Look across the pond on the picture below and you see Norway spruce.  They too are immigrants.  We tend not to call them invasive because they are not as prolific and they are pretty. Not in the pictures but in back of me were Norway maples, which look a lot like sugar maples and are replacing them in some places.  A 19th Century naturalist familiar with the fauna along the canal would be very surprised by the unfamiliar plants.  I couldn’t get a good picture that showed the ruts on the hills a little farther away.  Chrissy’s father explained that to me a long time ago.  The cows walk around the hills in habitual ways. Over the years, they create ridges and indicate that the hill was long part of a cow pasture. Of course, the cows and even the grass is not native.  Some people consider fescue invasive. Even the earthworms living in the soil were imported from Europe.

Norway spruce near Erie Canal

We had a weather anomaly.  In Pennsylvania and much of western New York it snowed. Parts of PA got SIC inches.  This is the earliest significant snow on record.   A woman who drove up from nearby Ithaca said there were inches of snow there.  But Syracuse was like a donut hole.  It was rain or snow all around.  Here it was cold, but clear, so I got a good impression of the town.  It seems a nice place and Syracuse University is very charming.

Syracuse University buildings

We had a good symposium at SU, BTW.  I will write about my impressions tomorrow.

You Can’t be Generous with Other People’s Money

Ruins of Roman colliseum

I don’t begrudge the old folks that extra $250 … well maybe I do.   The cost of living actually went down this year.   That means that Social Security recipients will not get an automatic increase this year, since the increase is tied to the cost of living. 

The President proposes just giving everybody an extra $250, justifying it as a sort of second (or third) stimulus that will not come from the SS trust fund.  It is hard to be against this generosity.  It is great to be generous, but since we already are living on the national credit card the money will come from additional government borrowing.  That means that the younger generation will have to pay this back – with interest. 

$250 doesn’t seem like much money and it is not – until you multiply it by the number of times you are going to give it out.   But the problem is NOT this particular small money.  It is the whole principle behind the quick resort to pushing the gold out the door.  It shows how difficult it is for government to stand up to any powerful group.  Entitlements already make up 2/3 of the Federal budget.   All the wars, parks, roads etc are included in the other 1/3 and that % is ever shrinking (it used to be 2/3 only a generation ago) because politicians like to be generous, but they cannot be.  All they can do is take from some to give to others.  It is not even up to a zero sum transaction, since some significant percentage leaks out in administrative costs or plain waste.    

There is a long tradition for politicians to bribe “the people” with their own money.Roman politicians got themselves into bidding wars for the loyalty of the people.  They lowered the price of grain with state subsidies until they were giving it away for free and sponsoring ever more elaborate entertainment for the mobs of people hanging around the city of Rome.Gladiators killed each other.  Prisoners were killed by wild animals.  The people loved to watch the spectacle while being fed at public expense.  The famous “bread and circuses” corrupted both the Roman state and the Roman people. 

It was easier for Roman politicians to be generous with the public purse than it was to help create the conditions for jobs and prosperity.  In fact, having a bribable mob at their disposal was a positive benefit and a preferred outcome for many.   In other words, some politicians did their best to KEEP the people in a state of resentful dependence.The people receiving this “generosity” thought watching gladiators kill each other was better than working and it became a self-sustaining downward spiral that contributed mightily to the decay and fall of the Roman Republic.  Nero, Caligula and Commodus (the one featured on the movie “Gladiator”) are probably three of the best known Roman emperors today.  They were all very bad and spectacularly corrupt.   But if you look closely at the ancient sources, you find that they remained popular with “the people” because they made sure the bread was plentiful and the circuses exciting. 

There are lots of good things we have inherited from the Romans.   I have written many times about those things.  But we don’t have to take their bad habits with the good and maybe after 2000 years we should not repeat their mistakes.

The picture up top is the Coliseum in Rome, BTW.  Despite its impressive structure, it was essentially a place where the Roman mob was placated by watching mass slaughter.

October 15, 2009

Early Snow and Trusted Captialists

Early snow in Pennsylvania on Oct 15, 2009

It wasn’t the pleasant drive I envisioned.   It rained all the way up past Hersey PA.  Then it began to snow – snow in mid-October.  Where is this global warming stuff when you need it.   (Of course, I best be careful even joking about this subject.  The BBC is under vitriolic attack for pointing out that the globe has not gotten any warmer since 1998.  For the record, I have believed global warming is happening since around 1982.  I think I even pre-date Al Gore.   I believe some of it is influenced by humans and some of it is natural.   It probably can be managed through a combination of mitigation and adaption.  But I think the whole debate has become way too political and ideologically driven, so much so that I think truth takes a second place to politics, and when I hear that activists are trying squash information, I get annoyed.) 

Hershey plant in Hershey PA

Anyway, it cleared up a little by the time I got to New York.  It is pretty up here.  The leaves are in mid-turn.  They will peak soon.  If the predicted rain and snow doesn’t come, maybe I can enjoy them.

Chocolate Avenue in Hershey PA

On the way up I stopped at Hersey PA.  You see above that even the streetlights are Hershey kisses on Chocolate Avenue.  Milton Hersey, who founded the chocolate company that bears his name, was a very kind and good man.  He used the profits from his firm to make life pleasant for people around him.  For example, he founded a school, supported hospitals and helped make Hersey PA a place where people want to live. I won’t write all the details.  Check out the article if you want to find out more.  Suffice to say that there are special places in heaven for people like Milton.  I bought and happily ate a Hersey bar in his honor today. Below is Hershey heaven (I guess). It is from a mural at “The Hershey Story” museum.

Hershey Heaven

We took the kids up to Hershey about ten years ago to tour the plant.  I got new respect for Hershey after that.  There just are some firms that are better than others, usually showing the personality of a founder.   Marriott is also like that.  I always stay in Marriott when I can.   It just seems a generous, honest and family friendly company.   As long as I am endorsing good companies, I also admire Charles Schwab, Cabalas, USAA insurance & Samuel Adams beer.  I hesitate to add, because people will give me some crap about it, but I also like United Airlines.  They always treated me fairly, even if travel in general sucks.   I don’t know if being good adds to their bottom line.  I am a loyal customer of Charles Schwab, USAA, Cabalas and Marriott and I advise others to use their services, but they also happen to make things I like to use.  I don’t really like Sam Adams beer, so that doesn’t do them much practical good if I admire the company.  I have indeed specifically bought Hershey bars BECAUSE of the Milton Hershey legacy, but that doesn’t add up to much. 

Products of Central New YorkEverything else being equal, I will buy something made in America and I give specific preference to products from Wisconsin or Virginia, but everything else rarely is equal.  I also understand that in this integrated world, the place of origin is hard to determine, but I never said it was logical.

On the left are products of Central New York, BTW. 

On the other hand, I won’t buy gas at CITGO – even if it is cheaper – because of Hugo Chavez.   I feel a little conflicted because I don’t want to hurt to good American station owners, but I cannot support that guy.Besides the other rotten things, he banned Coke Zero in Venezuela.  I refuse to go to any movie made by Michael Moore or Oliver Stone and I stopped enjoying Two and a Half Men after Charlie Sheen went nuts with the 9/11 conspiracy theories, but I think these are the only non-economic, non-taste factors that influence my purchasing decisions.  I suppose there are lots of unconscious associations.

Of course, we should make most of our product decisions based on the product itself.  It gets way to complicated to try to figure all the permutations of good and bad.  Few people are good enough in their own lives to judge the actions of firms.  Besides, in the real world “Corporate Responsibility” usually just means an opportunity for some activists to shake down a firm and firms often pay protection money to politically correct groups in the name of corporate responsibility.

Rest stop in Pribles NY

Above is from a rest stop along I-81 a few miles outside Syracuse.

“Corporate diplomacy can make a lasting impression.  I went to a Jim Beam tasting event six or seven years ago.  They told us about the lore of Bourbon, how it was invented in Kentucky, is aged in charred oak etc.  I didn’t know that Bourbon cannot be aged more than around seven years, or it gets to be too strong.  Scotch keeps getting better for 18 years, but Bourbon ages faster in the warmer Kentucky climate.  BTW – Scotch older than 18 or Bourbon older than 7-8 is just a waste of money.  It gets older and more alcoholic; it just doesn’t get any better.  After the “tasting,” they offered various Bourbons for sale. I bought several bottles of more expensive whiskey than I would have purchased pre-tasting.  It doesn’t take very much tasting to influence your judgment.  But I still feel more favorably disposed toward Jim Beam because of their outreach and I now believe I can tell the difference between black and white label, and between “Booker,” “Baker,” “Knob Creek,” &  Basil Hayden. Notice, I say “I believe”.  It helps if I can see the bottle first.

The guy at the tasting admitted that most people really cannot tell the difference all the time.  You would probably become a drunk before developing the true skill. Much indeed is in the presentation, but that makes sense. Most of the price you pay at a fine restaurant is in the surroundings and service and drinking the best whiskey from a dixie cup just doesn’t cut it.

The Few, the Proud Get More Numerous


RCT2 Marine TOA

All the armed services have exceeded their recruitment goals and they are recruiting higher quality than ever.The Marines managed to reach their EXPANDED goals years early.  The “Washington Post” article reporting this still suffers some of the old-fashioned thinking that people are somehow driven by dire circumstance into joining up.   In fact most recruits come from middle class or upper middle class backgrounds.The military no longer gets most, or even many, of its recruits from among the poor and uneducated.  Unfortunately for these guys, they cannot pass the tests or requirements to get in. Ethnically as well as economically the military looks like America.

The military is a little more rural and a little more southern than the general population.There is a lot of speculation about why this might be true.  Rural people tend to be patriotic, in my experience, and they also tend to know how to use guns and operate heavy equipment.  These attitudes and skills are useful in the military.   As for the South, military service has been a tradition since the time of George Washington.There are also military families, among which lots of people serves and there are families where nobody does.   Sociologist might explain it. Habits and attitudes cross generations.

You can find a profile of the American military at this link.

My father was in the Army-Air Corps during WWII, but we don’t have a military tradition in our family. I encouraged Alex and Espen to think about the military, but so far they have decided not to. I was ineligible for military service because of what the doctor called an ulcer when I was sixteen.  It is a funny story now.   I was less amused then.I tried to join in 1982 as an Airforce officer.  I passed all the tests and went in for my physical, which I thought would be a piece of cake.It was.  My blood pressure was low.  I didn’t have any physical problems.  BUT I had “history.”   Back when I was sixteen I coughed up some blood.  It scared me and my mother so to the doctor we went.  The doctor at the time called it an ulcer.I drank a lot of milk and ate bland foods for a while and it went away – forever.  But the diagnosis stuck. Ten years later, the military doctors told me that I was too sick for military service and there was nothing I could do to prove otherwise because the records said so.  Just as well.   I went in the FS a couple years later and it was a good fit.  Beyond that, my peculiar talents are probably better employed in this line of work. Still, I think I would have looked good in that blue uniform.

I worked with military attaches a lot in my career, but it was my year with the Marines in Iraq that gave me real first-hand experience with the military in action in their actual environment.  I was impressed by the Marines I got to know and had the privilege of working with in Iraq. The enlisted men are sometimes just kids, but they are a lot more responsible than those you find working at McDonald’s or not working at all.   You can trust your life to them; I did.  The way they deploy to respond to threats is poetry in motion. The officers are smart, but practical and unpretentious.  Generally, the military is better educated and better behaved than comparable civilians.Almost all the enlisted men have HS diplomas, at least.    Nearly all the officers are college educated and many have advanced degrees.   

I get angry when I see the stereotypical portrayal of military officers in much of the media.It is even worse when pinheaded pseudo intellectuals on elite campuses shun connections with the military or out of touch weirdos in places like San Francisco actually try to ban recruiting.  The negative image that engenders is persuasive in many parts of our society and it keeps lots of kids from even thinking the military.  It is a loss to them and our country.

There is a saying that if a country that separates its soldiers from its intellectuals will get fools do the fighting and cowards do the thinking.   I know from experience that the people doing the fighting are NOT fools. It is a shame if some of our self-described intellectuals don’t get to be all they could be because of their own prejudices and outdated ideas.   

Now more young Americans are taking up the challenge.   The few, the proud have become more numerous and that is good for them and for all of us.

October 14, 2009

Social Media & Public Diplomacy at Syracuse University

I am on a panel about public diplomacy at the Second Public Diplomacy Symposium at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York on October 16.   Since it is a panel DISCUSSION I don’t want to say too much initially in order to let the discussion develop in ways favored by the participants.   The reflections on public diplomacy on the blog this week are some of the ways I am working through the issues.  Sorry for all the overlap.  I have to produce hours of thought to yield a few minutes of talk.  It takes a lot of preparation to be spontaneous.

Below is what I plan to use as an introduction.  The PowerPoint for the presentation is available at this link.

Social Media & Public Diplomacy

Construction on the US Institute of Peace on October 13, 2009

Above are workers constructing the new Institute of Peace building across from my office. They use a variety of tools for their work, choosing the most appropriate for the job at hand.  The TASK is the important thing.  The tools are just a way to get the job done.  A carpenter does not have a specific “hammer strategy.”  We should not have a specific Facebook or Twitter strategy.  Our PD TOOLS should be used … as tools – part of a tool box or portfolio.  Use the ones that work at the right place and time; don’t develop a strategy for them.


You are catching me at a time of indecision.   I spent more than twenty-five years working in public diplomacy and have been a pioneer in State Department innovative use of the new media; at least they gave me a couple awards that said so.  But I have doubts.  Electronic distribution & the social/interactive media is not the game changer I hoped.  On reflection, I think we leaned too much about technology and not enough on the social and anthropological aspects of the social media.Technology has made it easy to reach large numbers of people, but it doesn’t mean they are paying attention, turning our information into useful knowledge or doing something new or different based on what they get from us.

We have to do a lot of rethinking but it is hard to think when we are beguiled and distracted by the promise of technology. So let’s set aside all the latest techno-developments and think about the SOCIAL media from the human and audience perspective. Since this will be a DISCUSSION and I have only a few minutes to provoke your questions, let me give you the seven truths about public diplomacy and social media.

1.   Social – less about technologies and more about social interactions with people. 

2.   Iterative – It is a continuous learning, iterative   process, not a plan and not something that can be delegated or finished. 

3.   Engaged – You want to influence others AND you are willing to be influenced by others.

4.   Community -based  – Build a community & be part of a community.   Figure out what you can contribute to the community.  People make decisions in the contexts of their communities.

5.  Simultaneously Inclusive & Exclusive – A community is both inclusive of its members and exclusive to others.   You attract nobody if you appeal to everybody.   You have to earn membership in any community worth being a member. 

6.   Personal – Editors and marketers have tried for years to homogenize for the mass market.   Niche markets – and the new media is just a series of niche markets – requires personality.  There is no such thing as a world product.  Even the ubiquitous Coca-Cola varies by region and country.   We engage a series of niche markets.   This means that we have to work through our country-posts, with people immersed in local cultures, politics and sensibilities and has obvious implications for a Washington-based PD messaging strategy.

7.  Fun – We underestimate the importance of fun & games.   People have choices in the new media.  They often engage because it is fun and if you bore them they will wander off.  

So these are the things that I think shape our use of social media.  Let’s talk.

October 13, 2009

IIP engages new audiences with social media

Below is a draft of an article we submitted for “State Magazine.”  Regualar readers will recognize some of the themes I monotonously return to in this blog.  The text clearly has that bureaucratic feel necessary when writing for any in-house publication, and I did resisted the urge to put in some of my snarky comments, but it highlights some of the good work my colleagues are doing so I think it is worth posting and worth reading.    Below that is an article I wrote for the “Foreign Service Journal” way back in 2001.  Some of the cliche terms were just starting to be used back then.  In the intervening eight years, some things have changed but the basics remain the same.  We still have not really succeeded and we will never be finished, but there is some progress.

 IIP engages new audiences with social media

By John Matel and William May

Social media is, above all, social.  The increasing popularity of Facebook, Twitter, Short Message Service and podcasts gives public diplomacy practitioners unprecedented direct access to publics, opens doors to new overseas audiences and gives us the chance to engage people around the world in new ways.  It is a opportunity and a challenge to pick the right tools.

The Department has more than 130 official Facebook pages, more than a dozen feeds on the Flickr photo-sharing Web site, nearly 40 Twitter accounts and a growing list of blogs.  The Bureau of International Information Programs is taking the lead in employing these tools for international engagement, using cutting-edge technologies to reach people, remembering always that the medium ‑ the technology ‑ is not the message. We try to match the technology to the audience and the message.

At IIP we have found that using social media effectively often requires risk taking, creativity and a willingness to be on the cutting edge of these technologies.  Fortunately, the Department’s leadership is firmly committed to seeking out and implementing these new approaches that expand our ability to engage in exchanges with foreign publics. As Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale said recently, “[In] the right circumstances, the use of new media could be smart power at its best, as when employed in dialogue with wired constituencies.”

Global Outreach

An important aspect of the new technologies is the ability and the need to be where the customers are.  IIP’s Digital Outreach Team connects with online users in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Chinese, inserting the U.S. government’s voice into conversations on prominent blogs and forums and engaging an often skeptical audience on their own ground.  The Iranian government has labeled the team “dangerous and subversive” for its online discussions of the need for greater openness, the economic costs of Iran’s hardliner attitude and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability. In fact, the team has engaged in a back-and-forth online dialogue in Persian with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s media advisor.  IIP’s blogging team gives Iranians an unfiltered look at a U.S. perspective on issues such as their nuclear programs and human rights.

“The blogging team’s willingness to address hard issues in an open and transparent way mitigates rancor and helps get our messages heard, copied and amplified,” said IIP Coordinator Jeremy Curtin.

IIP is also developing powerful new media tools for digital diplomats to allow them virtual personal contact with people worldwide.  The bureau has turned Adobe Connect business conferencing software into a multimedia-platform outreach tool that allows U.S. diplomats to cheaply and easily engage with publics via the Internet over high- and low-speed networks. 

Dubbed “Co.Nx” (http://co-nx.state.gov), this tool integrates video, audio and print into a flexible platform that can carry the Secretary of State’s Town Hall meetings in Brussels to thousands of participants in Europe or, at slower speeds, transmit small interactive programs in Africa and Afghanistan. New Meets Traditional 

Working closely with the White House new media team, IIP developed the first worldwide mobile Short Message Service-based event, which was used to engage audiences around the world to discuss the President’s speeches in Cairo and Ghana.  In Africa, where mobile phones are common but few have access to the Internet, the White House and IIP married Short Message Service with traditional radio broadcasts.  People across Africa and the world texted more than 17,000 questions and 50,000 instant messages to the White House in three languages.  President Obama produced a podcast that answered some of the Africans’ questions, and public diplomacy officers in Africa then took the podcast to radio stations, which broadcast it locally.

In another social media effort, IIP launched the “Democracy Video Challenge,” which attracted more than 900 video entries on YouTube (State Magazine tk.).  A second round of the contest began in September.

IIP’s Office of Innovative Engagement, in collaboration with eDiplomacy, has launched the Social Media Hub (http://www.intelink.gov/communities/state/smp/), which contains user manuals for Facebook, Twitter and blogging. It also has best practices, an “Ask the Expert” section and news about training opportunities.  This gives the posts overseas the encouragement and information they need to work effectively with new media.  It also provides a platform to share their experiences with Washington and with each other so that the innovation, imagination, intelligence and specific knowledge of our colleagues around the world can be shared and engaged. 
By using these new social media tools along with more traditional media and outreach, IIP is enhancing its ability to tailor and target public diplomacy messages to specific audiences.   Even as it explores the frontiers of new media, IIP is keeping an eye firmly fixed on the fundamental social aspect of public diplomacy.  At the end of the day, the bureau is still in the business of relating to and engaging with people. 

The new technologies simply make doing that easier – and better.

John Matel is director of the IIP Office of Policy, and William May is director of the IIP Office of Innovative Engagement.


Below is the article I wrote in 2001.

Speaking Out
Public Affairs: Out of the Information Business

By John Matel

It is hard to recall a time before we could read today’s American newspapers anywhere in the world online, or watch coverage of breaking events on CNN or a host of other TV and Internet news channels. Yet until recently, it was enough for information officers to provide — well, information. Sometimes we provided the latest news, or at least news that local media had not yet seen. Press attachés frequently thought of themselves as a species of journalist, faithfully furnishing unbiased, or at least evenhanded, information and official statements to host-country media. Overseas opinion-makers were often regular readers of our products and the local media treated them as supplementary news services.

What a change! Media organizations and the State Department’s own Internet sites now give our former clients 24-hour access to timely and accurate information. They bypass local public affairs officers, who cannot compete with Washington and should not try. Yet if public affairs sections can no longer be “honest information brokers,” they can be effective policy advocates by using the Internet as a public diplomacy tool. Or to put it another way: The Internet will not replace public affairs, but it will revolutionize its practice.

Strategic vs. Tactical

Despite its ubiquitous quality, the Internet has not lived up to its potential as a public affairs tool. A key reason is confusion over strategic versus tactical use of the new methods. Washington Web sites and most mission sites are almost entirely strategic in that they provide content to support general goals and messages, are directed to a wide, self-selected audience, and are independent of specific public affairs campaigns. They are excellent information sources that compare favorably with those of large private enterprises.

A breakdown results when strategic Web efforts are inappropriately applied to tactical situations. An effective tactical Internet campaign must be forward-looking, support specific programs, be interactively targeted to particular audiences and time-sensitive. It also requires active, sustained support by other public affairs activities; in other words, it is a fully integrated part of a larger public affairs campaign that no longer just informs but advocates a point of view. In many respects, Internet, e-mail and user-friendly electronic databases fulfill the promise of the old USIS Distribution Records System: identifying and reaching the relatively small number of key opinion leaders and transmitters who shape the larger society’s attitudes. This is a necessary but not sufficient aspect of public affairs. To be effective, information must also stick with the consumer.

Making Information Stick

The biggest problem with information delivered via the Internet is that it is not “sticky.” Recipients either cannot recall the message or fail to integrate it into their outlook or behavior. The solution is not limited to making our information more exciting or relevant; what usually makes the real difference are the context of the message and the perceived character and credibility of the messenger. In other words, recipients must trust the source and know what to do with the information they receive.

Beaming data to Palm Pilots works for stock prices and sports scores because recipients are waiting for the information and know how to use it. They have context. The kind of information we disseminate as diplomats is more complicated than factual reporting, however, for we seek to influence, not merely inform. Public affairs events, personal meetings and media relations provide the glue, the context that renders message content relevant and makes it stick in the consciousness of opinion-makers. Without human and programmatic context, electronic resources are like encyclopedias. Without electronic resources, conversely, most programming falls seriously short of providing content. They need to be used together. Consider the following:

In a traditional scenario, we meet a contact at an event, promise to provide more information and maybe even remember to send it. By the time it arrives, however, the contact may have lost interest. We created an opening, but were unable to follow up with content. By contrast, the Internet can provide complete and timely information, but not required context. Thus, a contact browsing a State Department Web page might carefully read a piece of information and make a mental note of it, but quickly lose the “mental notepad” because he or she also read 50 other pages the same day.

Now imagine a combined strategy. The public affairs section organizes an event, with its own Web page offering links to information. Key contacts get e-mail invitations with links to the event page. They can browse the page and get a comprehensive idea of what they want to learn. As a result, we meet a fully primed contact at the event, and can concentrate on specific parts of the presentation. We can then follow up with more information provided by our Area Information Resource Center in an e-mail with Web page links later that day. Now the information sticks with the contact because of the additional context of the event and the personal attention. In fact, he or she may well share it with colleagues and friends, and perhaps refer them to the Web page or forward an e-mail. That is success.

Reaching the Right People

Obviously, the combined strategy is best. Beyond that, skillful use of databases and e-mail will maintain relations as long as the contact remains important. With these tools, we can fine-tune our efforts and maintain meaningful contact with a greater number of truly engaged people (opinion leaders) across a wider spectrum of issues, instead of dispersing our resources on a mass audience, most of whom are indifferent to the message or unable to act on it.

Without technology (or several personal assistants), an average person can maintain regular personal contact with 150 to 200 people during any particular period. This maximum is set by the limits in the number of hours in a day and human memory capacity. Working harder or longer will not significantly increase this number, but technology can, by creating the possibility of mass personalization. Targeted e-mail with Internet links can be very precise in creating contact opportunities, since databases are memory enhancers. Thus, using technologically enhanced methods, one officer can maintain meaningful targeted contact with thousands of individuals. Notice that I am not advocating that this contact work be completely automated, however. In the high-tech world, personal attention is actually even more important.

Toward A New Paradigm

Those who think that technology will make overseas officers irrelevant are as misguided as those who believe they can ignore technology. Information technology will never replace public affairs officers. On the contrary, technology increases the value of human interaction while providing tools that liberate public affairs both from the tedium of being a mere conduit for information and the exciting, but uncreative, experience of having journalists clamoring for the latest breaking news. Because the Internet has made information a free commodity, we no longer score points for providing it. We add value only by customizing information and making it recipient-specific.

Ironically, “hard” technology puts a premium on “soft” skills by devaluing rote, programmed procedures and making the product itself (raw information) less important than the channel of delivery (relationships) and customization (personalization). Also, by eliminating the external discipline of the urgent, the new technology necessitates more creative and self-motivated behavior. Making it all work together successfully requires a new paradigm for public affairs, one that blends our traditional communication and people skills with new communication and people skills.

Technology changes the terms of engagement, but our relationships are with people, just as they always have been, not with their computers or fax machines. Effective communication with people is still the only real business we are in.

Why have we applied these methods only sporadically to our public affairs? One reason is simple newness. Only recently has such communication become possible with a significant number of recipients. Everyone must get used to using the new system. But a more pernicious impediment to effective synergy of electronic communications with public affairs has been the structure of the State Department. New technologies mean different ways of doing business and challenge us to be flexible in everything from job descriptions to traditional perks. They cannot just be strapped on old management structures. The department’s hierarchical, sequential culture, where one step must be cleared up the chain before the next one can begin, is not well-suited to a new world where several problems must be solved simultaneously and hierarchy sometimes ignored. (Who should sing tenor in the choir? The ones who can, not necessarily the senior members.) Bosses are uncomfortable when they lack the requisite knowledge to clear the work of their expert subordinates and are therefore reluctant to trust decisions they make in response to uncertain circumstances. The commitment of State’s new management team to addressing this problem is encouraging, but convincing those who prospered under the old system is a tough challenge.

Nevertheless, it is a challenge that must be met. If an integrated approach is not applied, the department’s public affairs efforts will soon be ignored and irrelevant. If the State Department can’t explain and advocate American interests abroad in a timely and effective way, the task will pass to those better suited for the job or not get properly done at all. These are unacceptable alternatives. To succeed we must release the talent and energy we already have. Let’s do it.

John Matel, an FSO since 1984, has served in Porto Alegre, Oslo, Krakow and Washington. He is currently information officer in Warsaw.

October 12, 2009

Wasted (on) Youth

Disco John showing the bad taste of the 1970sIt is not surprising that an aspiring geezer like me would think that the “youth market” is overemphasized in public affairs, but let me give you some of my reasons. (BTW – notice the suspension of good taste characteristic of the 1970s in the youthful picture on the left  You can’t see the platform shoes, very unpractical on the icy streets of Milwaukee.)

There is no Successor Generation, Just a Succession of Generations

We talk of a successor generation, but what we really have is a succession of generations, i.e. one after another.   Rearranging the words slightly as I just did almost completely changes the paradigm and drains a little of the urgency.   I really have to do the tedious digression in order to explain why we still view the world through this kind of generational prism.

The idea of the successor generation and the concept of generations on steroids in general is suited to a particular historical period that is now ending.   The “greatest generation,” the one that survived the Great Depression and fought World War II, is implicitly taken as the starting point.  The worldwide apocalyptic effects of this conflict and the economic depression preceding it, coupled with the never before reach of mass communication meant that people who experienced the war and its aftermath had a unique common experience that shaped them as a generation in a way not seen before or since. 

The end of the wars, both WW I and WWII that so comprehensively changed the world was a kind of a starting point for a new world. This created the idea of a generational personality and this impression was strengthened when people with the war experience ruled the world and set the pace for an unusually long time. Their numerous children were the baby boom, the largest and most affluent up until that time.  The Boomer conflict with GI-Generation parents played out as a clash of titan generations rather than normal piecemeal generational change.  This was also something very unusual, but since we grew up with it and in its shadow, we think of it as normal.  

When I joined the FS, we were in the stages of transition to the “successor generation.”  Supposedly, the new generations of leaders would be harder to deal with because they lacked strong direct memories of U.S. contributions during the war and American largess in helping rebuild Europe with the Marshall Plan.   Worse, the heroic World War II generation was going to be replaced by the generation of ’68, with its formative memories coming from the riots, disorder and unrest of those days.  Some of the former radicals still talked the talk, but twenty years of experience had made them a lot more reasonable.  Our fears that the radicals would bring down the system were unjustified (unless you meant the socialist systems of the Soviet Empire.)

The Stone Throwers of ’68 Became the Capitalists of ‘88

If the youth that rioted to overthrow capitalism in 1968 – in Europe it was even worse than it was in the U.S. – could turn into the tranquil bankers and bureaucrats of 1988, maybe capturing the youth in their formative ages is not so crucial.  But think of the even greater challenge that history just glosses over.The bureaucrats and bankers, the staunch U.S. allies facing down those rioters in 1968 had grown up during the severe indoctrination of Nazi Germany.It seems that people grow as they mature and they change with changing circumstances.Of course, maybe it is self-selecting bias, as the most extreme trouble makers just dropped out. 

There is an old saying, variously quoted, that if you are not a radical when you are twenty, you have no heart, but if you are still a radical when you are forty, you have no brain.  As I said, it is an old saying, at least a century old.  Some changes don’t change or put more elegantly – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Anyway, the big, lumpy generational changes that seemed have been the rule during our lifetimes were an anomaly.   It will not be that way going into the future.  Instead we will have more constant change spread across the generational spectrum.The need to make your impression on “the youth” in the first-formative stages of their lives will be less crucial, even if you still think it is crucial at all after looking at the history of the transitions between the self-consciously patriotic generation of ’45 and the self-described ’68 radicals.   

For Everything there is a Season

kids in Istanbul

Experience indicates that the best time to reach people is NOT when they are 18-20, much less an even younger age.  They just get bored.You are a lot better off if you wait until they are 28-30.   Few 18 year olds really care about politics, with good reasons.  They don’t have a real feel for what they want and they have only a vague idea of what directions their lives will take.It is like asking them to choose door #1, #2 or #3, w/o knowing what is behind.  They make better choices when they get better perspective, after experience begins to replace passion.

(BTW – I am not addressing basic tendencies and values, which seem to be established very early and may even be influenced by genetics.  Here we are talking about things that we might express in public affairs messages.)

People are very much subject to natural unfolding development.  There is a right time for everything.  You cannot teach a kid to talk or walk before he is ready and the same goes for a lot of things. It is possible to be too late, but it is more likely that you will be too early.  There are times in their lives when they are ready to hear a message or to make a change and a time when they are not.   

Most 18 year olds are not ready for serious public affairs messages.  I wasn’t.  My kids weren’t.  Reaching out to kids too early is like planting your flower seeds in February.   Most will not germinate and those you plant in April will easily overtake and surpass any that do poke up through the frost.  It is a waste to be too early.   Beyond that, you face the constraint of selection.  Only a minority of a generational cohort will be interested and/or able to act on any public affairs message.  Among 18-year-olds you have an undifferentiated mass.   To extend my garden metaphor, you are not only planting too early, you are also doing it indiscriminately, sowing seeds on rocks, sidewalks, sand and soil.   Seven or ten years later you can make much better choices since you can better see which among them are or will be opinion leaders.

Ephemeral v Enduring

Anyway, patience is a virtue and waiting until the time is right is wisdom.  Youth is overrated.  People are much more influenced by the realities of their own life cycles than by the skinny dipping they made into an ideological pool as callow youth.  If you are selling things that don’t last long, such as trendy clothes, cool games, fast food or various specific forms of entertainment, get those kids.  If you are “selling” ideas meant to last – and be acted on – for a lifetime, wait until the time is right.

October 11, 2009

Showing Their Red Asses

All of what I know about baboons I learned from watching nature shows, so I am not an expert.  But I don’t like them.   They only good thing you can say about them is that they seem to be fearless, but that might be just because they are stupid and aggressive.  Beyond that, they seem to have most of our petty human failings, except worse.  Baboons are intensely social and hierarchical and enforce their social status by violence and humiliation.  Among their communications methods is displaying their big red asses to the lesser baboons.   This is the kind of nature we hope that culture and civilization will help us rise above.

But I have been in enough group interactions to know that we don’t always rise much above the red assed baboon, but there are particular situations that bring out the better or the worse in us.   When cut through all the fog, obfuscations and commentary, you see the key factor is the sense of objective truth, a goal beyond the particular personal preferences of individual group members.  W/o that, we are victims of popularity, personalities and ephemeral politics.

Think about some easy examples.   Working with engineers, scientists, farmers and foresters is relatively straightforward because you can point to objective results.   You can argue about how best to build the bridge but only within what is permitted by the constraints of topography rules of physics and the characteristics of materials.   Or consider agriculture.   A farmer’s work ethic and decision making is on display literally on the ground.  A flamboyant personality or wonderful aspirations don’t make up for not getting the seeds in at the right time.   

Now consider the opposite side of the spectrum: fashion and entertainment. In these fields of human endeavor success depend on almost nothing but personality or celebrity and everything is open to interpretation and restatement.  An aggressive personality is more important than core competence and winners are willing – often eager – to put down and humiliate subordinates and potential rivals.  Many of the most successful leaders in these fields seem to revel in this and have developed a kind of dark ethical system of insincerity and shallow coolness.  Speaking of “A-list” or “B-list” or even “C-list” celebrities is just a human equivalent of showing your red ass and the display has the same purpose as it does among the baboons.

I am afraid that our society has been drifting away from the tangible truth and more in the direction of power of personality as fewer and fewer of us work on task that yield tangible results and an even smaller minority can see long-term outcomes of their efforts.   It is no surprise if more people behave like selfish baboons.

I don’t consider myself a moralist or an example for that, but I understand that society must be based on transcendent moral principles that allow us to see beyond the problems of today or the personalities or proclivities of the participants.  There should come a bottom line where you can say, “that just ain’t right” or “this is what we have to do” w/o reference to who did it or who you are talking about.   

One of the practical benefits of a moral compass is that it makes life more predictable and helps protect people when their status in the group changes.  Among baboons, it is all about power and position.  Baboons have no objective morality.  Humans should. What the big baboon can enforce is the truth … until he can’t do it anymore.  We humans should be above that and I do say above in the sense of better.  Yes I am making a judgment about a moral position.  

Our experiences reinforce each other and color our judgments of the wider world. I know that my experience with long-term requirements of forestry informs my thinking on many ostensible unrelated issues and helps balance the venality of some of my public affairs work, where staging for today may be rewarded more profusely than building for tomorrow.  If we rarely anymore see the consequences of our ordinary daily choices, we start to lose the capacity to judge moral choices.  Everything starts to be relative and standards drop.  As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, we define deviancy downward.  The neutral – and wrong – way to put this would be that morality has been redefined to be more inclusive.

Moral decisions should be hard.  We are likely to make many mistakes and none of us can live up to our highest aspirations, provided our aspirations are set properly high. We often won’t make the cut and some people will never make it at all.  Put in traditional terms, we are all sinners and can never overcome our base natures, but we are constrained continually to strive to be better.   

Otherwise we are all just a bunch of red assed baboons.

October 10, 2009

Bringing Back Bobwhite

Open woods providing good wildlife habitat on farm in Virginia

Bobwhite quail used to be common in Virginia.  Their population began to crash about forty years ago because of changes in their habitat.   Some of this was obvious.  Farmers became more efficient and in the process eliminated lots of the bugs and weeds that quail need.  Suburbs expanded and suburban dwellers are probably even less tolerant of bugs and weeds.  Both suburban lawn owners and rural landowners also got new and better techniques to achieve their goals, which usually involved creating a “neater” landscape.  The thick green lawns, beautiful but ecologically barren, are widely possible only because of chemicals and techniques developed in the last generation.   

Early succession field in Virginia

Wildlife habitat in general and quail habitat in particular is ragged and messy from the human perspective.  Above is an early succession field, a lot of goldenrod and ragweed. A lot of people would feel the urge to mow.  Even the gardens of “wild” flowers many of us plant are NOT really natural.   Ideal Virginia quail habitat consists of the weeds and debris that comes the year after a clear cut.  It is the disturbance itself that is the key to success. Many of us demand that this kind of thing be “cleaned up” or avoided in the first place.

Mike Jones at quail habitat field day

My friend Mike Jones led the wildlife habitat field day to discuss ways landowners could create places for quail and other desirable animals.   This is Mike just above. He is a landowner who recently retired from the NRCS and smartest person I know when it comes to the practical creation and protection of wildlife habitat.  Mike has tried out all of what he talks about on his own land and seen the results over a lifetime. The State of Virginia is wise to take advantage of his expertise and his credibility when explaining programs to landowners. 

Lunch line at Quail habitat field day

These field days are a sweet deal.  It cost me only $10, which probably didn’t cover much more than the lunch.  The lunch line is pictured above.  But field days are really a kind of advertising and education.  Landowners make decisions about what happens on their land and it is in the best interests of everybody in the state if they make good ones.  I didn’t really comprehend how important this was until I bought the farms.   I have spent thousands of dollars and many hours of time making improvements to protect wildlife and water resources.   I am eager to do that, since I consider improving my land a long-term investment, but I need advice about what to do.   But there is no right way to do anything.  We need to learn from scientists and experts, but they also need to learn from our experience and we have to learn from each other.  These field days are part of the extension outreach done by the State of Virginia and our universities such as Virginia Tech and a great way to share practical knowledge.  

Quail management field day lecture

You can make improve the environment and make profit from your land at the same time, but everything is a trade off.  Wildlife tends to thrive in a less dense forest with more space between the trees and some of that ragged and messy weed patches I mentioned above.  Of course, different animals favor different environments too.  All life is trade-off. You can see the open woods at the top of this post and you can easily see how this does not maximize timber production, but most people like it better on their land and they may be able to make back some of the money with hunting leases.I lease both my farms to local hunt clubs.  They provide a local presence and take care of boundaries.  

Wildlife corridor recently cut by Larry Walker on the Johnsonmatel tree farm.

Hunting is a virtuous circle.  What is good for wildlife habitat is usually good for the environment, so hunters have an incentive to protect the environment.   Above is a wildlife corridor Larry Walker, a member of one of one of our hunt clubs, made for me on our land.  It will provide diverse edge community AND it allows me to get down to the creek w/o bushwacking.  He cut it through a couple of weeks ago and planted the cover that you can see coming up.  The hunters on my land have been there for a long time, in some cases for generations. They make the effort to understand the land in a way that almost nobody else does.  They have to understand and provide for the needs of deer, turkey or quail.   Hunters pays for a lot of wildlife conservation.  They also control numbers.  The deer population has exploded in the last twenty years.  In places w/o enough hunting, they are destroying the forests and preventing regeneration.  Of course, we don’t have that problem with quail.

Genito Creek on the Johnsonmatel tree farm on October 7, 2009

Above is part of Genito Creek that crosses our property.  Larry’s path makes it much easier for me to get down there and it is a nice place to visit. The creek meanders around, moving sand around the bed.  The water undercuts banks and brings down the trees periodically.  The creek used to be the boundary of the property, but around 1960 the whole thing moved around 100 yards in, so now both sides are on my land … for now.

Bobwhite quailI mentioned some of the reasons for quail decline.   A habitat is only as strong as its weakest link.  When they are chicks, quail need lots of bugs to eat, so they need the mix of plants that bugs like.  This included weeds like goldenrod and especially ragweed, grass not so much.   When they get older they need seeds to eat.  They also need places to breed under cover, which is why they like blueberry thickets and they need brush and trees to hide from predators.  In other words, they need a great diversity of habitat type, with a lot of it in the early stages of natural succession.  By definition, the early stages of natural succession pass quickly, so we need a fair constant cycle of disturbance and recovery.

The State of Virginia wants to bring quail numbers back up.   They have devoted $9 million over the next five years and will hire five regional biologists to study the problem and provide advice to landowners.  They have some cost share programs for landowners targeted to five Virginia counties in order to focus efforts rather than spread them out and lose benefits too thin to do any good.  Brunswick is not among the counties.  Besides, they are aimed at crop land conversions, so I cannot get my forest lands in on any of them.

Bobwhite quail habitat on Johnsonmatel tree farm

But my farms do have a lot of good edge habitat, even if they are not part of the program.  The wildlife plots we established last year are doing well and the pre-commercial thinning has done a good job of establishing biological diversity.  I visited the CP farm after the wildlife field day.  As I walked down the road just before sundown, I spooked a covey of quail.  At least a half-dozen exploded out of their cover as I slowly walked by.  I took a picture of the spot and posted it above.  I can be plenty ragged and messy w/o cost share from the state, thank you. You can see that it has the goldenrod and ragweed.  It has the cover trees and the bramble blueberry and the combination of edge communities.  The edge is plenty weedy and ragged. Not bad. I should hold a field day on my farm(s).

October 08, 2009

Meeting Charles Darwin

Finding Darwin from Smithsonian

Alex and I went to see a Darwin interpreter at the Smithsonian.  It was very interesting, although not exactly what I expected.   Richard Milner did Gilbert & Sullivan songs about Darwin in between his story telling and interpretation.  

Alex was probably the youngest person in the room, by far.   I might have been in close contention for second place.  I bet the median age was around sixty.   Mr. Milner told lots of jokes that I understood but depended on cultural nuances from before Alex’s time.Jimmy Durante, Bing Crosby & Jack Benny survived into my time but even I know them largely through reruns of old movies.   This kind of thing worries me.  I also have trouble adapting new jokes.   There are humor generations and it is hard to bridge that generation gap.   Our references are just different.

I was crowd watching as much as performer watching.  An evolution audience is peculiar and the performer pandered a bit to their prejudices.  I don’t think there is any doubt that evolution explains our world, i.e. it is true scientifically.   I also believe that Darwin was the greatest thinker of the 19th Century and the only one whose ideas are still broadly useful today.  But I don’t partake in the Darwin hagiography and the kind of snooty superiority on display in this otherwise very polite and reasonable crowd.   Dare I say that they treat Darwin with almost religious reverence.

Crowd at meeting Darwin lecture at Smithsonian

The Darwinism of the 19th Century, i.e. the original ideas, is wrong in many details.  This doesn’t really subtract from Darwin’s genius.   Almost all the science of genetics, much of statistical analysis and most of the archeological record of early hominids was unavailable to Darwin.   You can look at this in two different ways.   Accolades say that it shows Darwin’s prescience and genius that he could still get so much right even w/o all that science.   I would also praise Darwin’s skill, but say that he was very lucky in his guesses and made some seriously unscientific extrapolations that turned out well.  We don’t have to believe that man was some sort of superman.  We can still admire him.

Speaking of supermen, this is another problem with overdoing Darwin.   Darwinism is closely associated with scientific racism, Nazism, abusive eugenics and so called social Darwinism.    Darwin didn’t take part in this and he didn’t foresee it.   You could say that all these things are ignorant misinterpretations of Darwin, and you would be right.   

But when you look at something in totality, you have to consider what will become of it when it faces the grit and error of the real world.  Academics argue academic theories that are manifest nowhere in reality.  Reality matters.  The best example of how reality can turn a minor intellectual pathogen into a deadly disease is Marxism. In theory, Marxism is just kind of silly.  In practice it is deadly.   Darwinism was not like this, but it was abused in the service of politics.

Let me make one small note about evolution.   The common conception of it is … wrong and that is one of the reasons why the theory got abused.   If you look at the various charts and timelines, you think that evolution is moving toward a goal.   In fact, evolution doesn’t imply progress in any way.  Fitness means only that organisms have reproductive success.   In modern terms, the “Octomom” is the most successful and fittest human woman of our age and perhaps the most successful of any age.  She evidently has fourteen children with a good chance of surviving into adulthood.  Some sleaze who fathers a dozen kids out of wedlock is fitter than the childless Noble prize winner – kind of depressing.  The related wrong idea is that species evolve from each other with the idea of progress, so that a fish or a frog is lower on the evolutionary ladder than monkey or a man.   In fact, the science of evolution doesn’t have anything to do with this kind of idea.   The fish that successfully reproduces is more successful than a man who doesn’t.

Anyway, I take the pragmatic approach to knowledge.  We can never find absolute truth.  Science cannot give that to us, since science is in the process of becoming.  It is always in revision.  We can, however, achieve USEFUL knowledge and that is enough for most of us most of the time.  Just never get too enthusiastic about any particular ideas, don’t attribute infallibility to any human and don’t hold that lack of infallibly against them.  

Even a genius is wrong most of the time because to err is human.  And that is why I don’t feel it is a contradiction to believe in both science and transcendence.

Sunset in Washington DC on October 8, 2009

Above is sunset from my office window behind the construction of the Institute of Peace.

BTW – I found a good article on this subject after I wrote this.  It is at this link.

October 06, 2009

Who Ought to Sing Tenor in the Quartet

Sandstorm coming in Al Asad IraqThe State Department blog featured an interesting discussion about discrimination against people with disabilities in the FS.  I won’t go into details.  Suffice to say the idea was that people who go to places like Afghanistan and Iraq derive career benefits and that the system is thus unfair since only the able-bodied can do these kinds of assignments. 

This takes the idea too far.  I agree that we should make reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities wherever we can, but there are some places where we can’t.  If we think a job is important enough to be done, we have to allow those who can do it to do it.

My job in Western Iraq was more vigorous than most others because we had to travel across the largest area of operations in Iraq.  I didn’t have to be in top-condition to do the job, but just humping onto a helicopter or into an MRAP with body armor and gear is hard.   The chow hall had a wide selection of food, but we were not always near the chow hall.  It gets pretty hot and dusty in the Iraqi desert.  It is indeed a physical challenge that not everyone can do.   It would be life-threatening to send anybody who couldn’t pull his own weight, for the individual as well has his colleagues.   This is just true.   

I would point out/admit that I have lost some of my ability over the years.   That is what happens as you get older.  Ability and disability are a continuum.    When it comes to running miles in less than six minutes, I have become disabled.   This gradient can be deceptive.   It is hard to identify the exact point where we are not in good enough condition for a particular task.   But that point is reached.  This is not like a made-for-TV movie or an after school special.   Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you want something or how much you try.  

Nature, war and the laws of physics are not fair.   

So what about the compensation?   I suppose it depends on what you mean by fair.   FSOs are supposed to be worldwide available.   Not all of us are and we might lose our worldwide clearance.   But good health is a definite advantage.   I don’t know how we can get around that.   One reason I have been successful is that I don’t get sick very often.   You may not succeed even if you show up, but you certainly cannot succeed if you don’t, no matter whether the reason is good or bad.

We will all sooner or later become “disabled” if we live long enough and I suppose being dead, i.e. “vitality challenged” is a significant impediment to success, so that is all our fates.  Before that time, we can do our jobs and be productive members of society, and I guess that I think of work as more an obligation than a right.   It makes a lot of sense to help everybody be as productive as they can, but you cannot achieve total equality in results. 

I had great experience but I didn’t get promoted this year for my work in Iraq.  This is okay.  I agree that we don’t necessary deserve a career jump just for going to dangerous or unpleasant places.   And you don’t need to go to Iraq to find places like that.  Many Foreign Service posts are dangerous and unpleasant.  The ability and willingness to go to these places – and do a good job while there – is part of our job, part of our work ethic.  It is worth something.  It should be encouraged.  It deserves consideration and it should not be devalued.  It makes little sense to subtract one of the big virtues of the FS just because not everybody can achieve it. We need to be reasonable about these things.  

Henry Ford said that asking “’who ought to be boss’ is like asking ‘Who ought to be tenor in the quartet?’ Obviously, the man who can sing tenor.”  This goes for most things.  Ability counts and talents & abilities are not evenly distributed.  This is the way it is, whether we like it or not. 

October 05, 2009

Public Diplomacy Not Broken … So Can’t be Fixed

Tyranasaurus and triceratops at Milwaukee Museum

I attended another of those meetings on public diplomacy where earnest colleagues talk about what we can do to improve, reform or fix public diplomacy. I am not saying that we should not be seeking always to improve, but I have been hearing this same story ever since I started paying attention to such things more than a quarter century ago and I think it has been going on a lot longer than that.  When Ben Franklin returned from Paris, some people gave him a hard time about his activities there and complained that we just were not making the impact we should.   The pattern is that we decry the present or the recent past and then say how we have hope for the future.  

I don’t think we can succeed in fixing the problem because it is not a problem that can be solved.  It is an ongoing situation that will never end until we are gone, all gone – in that eternal sense. That which cannot be changed must be welcomed. Maybe we cannot fix public diplomacy any more than we can fix the need to eat.  It is just an endless need.  If we eat a big meal today, being hungry again tomorrow does not indicate a failure or eating or the need to reform our consumption methods.  

We often assume if we just explained better or understood our fellow man better, things would be okay.  Experience does not bear this out.  In most of history’s truly monumental conflicts, the warring sides understood each other only too well.  It was not a failure to communicate that got Xerxes in trouble with the Spartans at Thermopylae.  Ghengis Khan was fairly clear about what he wanted but it was not easy to find a mutually agreeable compromise with him.

You can have some real conflicts of interests and real differences that do not represent a failure to communicate.   IMO, very often the more you talk about differences, the sharper they become.    Maybe simply ignoring them or kicking the can down the road is the solution, more on that below.  But let’s think about agreement first. Agreeing about Most Things is Easy

First the good news.  The world is not a zero sum game.   We can get a lot when we work together and cooperate.  We agree MOST of the time and when we agree there are no controversies and not much scope for politics, persuasion or public diplomacy.    We have all kinds of non-controversial agreements.   On the local level, most of us agree to stop at red lights.  Although we have to persuade the occasional miscreant that the law applies to him too, there is no real controversy.   We have long standing agreements about very important things like telecommunications, navigation, air traffic control and postal services.   I can send a letter anyplace in the world because all of us agree that is a good thing.   

These agreements require constant maintenance, but it is more or less like painting your house or keeping your car tuned up – very little drama.  They work in the background, very much like whatever software is running your computer as you read this, and we rarely think about them.

Politics, diplomacy and violence are reserved for the places where we don’t easily agree.  It should come as no surprise that this relatively small subset of our activities gets most of our attention nor should we be too distressed that we constantly face new problems of this sort.   On those occasions when we succeed in solving one of these problems, it moves into the category in the earlier paragraph and we no longer pay any attention.  It is sort of like when you always find your keys in the last place you look and then you stop looking.  Human nature being what it is, after a problem is solved most people come to think that it was never really much of a problem in the first place and that it would have taken care of itself anyway.  Even really massive changes, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, start to look inevitable and easy as events recede into history.
Not Everybody is Nice

We are left with new problems and since yesterday’s solution is often today’s problem, we are also left with the impression that we are not making any progress.   In fact, we are NOT making progress because there is not end-state toward which we can progress.  I am not big on sports analogies, but one leaps to mind.   The Red Sox can never win an ultimate victory over the Yankees.    The Packers will never finally dispatch the Vikings.   A new season follows and the cycle never ends. Even if the players change, the general geography remains and familiar patterns persist. 

All this doesn’t mean you can do nothing or you should be complacent unless – to stretch my sports analogy – you want to become the Chicago Cubs of world politics.   In fact, eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty.   And it is possible to have victories and good seasons.   We are not the victims of fate or mere random chance.  There just is no way out of the game until you are physically removed … and then it continues w/o you.  To sum up, most of us CAN agree with others on MOST things.Those things you cannot agree about become the property of persuasion, politics, coercion and violence. They are problems by definition. It is best to keep as much as possible away from the politics, coercion and violence, but it is not always possible.  Of course peaceful, respectful persuasion is the best, if you can get it, but you can usually get it only in situations that are not the most severe and the others are always lurking in the background.   Just because you reject violence doesn’t mean it has been removed from the equation. Unfortunately, politics can be easier than working to create a solution, coercion is a very potent persuader and violence a very compelling public affairs message.

Sometimes it goes away if you ignore itI once foiled a robbery attempt in the bookstore where I worked in Madison by not getting it.   A couple guys came in and hung around near the cash register.  When I asked them what they wanted, they said they wanted all the money in the register.  They didn’t brandish any weapons and they didn’t seem especially tough, so I just laughed at them and told them to beat it.   They went away.  I thought it was a joke until I saw on the news that police were seeking a couple of young men who had robbed a store down the street.  

I would like to put in a plug for avoidance & denial, when possible.  Don’t go looking for trouble.  Call it pluralism if you like.   I simply mean that we don’t have to agree on everything and there can be a wide sphere where people can do different, ostensibly contradictory things.  We should constantly seek to expand the areas where we can say, “I don’t like what you are doing, but I just don’t care enough to do anything about it” or better yet, “It is just none of my business.”  This can flow from, “I don’t know very much about what you are doing, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem for me” or “I don’t care what you do, as long as you stay over there.”   We don’t have to resolve all our differences if we can create environments where most differences don’t matter.   

I understand that the attitude I describe will probably not make you famous and will make some people think you just are not paying attention but it makes most people happier and often works better than the more active and aggressive alternatives.   I am not advocating that we actually BE ignorant, as I was in my robbery example above.  I do advocate that we have enough self-awareness and humility to know that we cannot understand everything and may well be wrong in our judgments.  We don’t have to drill down and solve every problem.  I really don’t think the trouble is that the world hears too LITTLE from and about the U.S.  Engaging is Easy

The latest buzzword for public diplomacy is engagement.   I like engagement.  It can be fun and you can learn a lot.   But it is not a panacea and it can be overdone if you start invading the pluralism “don’t know; don’t care” turf mentioned above.   Remember what Aristotle said about anger?   It applies to engagement too, so let me paraphrase.   Anybody can be engaged – that is easy, but to be engaged with the right people and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.

October 04, 2009

Wood in the Ecological Value Chain

This is the draft of an article I wrote for the next issue of “Virginia Forests.”  It is substantially based on a post I did a couple months ago, so regular readers might get a feeling of déjà vu.IMO, this one is somewhat improved and the editors will improve it even more.

Spruce plantation near Latham Peak in Kettle Moraine


Wood in the Ecological Value Chain

A chain is only as good as its weakest link, as the old saying goes, and you have to look at the whole chain from start to finish.  This is true in any business and it is even more crucial when talking about something’s impact on the environmental affairs.  Some products may look very green when you look at the finished product, but are not so environmentally friendly when you consider where they are coming from or where they are going, in other words when you look at the whole environmental value chain. 

Tree farmers can take satisfaction from knowing that wood is the most environmentally friendly building or structural product available when you look at the ecological value chain from start to finish.  

Start at the beginning.   Growing trees is an environmental friendly thing to do.   A growing forest removes pollution from the air, sequesters CO2, keeps water clean, provides wildlife habitat and makes the world more beautiful.  Think of the forest as the factory where wood is made.  Is there any more beautiful factory than the one on our timber lands?  The raw materials to make plastic, concrete or metal must be pulled from the earth and processed in noisy, dirty and energy intensive factories.  Wood is good.  

It is true that harvesting of trees requires the use of fuels, which will emit CO2 and may result in particulate pollution released into the air, and even the most well-managed forest harvests will impact local water quality to some extent.   These are serious issues, but they can be minimized and serious Virginia loggers are very careful to tread lightly in the woods.   Beyond that, these activities occur only once in many decades on any particular piece of ground and are much more than compensated by the many years of beneficial growth in between harvests. If you look over a thirty-five or forty year pine rotation, it is clear that the net environmental benefits of producing wood are overwhelming.

Changing leaves along US 50 in West Virginia on September 29, 2009

If you compare forestry to almost any other land use, forestry wins out as the most sustainable and environmentally friendly activity. No other ecosystem better protects and enhances soil and water.  Water that flows through a forest usually comes out cleaner than it went in.   Compared to the land use for other products, the difference is so extreme that we might actually miss it.   Twenty years after operations are completed, a mine, quarry or oil well is still only a hole in the ground unless costly reconstruction has been done.

Twenty years after a harvest a forest is … again a forest with young trees growing robustly.  

This renewal is what always impresses me when I interview the Virginia Tree Farmers of the Year. These guys have usually been in the business for many years and they have pictures from many years past.  I am astonished to see the old pictures and hearing about the changes.   I recall standing in a mature pine forest in Greenville County and talking to Mike Jones (2007 Tree Farmer of the Year) about his land.   He showed me an old photo of his grandfather standing in the “same” grove of trees where we stood as we talked.   But these were not the same trees.    This land had been harvested TWICE since the old man stood proudly among his pines.   His grandson could stand among his pines and future generations would still have the chance to stand among their pines.   That is what renewable means.

 Wood at Home Depot

Wood is completely renewable and renewable is even better than recyclable.

Let’s complete the ecological value chain.  We have seen that wood is ecologically good in its production, sustainable in its harvest and completely renewable, but what happens after you are done with a piece of wood?  We like to think our houses will last forever, but they won’t.  Wood may be with us for centuries but when its usefulness to us is done it is easily disposed of or cycled back into the natural world.   It can be burned as fuel.  It releases CO2 at that time, but this is the same CO2 recently absorbed.    That is why burning wood is recognized as carbon neutral.  If thrown away, wood decays.  It doesn’t take long before yesterday’s wood is fertilizer for tomorrow’s growing trees.  This again is in striking contrast to other materials. Steel can be recycled at a high energy cost.   If thrown away, it will rust away after many years. Concrete also can be recycled with much effort.  If you dump it, it will lay until the next ice age. Plastic is the most persistent product.  Some plastics will remain in the environment almost forever.   Recycling is a good when possible, but it really only postpones the problem. The plastic water bottle may be turned into a carpet or a computer keyboard, but eventually it will end up in a landfill where it will stay … forever. 

We need to use all sorts of materials: metal, plastic, glass, stone, concrete, various composites and wood.   They are all appropriate for some uses.   When you look at the total ecological value chain, wood deserves to come out on top in many cases.  Our Virginia tree farms can grow wood, sustainable, now and forever.   That beats the alternatives most of the time. 

The top picture is a spruce plantation in the kettle-moraines in Wisconsin. The bottom picture shows turning leaves along US 50 in West Virginia.

October 03, 2009

What is Art?

Artist Susan Cassidy Wilhoit, who painted all 50 capitol buildings in the U.S.

I saw an exhibit of state capitol buildings.  The artist, a woman called Susan Cassidy Wilhoit, shown in the picture, went around the country and painted all fifty of them.   I told her that the journey around the U.S. to all the states to paint the pictures would be a great story in itself.  I like representational art with a story.

Most of the capitols look a lot alike.   Classical domes – more or less resembling the national capitol – are most popular, but there is a significant share of non-descript tall office buildings.   North Dakota & Nebraska have particularly drab capitols.   That is Nebraska’s against the far war, BTW.  In fact, I wonder if those buildings even deserve the name capitol, which implies a more august building. Below is Wisconsin’s capitol.

Painting of Wisconsin state capitol in Madison

I suppose some people would decry the lack of imagination among legislatures.   I don’t.  When you got a good thing, stick with it.  Most “innovative” architecture sucks, especially when a government is paying the bills and the architects can run wild with the public purse.  Left unchecked, they often indulge their idiosyncratic proclivities and pursue novelty w/o value.  It gets to be like the “Emperor’s New Clothes.”   Few people like those awful buildings, but who wants to say so out loud and appear to be a philistine in front of the cool sophisticates?   

Most great art and great architecture derives from the tension between artists trying push the limits to express their own particular vision and someone paying the bills and mitigating the creative but selfish impulses of the visionary, which, IMO, is why artists work better when they have to satisfy patrons, markets or somebody else in general.  Give an artist a no-strings-attached grant and they fall off the deep end of autoerotic peculiarity.   

Germania building in Milwaukee, Wi

Above is the Germania Building in Milwaukee, built in 1898. This is interesting, although not unique, architecture. The domes look like Kaiser helmets and my mother told me that there was some gnashing of teeth about that during WWI.  The vagaries of memory are funny.  When I looked at this building last week it stimulated a previously buried memory from when I was eleven years old.  My mother used to take me downtown to visit a Dr Rath.  He was bone specialist who looked after me after I broke my leg. His job was to make sure my legs stayed more or less the same length and he succeeded. I would get to take a day off from school and my mother would take me around downtown after the appointment.  Of course, she didn’t have any more personal memory of the WWI history of the Germania building than I do, and I cannot find confirmation on the Internet, but I think it is true.

Another example of derivative but beautiful architecture is St. Stanislaw Church below.

St Stanislaw Church, Milwaukee Wi

October 02, 2009

Blue Highways

West Virginia landscape from US 50

I took US 50 through southern Ohio and West Virginia.You get a different impression of the geography from the older highway system.  The Interstate System flattens the hills, straightens the curves and bypasses the towns.  The older highways pass through the older America.The Interstates have drained both the traffic and the vitality from the highways, especially when they run parallel, as US 50 does to I-70 and I-68. 

MacArthur, Ohio on US 50

US 50 was very peaceful through Ohio and I often had the whole road to myself, so I enjoyed driving leisurely past the farms and small towns.The land looked very lush and green.US 50 is mostly single lane, but it turns into a divided highway part of the way and it gets to be essentially a superhighway in parts of West Virginia.   West Virginia is a unique case.  Senator Robert Byrd got to be so powerful that he could direct an unusually large amount of Federal dollars to the Mountain State.

There are lots of really nice, empty highways connecting little towns in West virginia.Lots of the off ramps lead to a couple of houses or sometimes to almost nothing at all.  US 50 from Parkersburg to Clarksburg is probably the loneliest stretch to fantastically built highway in America.  It must have cost a million dollars per car, our tax dollars at work.There is an even more impressive highway to nowhere a few miles south, the so called Highway 55 corridor.You can drive from Wardensville to Moorefield and on to Seneca Rocks in complete comfort and near perfect isolation.Maybe we should move that modern perfect highway to Chicago, where the roads weren’t so good.

US 50 superhighway through West Virginia

I stayed on 50 after Clarksburg, which was a mistake because it becomes a truly local road.This is some of the roughest geography in North America.  The folded mountains make road building a challenge.Even Robert Byrd didn’t try to make this a superhighway.It is very pretty, very steep and very curvy.And there was an amazing amount of road construction and repair to slow what traffic there was.   All things considered, I am still glad I went this way, but it probably added a couple hours to my journey.   I got to see lots of nice vistas and even the Allegheny front windmill farm.

Windmills on Allegeny front near US 50

October 01, 2009

You Can be a Victim of Public Policy or an Engaged Player in the System

Halls of Congress

Our Virginia Tree Farm delegation met with staff members from the offices of Jerry Connolly (my congressman), Mark Warner, Jim Webb & Eric Cantor.  The ATFS convention was held in Washington this year and they wanted to take advantage of the presence of hundreds of tree farmers in the capital (how exciting!).  We had tree farmers from most states in our nation’s capital. I suppose our meeting with only staffers shows our relative lack of political clout.  Tree farmers are not a feared interest group. Two actual members took the time to meet with us personally: Robert Wittman & Robert Goodlatte. I was impressed with both, and not only because they were nice enough to talk with us.  

All politicians are charming.  That is how they get and keep their jobs.  In addition, however, these guys really seemed to understand forestry issues and were genuinely interested in protecting the environment. I suppose that is one reason they talked to us. I think it may also be because they both come from rural districts, where get some real experience with agriculture, forestry and hunting.  They were really on top of some of our esoteric issues, such as the use of woody biomass in energy and biosolids applied to the land.

And we are interested in some esoteric issues.  For example, forestry prefers a broad definition of biomass to include woody biomass. The woody biomass we are talking about, BTW, is mostly the branches, bark and odd pieces left after forest harvests.  Biomass is already used to fuel mills that make paper or process wood, but more could be done.The advantage of woody biomass is that it is produced widely and could be used in small plants.  This is also a disadvantage.It tends to be locally available and heavy to move. 

This is a bigger issue than it seems for the Federal government, because government picks winners and losers in the energy market.  Other sources of alternative energy get privileged by government money and programs.  Woody biomass makes a lot of sense for Virginia and the Southeast, where there are lots of forests and would be used more widely if other forms of energy didn’t get direct and indirect government favors and subsidies and/or if the government “help” was applied evenly.  Anyway, that was one of the things I explained.  I also emphasized that forestry in Virginia is sustainable, now and forever.   That is simple and true, but it must be repeated.

Most of the real work of the Congress is done by very young staffers and those are the kinds of people we met.  They are really smart, but I worry about their lack of experience.  Maybe ferocious intelligence coupled with lack of experience can actually be a disadvantage.  I don’t know.  They seem to do okay. They need the energy of youth to cope with their daunting schedule. You only have a short time to make your point and then get out.   It seems like a superficial way to get constituent input.   Of course, Otto von Bismarck warned that you should never watch either laws or sausage being made.

We also met the famous Joe Wilson.One of our colleagues used to rent a house from Joe Wilson in South Carolina so when we passed him in the hall, he stopped to talk.  It was a short meeting and I didn’t ask about the Obama comment.  He seemed a nice guy.  But, as I wrote above, all politicians are charming in person.  

IMO, politicians don’t get the credit they deserve. Most are smart and motivated – at least initially – by the desire to do good.  And it is a hard job, maybe a job that has grown too big as the reach of government has expanded into parts of our daily lives where it may not belong. Too many people come around asking too many things.  And if others come, you have to be there too. Even if you don’t want to ask anything directly from government, you have to have lobbyists to protect yourself from what others who have lobbyists asking government to do that impact you. 

One consultant told us that we could be either, “victims of public policy or engaged players in the system.”  He implied there was no third option.  Pity. A citizen is free to the extent that he can safely ignore politics.  That sphere is shrinking.

I don’t know when politicians really have time to think, what with all the tight schedules and need to posture for the media. The wealth of activity has created a poverty of attention.  When good people don’t have time to do a good job, maybe the system is overloaded, overextended and overreaching.  If you can’t do more well, maybe it is best to choose to do less better and expand that sphere where citizens can ignore politics.  But thinking that could happen is probably the triumph of hope over experience.

Anyway, we played our part.  We “deployed our talking points,” so now everybody in Congress understands forestry, supports all our legitimate positions and will do the right things.  But I wouldn’t like to be a full-time lobbyist. I couldn’t take the constant shallow dives.  I enjoyed the experience of doing it for one day.That is enough. The Constitution gives me the right to petition my government, but I don’t much like the drive by fashion such petitioning has acquired.

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