Ghosts of New Year Past

I put the boys on the plane back to the U.S.  I talked to Chrissy on Skype.  Right now I am watching a nature show with Portuguese narration about New Zealand.  New Year Eve party.  As you can see the picture up top, I have all I really need. 

I do not plan to swim in that whiskey river, at least not very far,  maybe one drink when the clock strikes midnight Brasilia time.

I don’t feel sorry for myself. This is my choice and among my preferred outcomes given the other choices. I had several options for New Year events, but I don’t much like the sorts of parties.  It goes beyond just being boring, which I suppose I am. New Year has never been a happy time for me. I suspect it is not happy for lots of people, which accounts for much of the alcohol addling that accompanies most celebrations. 

When I was a kid, New Year meant that I stayed up late watching the late-late movies.  In those days TV was not twenty-four hours.  On most days, the stations would sign off around 2am with the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.  New Year was different. 

My strongest New Year memory is a very sad feeling. It must have been 1972. I had been in the hospital after spiting up blood. Our doctor called it an ulcer. The diagnosis later kept me out of the Air Force. It also ruined my swim team season.  I think it was a misdiagnosis, since it never recurred, but who knows.  More serious was my mother’s health.  We knew there was something seriously wrong, but the (same) doctor couldn’t figure it out.  She died of leukemia nine months later. I didn’t know this would happen, but I remember thinking that things would not be the same, if for no other reason that I was growing up. 

I went down into the basement, where we had a refrigerator with Coke. Even then I drank a lot of the stuff (even though I was not supposed to because of the “ulcer”).  Our basement was a little bit creepy.  It was not finished.  My father and grandfather had done a little work, but they were usually drunk when they worked and you could tell.  It was also full of spiders and perpetually damp, so damp and full of spiders that when my pet newt escaped his terrarium he managed to survive two years down there, with sufficient habitat.    When you wanted to turn the lights on or off, you loosened or tightened the bulbs on the ceiling. 

It was one of those times when reality just bites. Outside was sub-zero Wisconsin winter and I could hear the wind.  The one bulb that I screwed in threw harsh light that didn’t reach into most of the corners.  It was around midnight and I was the only one awake.  I sang auld lang syne to myself in a quiet voice, not all the words.  I didn’t know all the words then and I don’t know them now.  And I didn’t know what auld lang syne meant.  But I mumbled as much as I knew and then went back up to watch the Late-late movies. 

The movies were a strange choice for New Year festivities.  TV 6 showed a bunch of World War II movies.  I don’t remember details, except that one of them ended with an American soldier in the Philippines trying to make a radio broadcast as the Japanese advanced.  He repeated “Manila calling, Manila calling”.

I don’t vouch for all the details of this forty year memory.  But that is what I recall. 

I spent the New Year 1974 working at Medusa Cement.  I was working the night shifts unloading hopper cars.  I made good money, but it was cold outside and the work was outside, in the dark.  We had to open the bottoms of the hopper cars with heavy crowbars.  I couldn’t get a good grip with my gloves on, so I took them off.  Cold metal against warm skin gives you a good grip but creates a bit of pain.  We would work outside as long as we could tolerate it and then retreat to a shack where we had a kind of propane heater shaped like a torpedo.  That thing threw off lots of heat and fumes.  My associate, a guy called LC Duckworth, the strongest man I ever met, actually set the leg of his coveralls on fire by trying to warm his feet too fast.  I helped put him out.

I most enjoyed riding the cars. We had to push them off and jump on the back, turning the break as fast as we could when we got near the end of the track, which would have taken us in the KK River.  It could be kind of exciting. 

Our operation was on the river, as mentioned above,  from which I could see the clock at Allen Bradley.  At the time, this was the largest four sided clock in the world.  We used to call it the Polish Moon.  Next to it was a temperature sign. As I watched the clock reach midnight on January 1, 1974, the temperature listed was minus five Fahrenheit. 

You can see my old cement company as it looks now at this link.  Below is the Allen Bradley clock in a different season.

My work during the Christmas break kept me solvent through the spring semester, but I didn’t use all the money I earned wisely.  I bought a bunch of booze and held a belated New Year party for my friends.   I was determined to enjoy their company w/o drinking myself.  I learned that it is impossible to enjoy yourself as the one sober person in a room full of drunks.  The jokes just are not as funny.  So I decided to catch up.  In short order, I drank a full bottle of Tequila and I remember nothing else until the next morning, when I tried to get out of bed, but couldn’t. I had never been so sick before and so far have not been since.  I couldn’t actually move around, or even keep down water until around 7pm.  Then I was really hungry and thirsty.  Tequila used to be my booze of choice, but I have not consumed a drop of tequila since January 4, 1974. Can’t even abide the smell.  

A few years later, when I didn’t have a Christmas break job, my friends and I  went out to the bars and night clubs.  I don’t recall the year, but it was probably around 1976. In those days, you could legally drink at 18 in Wisconsin.  We went down to Lincoln Avenue to a place called the President’s Club.  I don’t know how we chose it, but it was full of old people. They did not appreciate us and we didn’t enjoy their company, so we decided to go to Crazy Horse, a younger person club near the airport. 

I don’t recall why, but our friend Mark decided that he would ride on top of the car, mind you that this is Wisconsin with -10 nights in January.   He got up on top of the car, sort of like a deer during hunting season, and hung on for the 2 ½ miles from Lincoln Avenue to the airport.  He was never quite the same after that, but you have to respect his ability to hold on.  There really isn’t a lot to hold onto on top of a car. Jerry had a Cutlass Supreme, which had landau roof, giving a little more traction, but not that much.

After these experiences, I adapted to a more boring party scene. The only one that really stand out in the latter days is New Year 1985. Chrissy and I were invited to a kind of command performance at a fancy club called Leopoldina in Porto Alegre. It was actually a pleasant time.  With a lot of good canape. The place was not far from our house, so we could walk back, making it possible for us to drink more freely. It was a warm night in the middle of the antipodal summer and the place had a pool with a cover on the middle. Our friend Pedro drank a few too many caipirinhas. He jumped in the water and swam under the cover, coming up on the other side, evidently just to prove he could.  It was not the usual type of behavior expected at such events. All of us just kind of pretended it didn’t happen – even when it was happening – and never spoke of it again.  But the next year Pedro’s invitation ostensibly got lost in the mail.

This New Year will not produce any funny or sad stories.  Well, maybe an old guy drinking a glass of Jim Beam chased by Coke Zero is funny or sad, but I am content.  “Sou Cesar” is coming on TV. That should take me through the new year.

BTW – if you doubt the theory of evolution, take a look at my boys in the second picture.  I kind of expected one of them to pick up a bone and start smashing stuff to the strains of “also sprach Zarathustra”.  In fairness, the sun was in their eyes.    

Salto do Itiquira & the Beautiful Goiás Countryside

The water drops 168 meters, creating a constant wind and spray.  It is exhilarating to walk toward the falls, surrounded by sound and mist. You soon get soaked.

The facilities were more primitive when I visited here twenty-six years ago and there were no rules.  For example, you could swim in the pool right under the falls.  I suppose if you were dumb enough to actually swim under the falls, you would get hurt or maybe killed, which is why it is now illegal to swim I the upper pool at all.   It would be hard to get there anyway.   The current pushing out from the falls is very strong and I remember being unable to swim against it – and that was back when I was strong.

Today there is a decent restaurant at the gate to the falls and a paved road that leads all the way there.  The biggest challenge getting there is going through the town of Formosa.  It is not a bad little city, but it is no longer a little city.  The signs directing you to the falls are fairly good.  I would never have found my way through that warren of streets w/o them. 

IMO the drive from Formosa to the falls was worth the trip just by itself.   The Goiás landscape, as I have mentioned in other posts, is very pleasant, especially this time of the year.  Everything is intensely green with beautiful hills in the background.  

This is mostly ranch country with lots of those white, humped Nelore and zebu cattle. This breed came originally from India, but today breeding to adapt them to local conditions has made them essentially a Brazilian breed.  India has the world’s largest cattle herd, but Brazil has the world’s largest COMMERCIAL cattle herd, i.e. they use the cattle for meat.  It is a little ironic, IMO, given the status of these cows in their country of origin.

Surprising Goiás

The boys and I went to Caldas Novas. There are hot springs in the area and a big artificial lake nearby. The neighboring recreational areas include a water park, called Hot Park, lots of other hotels and water-based attractions and a big man-made lake.

We drove through lots of Goiás to get there.  We went down Goiás 139 and BR 010 among others.  These are fairly small roads, so you get to see a lot of countryside. I was surprised. I thought that Goiás was like an extension of Brasilia, that it would be flat and sort of savanna. But there is a lot more different types of landscape. 

Goiás is in the middle west of Brazil and it reminds me a lot of the middle west of the U.S. There is lots of variety, flat plains, rolling country and forest covered hills. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

Above is a planted pine forest. They are now being replaced in Goiás by eucalyptus.  Below another pretty landscape.

Burgers w/o Borders and PD Success

I would call it a public diplomacy triumph & I don’t think it is hyperbole to say so. We held “visa days” in Rio, São Paulo & Brasilia for student going to the U.S. on Science w/o Borders scholarships. There were about 600 served today.  The Brazilian government estimates that they will have sent 1500 to the U.S. by summer and more from then on thousands more.

In Brasilia, we held a big event to talk to them about the U.S. and get them ready to go to the U.S. They will be spread out all over the U.S.  

We called our event “Burgers w/o Borders.” The Ambassador and other American officers cooked and served hamburgers, American style, on a fried on a Webber grill. (I cooked too, as you can see in the picture.) Our goal was to create an American style cookout.

Always I try to learn from our successes as well as our failures and so I have been thinking about this. Getting this first wave of Brazilians to the U.S. only a few months after the Brazilian president announced the outlines of the program is a definite success. In the midst of such success, we need to determine the role of our team. How different would be the outcome if we did things differently? We don’t want to be like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise, but we also don’t want to attribute to luck what was influenced or even shaped by our efforts. You cannot learn from experience if you take credit for everything or take credit for nothing.

Results are important, but the only way to improve is to study the process that went into the results. The challenge is when we study the process already knowing how the story ended.  Knowing the outcome, we work backwards, emphasizing events that seem to have contributed to what we know happened, but may not have done so, may not be duplicable or may not be recognizable in advance. Some people say that hindsight is 20/20, but this overestimates our ability to understand the real processes and underestimates our tendencies to tell good stories and create narratives even where they don’t exist. Our stories usually overestimate deliberate actions of individuals involved, undervalue the importance of interactions among actors and neglect almost entirely the role of random events. We also tend to emphasize our own contributions. This is not only because we are egocentric, but also because information about our own actions is more readily available to us.  With those caveats in mind, I am thinking through the process.

I have written earlier about the larger program, Science w/o Borders. You can read about it here.  I won’t repeat. Let me talk here specifically about our visa days/Burgers w/o Borders, the reception we gave the students that made it an event, marked a transition, and created an impression.

First let me be open about what I think I can take credit for doing (caveats above applying).  I take credit for taking this program seriously and conveying the urgency to colleagues around Brazil.  I knew where we wanted to be. Leadership is intangible in many ways. Big successes or failures often look impossible before they happen, but then inevitable after the fact. By extension the person pushing it sometimes seems nuts before and irrelevant after. That was my role (yes – to seem nuts before & irrelevant after, and I did it well.)  I didn’t let things slip, pushed for success and let everyone know that I would back them up. W/o this leadership, I am convinced we would not have achieved this result. In the bigger picture, w/o the Mission’s consistent, proactive support, I do not believe the students would have gone this semester. We would have had a trickle in the fall semester and it would have seemed to be the natural outcome.    

“My” biggest contribution was putting the right people in the right places and letting them do what they were good at doing. I have been teaching my Brazilian colleagues the use of the word “honcho” both as a noun and a verb.  I use it in a particular fashion.  For me the honcho, or the person honchoing, does what is needed to make something work. He/she doesn’t always have specific power he/she is working with in other cases and has to enlist cooperation through a variety of persuasion and power methods. 

I asked my colleague Lana to honcho the logistics of the program at the Embassy. She did a great job of coordinating the work of others. I think it is important that the big boss (i.e. me in this case) back the honcho, but not be in charge of details. This gives the actual honcho the ability to refer to higher authority and strengthens his/her ability to implement. You would think that having the ability to make the final decision would be strength, but it is often weakness. IMO, we in State often make decisions at too high a level and/or with too much consensus. My father told me that I should never spend a dollar to make a nickel decision. The honcho can make decisions with the cover of the big boss using the resort to higher authority if there are problems (i.e. can say “I would like to do it, but you know how the boss is.”)

(It is very important that if we delegate responsibility, we also need to delegate authority for most decisions and freedom to make them. I hate it when someone gives responsibility and then comes back to second-guess or revisit all the decisions. Good leaders, IMO, add value by asking good questions and sharing experience when appropriate. Bad leaders subtract value by “taking charge” of details or “holding people accountable” while not giving them enough freedom to be responsible.  I am aware that I also suffer those faults and try tread lightly on working systems. I think of good leadership in forestry terms: know the environment; plant the right trees; thin and trim as appropriate; protect them from pests them; give them enough but not too much fertilizer to grow and let the system develop, all the time accepting that it is more complex in its details than you can understand.)

Another important “small” success was giving the program a catchy name. A project with a good name is almost always done better than one w/o one. We chose “Burgers w/o Borders” because it was a lighthearted parallel to “Science w/o Borders”.  It also had the advantage of fitting the program and the beauty of alliteration. In other words, it is easy to say; appropriate and memorable in the sense that it evokes a concrete image.

My colleagues had lots of ideas about making the event memorable in other ways. We had T-shirts and umbrellas to make the pictures memorable. Look at the picture down of the crowd with the umbrellas.  Now imagine it with just a couple people with ordinary clothes and no umbrellas. Look at my picture with the Burgers w/o Borders apron and the cowboy hat. Image makes a difference, doesn’t it?

On the day of the event, we put all hands on deck. There was some redundancy, but you need slack.  Better to have someone standing around unneeded than have someone needed not standing by.

Media was willing to cover the event because it was an event. Our press section colleagues were able to sell the it using the hook of the cookout event. They could promise good visuals and interesting stories from the student.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that Science w/o Borders had been in the news recently. A good PD rule of thumb is that you should not create your own wave when you can catch and ride higher on one that is already coming your way. People are interested in “their” events, not ours. We also encouraged the students to bring and use their cameras and cellular phones. Young people are natural creators on social media, but you need to create opportunities for them. Since Burgers w/o Borders was not in the Embassy proper, security let them keep their devices.

Of course, much of the success was created by others. Our Consular sections all over Brazil were keys to success. They were fantastically cooperative. After all, visa day required visas. As I alluded immediately above, our security folks were also very helpful and flexible. This was a case where we were lucky, lucky to have great colleagues. I really cannot “analyze” that, except to say that keeping colleagues in the loop, showing them respect and understanding their needs is essential in any cooperative endeavor, and this category includes almost all human activities. 

Of course, our Brazilian friends will see it differently. From their point of view, WE are the support activity for their program and they are right. We are supporting their success. They are right too. It is a win all around, enough to go around. 

P.S.  Students arrived on buses and had to line up to get through security.  A line is a great PR opportunity, as all politicians know. You have a captive audience eager for some diversion. I worked the line on the way in, stopping to talk to forty or fifty Brazilians on as individuals. I think this made a great impression on the students. We spoke in Portuguese outside the Embassy and then English inside to show the transition. We joked about the quality of my hamburgers and generally made the personal connection.  I think this is something they will take with them and remember for a long time.  

More pictures at the Embassy Flickr site

How far can a dog run into the woods?

It is like playing an old video game where new monsters and obstacles keep on jumping up.  And just when you think you are done, you find that you have moved up to a new level, where you get to encounter a higher level of more devious monsters and more diabolical obstacles. That is how I feel dealing with getting a few hundred Science w/o Borders kids to the U.S.

President Dilma’s idea was great and historians may see it as a turning point in Brazil’s development. She decided to send 100,000 Brazilian students overseas to study in the STEM (Science, technology, engineering & math) and put the resources and willpower behind the effort. The idea is to train Brazilians for the needs of the successful and more technically advanced country Brazil has become. It is also to open Brazil to the world.  The connections that the 100,000 make will be only the beginning of long collaborations. This is the idea, a beautiful idea, but somebody has to make it so. That task fell to the Ministries of Education and of Science and Innovation. Dilma gave them only a few months to create facts on the ground. And since the first kids were supposed to go to the U.S., it became our task too. It is great opportunity, a once in a lifetime opportunity. But this is where our video game experience started.

Implementation is hard.  Sometimes leaders think it is enough to have a visionary idea, to point the way.  Of course, somebody has to point the way, but there are tough steps on the dim and narrow road to at that bright happy region of the visionary. Of course, it is the unexpected things that trip you up and that old cliché that we should expect the unexpected is just plain useless (you end up in a kind of verbal Zeno’s paradox if you really think about what that means).  The challenge is that the biggest problems are often trivial, the lack of a properly filled out form, not enough slots for the TOEFL tests etc.

My colleagues smoothed out most of these things. The biggest hero, IMO, was the Fulbright Commission, but lots of people’s efforts were necessary, if sometimes not sufficient to get the job done. Many people did their parts when they needed to. I know of many, and I am sure there are others about which I am just unaware, deal busting dilemmas anticipated and overcome.

Our last challenge came this morning and for a while I thought it would finish us off.  IIE told us that we would not have the necessary visa forms for our visa day (when our Brazilian students would all show up at the Embassy and Consulates for their visas and briefings).  In the video game metaphor, this would be meeting the master villain on the last level before you “win”.  I thought it was “game over”. Fortunately, our Fulbright Director prevailed on IIE to send a person with the documents on a plane on Saturday.  I am again optimistic. This is still cutting it close and we are not out of the woods yet.

There is no going back for us and I believe we are coming out.  If we get the visas and briefings out of the way, our work is done – at least until next time.   We (and I speak broadly here to include all our partners, Brazilian & American) will have done what many said couldn’t be done, found, funded, placed, credentialed and deployed the first 600+ students to be followed by thousands more.  The initial condition sets the tone and this initial echelon is good.  We can bask in our glory for a few days, understanding full well that once it is done, everybody will think it was easy and inevitable.   Assuming it gets done.  Those chicks are not yet hatched. 

How far can a dog run into the woods?  He can run in only half way. After that he is running out. 

My picture is from another of our programs. We sponsor English teachers going to the U.S. on a scholarship. Two of the teachers are going to JMU.  I included the picture because it is in the general subject area – English teaching is one of those obstacles we are addressing – but it is here mostly because of the colors. The American and Brazilian flags are beautiful together, aren’t they? Surely there is a lesson there.

Genetic Determinism

I was doing a vanity search on my name.  John Matel is not a common name, so most of the people named that that I found are me.  But those who were not were an interesting group. I found a John Matel who is a forester in Texas, a John Matel who is a wildlife biologist in California and a Larry John Matel in Washington State who writes about water quality issues. I don’t know about all the John Matels, but the Larry John Matel is my second or third cousin.  

Is it just coincidental that so many of us – all of us actually  that I found still alive and with something on the Internet – are doing something related to forestry or environment.  I know that I am drawing spurious conclusions based on limited evidence, but I am going to do it anyway.

Recent studies on heritability of traits indicate that we not only inherit obvious traits such as height and appearance, but also talents and temperaments.  I doubt there is a “forestry gene” but I imagine that the tendency to seek solidarity in nature is probably a personality trait that could be heritable.  Although it could also be a long-term cultural inculcation.

I know my cousin Larry is the descendent of my grandfather’s brother, Felix. Felix and my grandfather Anton came over on the same boat from Poland sometime in the late 19th Century. I also met a cousin in Poland, called Henrich Matel who was descent of a third brother, who stayed in Europe. Henrich told me that his side of the family was very fond of booze, which was pretty much the same as my side. Who knows what other cultural traits and ingrained habits they brought in their baggage. In my generation, we largely conquered the boozing problem, but I notice that my kids have some traits that I recognized in my parents, ones that I do not believe I have. Yet I may have/probably did pass those traits on to them. I have noticed in other relatives that some of the grandchildren resemble and have traits of grandparents they never knew.  

There are transmission mechanisms that transcends time and space. Like my rainbows in the pictures, you can see the end but never get there. How many generations ago did a trait arise?  I can understand how different circumstances could make traits useful, wasteful or even pernicious.  I think of heroes like Davy Crockett or Wyatt Erp.  Imagine guys like that today. Fearless, strong, but never holds a job for very long, likes to wander around and is quick to take action, sometimes violent action. We love “brave, courageous and bold” in theory and in movies, but have little use for it in average life today. Now think of the wimpy guy who stayed at home, never made a name for himself and never became king of the wild frontier. He’s the guy the firms hire.  He is probably better at math than Wyatt or Davy too.

Anyway, I base my essay on some thin evidence. That is why it is an essay and not science. I do things like this. I wonder if my cousins have the same habits. 

My pictures are rainbows on the drive home. Brasilia gets rain and sun at the same time that produce nice rainbows. 

Change comes on little cat feet

I remember when the Soviet Union collapsed. Nobody saw it coming. It even took a while for people to recognize that it did. It went out with a whimper. But soon, everybody claimed that they had foreseen it. We have a game changing change development in energy happening now. The center of energy production is shifting from the Middle East to the Americas. This will be a change almost as important as the collapse of the Soviet Empire. There are other good things happening.

There is good news on both the supply and demand side. The U.S. reached what might be called “peak demand” in 2005; since that time our consumption of oil and declined and is set to continue to decline, as we become more efficient users of oil and shift to plentiful natural gas for many uses.

On the supply side, I have written about the fantastic amounts of natural gas made available in places like New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Oklahoma by new technologies. Government & industry need to agree on sensible regulations that protect environment while filling our energy needs but we need to move ahead. No more blocking progress w/o giving alternatives.

New technologies are also at work with so called “tight oil”. North Dakota has become a major oil producer for that reason. It is a big change.

Beyond that, energy is being discovered or developed in friendly places close to home. Newly developed Canadian oil sands are producing more NEW oil than the total Libyan output BEFORE the revolution. Brazil has discovered vast reserves of oil & gas that may rival that of Saudi Arabia.

Alternatives are developing rapidly. Wind power, especially when coupled with natural gas, is becoming viable in some markets. Wind power’s danger to birds and bats is being addressed. Another promising development is old-fashioned biomass. In some parts of the country, especially the Southeast, wood scraps from forestry and sawmills is already making an important contribution to the energy mix. Research on biofuels is continuing and biodiesel is looking more and more promising.

Many of our new energy sources will be able to hitch rides on rapidly developing techniques in nanotech and biotech. For example, solar panels can be more efficiently made using nanotech, which can allow less expensive materials to be substituted for scarce ones. Biotech will certainly help with things like biodiesel and maybe cellulose ethanol.

I am talking about good news in energy, but there is another area of success … and challenge. Success always come with challenges, otherwise life would be boring.

The guy who came to fix my furnace a while back told me that he couldn’t find a helper willing to train and do the work despite the fact that he could make around $80,000 a year. Now I read about a shortage of skilled blue-collar workers. The American manufacturing-base is twice as big as it was in 1970, but productivity gains mean that many fewer workers are required for the greater production AND the workers left are mostly higher skilled. There just is not much grunt work left.

Since 2009, the number of job openings in manufacturing has been rising, with average annual earnings of $73,000 (reference the above link). Booming American energy production, natural gas in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania and oil in unlikely locations such as North Dakota, are already driving a manufacturing renaissance that is putting a strain on available skilled labor sources.

Americans are resilient. We respond to challenges. I graduated with my undergraduate degree in those dark times of the late 1970s. At that time, many of the experts were writing us off. We were running out of everything, they told us. Nobody would have believed back then how much we progressed in the last few decades.

America’s best days are ahead of us. We don’t need to go back, we can look forward. Despite what the pessimists told me in the late 1970s, my life has been better than my father’s. And despite what the pessimists tell me now, I know that my kid’s will have more choices than I had. We will get through these hard times and when we do all those pinheads currently crying about the end of prosperity will think that they knew it all the time.

References here & here

My title is inspired by Carl Sandburg’s poem, “Fog.” I think it accurately describes change.

THE FOG comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Matters of Fact

People like me like facts. I like to quote John Adams who said. “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Or even more practical from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But facts are not what they used to be. The latter quote illustrates that. It is likely that Moynihan did not say that, or at least he did not originate it.

I was a nerdy kid. I used to read the “World Almanac” and then I would dazzle/baffle/bore my friends with my ersatz erudition. Knowing lots of facts was seen as a sign of intelligence back in the halcyon days of my youth. In the intervening time, however, I have noticed that facts change. Some change is unsurprising. Populations grow and cities change. The facts of these things are ephemeral by nature. But I have seen lots of hard realities change. I used to know a lot about dinosaurs. Many of those facts are now wrong, as are many things I learned about biology, ecology and even physics. Textbooks full of “facts” written in the 1950s are now obsolete and these were supposed to be the hardest of all hard facts, the product of our proud science. Our current “facts” are unlikely to do age any better.

The fact about facts is that they often come with an expiration date and they do not travel well. Brazilians credit Santos Dumont with inventing the airplane in 1906. An airport in Rio is named after him. Americans know the Wright Brothers did it three years earlier. Both things can be “facts” because the fact about facts is that they are usually not facts, but rather constructs that most people in a particular time and place agree should be true. Worse yet, what makes a “fact guy” like me profoundly dejected is that we are leaving the “age of facts” and entering or reentering an age when what we know is more fluid and open to interpretation.

Facts as we know them today cannot exist is a mostly illiterate society and did not really exist at all until the invention of the printing press. Let me be clear. I am not saying that truth did not exist, but facts, in the sense of a checkable specific requires writing. Without something in writing, you have to depend on human memory, which is notoriously mutable. Even when people are trying to tell the whole truth, they will get “facts” wrong. Worse yet, human memory changes in response to changing conditions and requirement. Memory is not like a book or a movie. It is not stored in your brain as a file. Instead, you have to recreate memory each time you want to use it. Past events, present conditions and future aspiration mix, so your memory of things past isn’t only about those things past.

This is why oral history – as history – is not worth the paper it is printed on and also why oral history tends to seem more logical than the real thing and makes a better story. Especially if it has passed through many minds and maybe many generations, the stories have been rationalized and coordinated with prevailing cultural norms. Legends are always more entertaining than the facts.

Thanks to Internet and greater diversity of our populations, we are reentering the age of legend, as opposed to fact. We left the age of legend – at least in the West – when Gutenberg’s invention became widespread. But if printing created the concept of fact, how can the much more widespread use of the equivalent of the printed word destroy it?

The Internet “printed word” is not the same thing as a word on paper. The Internet word is mutable and often anonymous. A printed word on paper has a source that you can find. There is a publisher, who you can trust … or not. Whether or not you trust the source, you can judge it. Furthermore, there are a limited number of publishers. Finally, your book will not change if the author changes his mind. This is not true of other sources.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have changed aspects of “Star Wars” or the Indiana Jones films to fit in better with their later films or with changing societal mores. I saw “Return of the Jedi,” formerly Star Wars #3 now #6 in the eponymous Saga. I remember the original with the ghost of Darth Vader. He was an old, bald guy. Now he is the young long-haired actor who played Darth Vader in the prequels. Lucas claims he had the whole idea thirty or forty years ago and he altered the historical record to support his claim. (The “first” three are really crappy, BTW, and I can well understand why Lucas feels the need to support them any way he can.)

You really cannot tell for sure what they have done if you have no comparison. I rely on my imperfect memory. Others have the concrete “proof” of the picture on the screen. (Ironically, this is exactly what the dystopian totalitarian state did in George Orwell’s 1984. Ingsoc (English Socialism in newspeak) theorized that all knowledge belonged in collective mind of the Party and they have had right to change history as they change their collective mind. “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” Winston’s (the main character) job was to systematically alter the past to fit the current needs of the party. But in those days, he had to physically destroy paper.)

Of course, you still can check in some cases. For example, on a recent episode of “Glee” (which Chrissy likes, not me) I noticed that when they sang “I feel Pretty” from West Side Story, they sang that “I feel pretty and witty and BRIGHT.” In the original, Maria feels “Pretty and witty and GAY.” The word didn’t mean homosexual back then. Modern writers feel the need to go with the PC meaning rather than the dictionary.

On the other hand, I have a copy of the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” that my mother gave to my father before I was born. When I look at those yellowed pages, I am morally certain that nobody has altered a word to make it fit in better with current prejudices.

Most of what the Internet has done to spread information is good, although my own results are mixed. I feel a little less smart today because of it. My encyclopedic knowledge used to be admired. Now my son just tells me that I have “wiki-intelligence” which he can duplicate or surpass on his computer. He is right. But I do worry about matters of fact.

Sometimes on the Internet, I find things that are just wrong. It is especially true when somebody asks a question and then chooses the “best answer”. Sometimes my old books, written and printed closer to the fact in question, tell me a different thing. The Internet makes difficult or almost impossible the formerly reliable, if painstaking, process and analyzing texts. Not only cannot you find the physical source, you often cannot tell where the source comes from and have no way of even guessing whether it has been altered.

I studied historiography many years ago. Those who know what that is, know that it is not history. It is the study of the creation of history. In one of my seminars, we studied Polybius and not only traced back to his sources but also looked forward to historians who used Polybius as a source, sometimes w/o even knowing it. It was a truly fascinating few months and it made an impression on me that lasted (so far) a lifetime. I learned that the weight of sources is less important than their lineage. Some of the most elegant narratives are just not based on reliable sources and it doesn’t matter how popular they are or how logical they sound. They are wrong. If you find the weak link in the source, you don’t have to argue anymore about details. All those analysis that depend on the source are wrong too. Of course, nobody will really believe you if the story is good. The legends are more fun.

Somebody might even “fact check” you using one of those weak link sources.

State Delegations

We have been getting lots of visitors in Brazil. They have to come now, since much activity shut down for the holidays a couple of weeks from now and will not really recommence until after Carnival.  

The most interesting for me was a visit by a delegation from the State of Massachusetts led by Governor Deval Patrick.  Most of the delegation consisted of business people representing high-tech and life-science firms, but there were also representatives of Massachusetts’ universities.  We were happy to see them, since they fit in well with our support for the Ciência sem Fronteiras project.  The universities reps said that they were interested in taking Brazilian students and the Brazilians are interested in going to Massachusetts, so it looks like we have the beginnings of a beautiful friendship.  

Massachusetts is a case study in the value of education. The state has gone through good times and hard times, but it always adapts.  The high levels of education make this much easier.  I gave a short presentation to the group and they were pleased when I called their home a “state of brains” but I was not trying to flatter.  Massachusetts has long been one of the case studies I use when talking about renewal, resilience and the crucial role that education plays in easing transitions.   

Nobody can predict the future with any certainty.  The best plans and most elegant adaptions to current conditions will someday become useless and maybe even dysfunctional when technologies, trade patterns or other relationships change.  Education cannot protect you from change, but it can help you identify trends and develop options to deal with them.  

Habits of the Heart

We had an interesting lunch with CCBEU staff.  Among other things, we talked about the culture of responsibility. It is a common complain among Brazilians that people here expect too much from the government and that the government delivers much too little. Everybody mentions the various corruption scandals that seem to surface with monotonous regularity. I was able to give a little favorable perspective. The Brazil I found when I returned after almost twenty-five years was better in almost every way than the one I left in 1988, I told them. Problems remain, of course. But they are not uniquely Brazilian and, IMO, many can be traced to expectations mentioned above.

I mentioned the work of Alexis de Tocqueville. Any American who has seriously studied our history is familiar with Tocqueville, but his fame doesn’t seem to cross our borders. I explained that Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who wrote about democracy in America in the 1830s. We Americans take lots of what he wrote as compliments; he didn’t always mean it that way. In the America that Tocqueville described, hard work, enterprise and money-making are the rule. Americans, he noted, do not defer to elites, as they still did in Europe. This included, to Tocqueville’s distress, not deferring even to those of “superior talent and intelligence.” America was a dynamic, although maybe a rude place. But the America was more exceptional in the amount of local and personal initiative.

In the Old World, citizens petitioned their government to do things for them. After that they waited for it to happen and complained when it wasn’t done right. Tocqueville observed that in America many of these “government” tasks were taken up by individuals in voluntary, often temporary, association. We formed task forces and committees to address local problems, bringing in government as last resort and even then resorting to government at the lowest level possible. In France at the time, power to make decisions about local roads or building codes would migrate to Paris and the choices made there. In America, they were often not made by government at all and when government was necessary, it was usually the local officials who called the shots.

American tradition of working through voluntary associations has persisted to this day. One of our colleagues said that this is what surprised him when he was on an exchange in the U.S. He gave the example of his host family and all the neighbors getting together to do the dirty work, literally shoveling manure, in the barns at the Indiana State Fair. In most other countries, this just doesn’t happen. At best, people might give money to hire somebody to do it.

I pointed out that government in the U.S. has plenty of problems and petty corruption, but one reason why it has historically been more responsive to the people is that we, the people, ask it to do less. Tocqueville warned of a “soft despotism” in democracies, where citizens vote for politicians who promise to give them things. When people have the habit (Tocqueville called them “habits of the heart”) to do things for themselves in voluntary association with their fellow citizens, it preempts the necessity of government intervention and also preempts the creation of a network of petty rules and regulations that are the bane of existence in the more bureaucratic states. Soft despotism is ameliorated if those voting benefits have to pay for them and even more so if they have to work in their creations.

My life in other countries has, IMO, helped me see America in a more objective way and I think there has been a convergence in the last quarter century. People in many other countries have become somewhat more active in doing things in voluntary association rather than waiting or demanding government action.  I am certainly seeing that in Brazil. On the other hand, America has become more bureaucratized. Government has reached into voluntary associations in ways it did not before, establishing rules and standards that seem to make sense but end up crippling the voluntary impulse.

I read about a recent (Thanksgiving) example where the authorities in New Jersey have imposed various regulations on church-run soup kitchens. People can no longer bring food from home to donate and there are stricter rules on facilities and reporting requirements that will cost more than $150,000.00 a year. You can argue that such regulations are good, but they will have two effects. They will take it out of the hands of people and make another activity the responsibility of the government. In short order, costs will rise. The people who used to get satisfaction from carry out their responsibly as good citizens will resent the taxes and the recipients will get less and lower quality food.

Lawyers are also getting involved. People engaged in voluntary activities are now advised to get liability insurance. We are managing to make good citizenship costly and hazardous to your financial future. When you make things harder or more expensive, you get less of them.

America really was exceptional in the number of things we did voluntarily. Authorities are/were not always welcoming. I recall reading a biography of Ben Franklin, who was the godfather of many good citizenship practices. The local representatives of the king did not always welcome his self-help plans. They considered them subversive and they were right. When people can do things for themselves they become less dependent on the beneficence and largess of the state.

I am glad to see that people in many places around the world are seeing the benefit of acting outside both governmental and the strictly private spheres. People working together in voluntary association is the essence of community. We don’t make friends face-to-face; we make them shoulder-to-shoulder working on common goals. I think it is healthy that they are becoming more like us, even if that means American is less “exceptional”. But I am not healthy that we are becoming less like we were.