Hierarchy & Order

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

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

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

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

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

This is a rough and narrow path to walk, especially for us.  Government is not especially relaxed about innovation but is exceedingly comfortable with hierarchy.  Government, after all, is hierarchical by nature because its main function is to determine who is in charge with the power to set priories and limit options.  If you don’t believe me, think of why we have laws, rules and regulations and what institution is the final legitimate authority in creating and enforcing them.

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

Fort Christiana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning from Locals

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bee Colony Collapse

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky to Live in Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Media: Exceeding the Carrying Capacity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Media: Common Sense & Walled Gardens

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

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

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

·    Use information you gather about your audience or don’t bother to gather it. This is a corollary to the first point. I have observed that organizations often do not fail to gather information, but the fail to gather useful information.  If you cannot or will not change your approach based on the information you obtained from research, it is worse than useless, since you have wasted the time and money you spent on the study AND lulled yourself into a false feeling of security. ·    Connect all the parts of your organization, but leave them autonomy.  This is a variation on the “In Search of Excellence” formula or simultaneous loose and tight controls in a learning organization. It is made more relevant in the new media age by the various technologies, such as wikis and blogs that leadership can use to communicate with a light or heavy hand. 

·    Don’t build walled gardens. It is tempting to create your own systems or groups using technologies and techniques perfectly suited to your own unique situation. Don’t. You are probably less unique than you think you are and beyond that you almost certainly cannot keep up with technical improvements that will make even the most exquisite made-to-order system obsolete in a few months. Besides building a walled garden will almost certainly keep out other ideas (see the first point above.) 

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

·    Be platform flexible.   Your message is important, not the medium it is delivered on. You have to be flexible enough to choose the appropriate delivery mechanisms and not fall in love with any one of them. They pass quickly.  Just ask Jeeves.  ·    Give up some control.  If you want to influence others, you have to be prepared to be influenced by them.  My way or the highway works only in rare instances and if you demand what you think is perfection; you may soon find that you have that perfection all to yourself, since everybody else has wandered away from you.   

·    Try lots of things and know that most of what you try will fail, usually publicly, sometimes spectacularly.  Revel in it.  Embrace it. It is impossible to predict outcomes in the new media. Even if you had perfect knowledge of the current situation, it will change in unexpected and unknowable ways. The best strategy is a statistical one of spreading your bets and then responding to changes as they happen, rather than try to set out with certainty in advance. Those who try nothing, get nothing and it is small consolation that they are never wrong.  

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

Biking at State Department

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engagement: Seek First to Understand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Media: No Garden w/o the Gardener

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

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

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

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

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

I did recently find this somewhat contrary opinion, however.