Keeping Busy

I have not written much for a while.  We have been unusually busy in the office.  What have I been doing?  

We have had visits by important people like the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. This sucks in more people and time than you might think. I remember when Secretary of State Eagleburger came to Norway back in the 1990s.  This was my first SecState visit. He came with a few people. We didn’t have to spend a lot of time preparing for the visit. He knew his business and was not much interested in VIP treatment. I tried to give him some talking points. As near as I can recall his response he said, “I don’t need these things; I make them up.” Suffice to say that it is not like this anymore.  

Of course Eagleburger is a special case. He is the only career FSO ever to be Secretary of State.  If that is not enough reason to revere him, he was born in Milwaukee, went to school in Stevens Point and got his degree from the University of Wisconsin.  

Another thing that has been taking time is writing fitness reports. I wrote my own (we write our own first page), those of my key staff and reviewed those from our consulates. Since I had experience on promotion panels, colleagues have asked me to help with theirs. I tried my best. I work with really great people and when I read their accomplishments I feel much honored to be in this group.   

Writing the reports is one of the most important things I do. Good people should get what they deserve.  But I really hate the software we have to use to file the reports.  It is complicated and troublesome. I never met anybody who actually likes it.  It is not intuitive. You spend several hours learning how to use it each April and then don’t use it for a year and have to relearn it next time.  But we cannot seem to get beyond it. We used to have a simple Word document that you could fill in. It took a few minutes. But a couple years back, they started to make us use this thing called e-Performance.  It transforms a few minutes of work into hours or even days of wresting with the kind of software everybody thought was obsolete in back in the 1990s.   

I should not complain. I am very lucky to work in this place, at this time with these people. There is no place I would rather work. I don’t have any unfulfilled career ambitions.  Promotion for me would be an honor, but it isn’t very important to me. I am not angling for any job beyond the one I have now. My goal in taking the job as PAO in Brazil was to pursue excellence. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but I just wanted to get it really right before my time was done.  This time I felt that I could really devote my full attention. I always thought that if conditions were right,  I could produce excellence. Conditions are excellent; me … still not so much. It is humbling to come up against the limitations.  

Pigs, Chickens and Human Beings

Only about 2.5% of the population can multitask but many more think they can and even more try. This is a source of grief and even physical danger, when people talk on cellular phones while driving, for example. Lack of focused attention is diminishing the quality of our decision making as a society.

I have to do a lot of my work at home because I cannot get time to concentrate at work. Some of the “interruptions” are important. Interacting with coworkers is the essence of work in the age of the knowledge worker. I have observed and research indicates that people who insist on “working” to the exclusion of interaction with co-workers are less productive. That time at the water cooler can be an essential time to exchange information and assess capabilities.

Much, however, is dumb. People react too quickly. Instead of thinking for themselves, they send emails, call or send instant messages. Pretty soon dozens are in on a decision that should have been made by one person. The benefit of collective knowledge rarely outweighs the inefficiency of collective thinking if nobody has come up with decent questions. Beyond that, if you count up the salary time you are paying for the dozens of kibitzers, you usually find that the total cost of making a poor decision would be less than the time spent trying to make a perfect one. That assumes that the collective decision is better, which it often is not.

I am making it my business to limit these kinds of things to the small extent that I can. Edmund Burke said “If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” I am adapting that saying to meetings and activities in general. “If it is not necessary to meet/consult/act, it is necessary not to meet/consult/act. We have way too many good things to do and cannot waste time on crap that seems urgent because lots of people clamoring, but is may not be important. The most important thing I can do is decide which things we are not going to do.

Sometimes this can be an easy decision. Some things are just clearly not worth doing. The only trouble here is just saying no. The harder choices involve things that are very important or very worthy but not our business, not within our skill set or beyond our control. Focus is important. Since we cannot do everything, we need to focus on those things that only we can do, that we can do better than others or things we need to do to survive. We need to reject other things. It is malpractice to get involved in too many things we cannot properly do. The most important thing around might be curing a deadly disease, but we are not qualified to act in this sphere, so it is stupid to get involved. We would add no value and probably get in the way. More is not always better.

One of the wisest human characteristics is restraint. We should not take as much as we can. Leave something on the table. We should be careful not to overextend too often. We should judge ourselves and others by what we really do, not by intentions, bold plans or promises.

There are times when our reach should exceed our grasp. People who never fail are people who haven’t tried hard enough. But we need to focus our effort on what we do well and let others carry forward the other things. I have never met a successful person or heard about a successful organization that just played it safe and staying within the comfort zone. But I have also never heard of a successful person or organization that could not decide and stick to reasonable priorities.

The media and especially the Internet allow us to gain a superficial knowledge of lots of things. We think we understand more than we do. It has also created an immediacy that makes us think we should be interested in many things. We hear exhortations that we should be committed to lots of causes. This is not true. It is beyond our capacity. In the wise words of Clint Eastwood, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

We can be interested in lots of things, involved in some but we can commit only to a few. Remember the difference between being committed, involved and interested when you have your bacon and egg breakfast. You are interested; the chicken is involved; the pig is committed.

Most of the time we should play the role of the human, i.e. be interested. Sometimes we should play the chicken, i.e. be involved. We should avoid having our ass on the line, like the pig, unless we are really prepared.

Rock-Paper-Scissors Solution

I was talking to a group of visiting college professors today about why the academy has seemed to become more distant from society. The irony is that years ago, when universities really were places of the elite, they were better respected and integrated than they are today. What the heck happened and how can we get back to the way it was? I think some of the problem is admissions.  

When I grew up in Wisconsin, we considered the university “ours”, even though nobody in our working class neighborhood had actually been to college. Our outlook was forward looking. Parents expected that their kids could go there. In those days, if you were alive and lived in Wisconsin, you had an excellent chance of getting into the flagship university in Madison and a nearly 100% chance of getting into a university somewhere in the system. 

This was a good thing for me because I was pretty stupid.  I was “disadvantaged,” in that I didn’t study. No decent university would let me in today, but back then they did. After a while, I learned the system, studied and did well in school and subsequently in life. I messed up many times, but America is the land of many chances. Or at least it was. 

Today admissions process is crazy. It cuts people off from the university. It creates a wall that most people know they cannot jump. Even ordinary state schools require nearly perfect academic records plus all sorts of outside activities. What 18-year-old can live up to this? The ones with parents who create and mold the resume from the time they are born or maybe even before. This creates tension in the whole system, makes parents worry that their three-year-old isn’t getting the proper stimulus, encourages legions of doctors to prescribe drugs that quiet rambunctious kids & drives teachers nuts teaching to tests. And it doesn’t improve quality. How can we stop the madness? 

I have a couple suggestions. We have to remove the incentives.  How? The first is open admissions. This works with community colleges. Many states are expanding sensible programs where students of community colleges can get automatic admissions to four year colleges after successfully completing their associate’s degree with a 3.00 average. This lets kids earn their way into college instead of having to make the once in a lifetime jump that can determine their futures. 

My other suggestion is to allow a little more random chance. Top colleges often have several times as many qualified applicants as they do places. They spend a lot of time trying to judge the “whole person” which is something they really cannot do. Edison, Einstein, Churchill and many other great individuals were indifferent students. I have a simple solution. 

Universities should establish threshold requirements, i.e. qualifications. It might be things like adequate English and math ability, experience in science etc. Better universities can establish higher thresholds and specific programs would have their own. Universities could publish these requirements in advance and interested students could work to meet them. At this point, the student would not be compared to each other. They would make the cut or not on standards determined before any applications had been received. This would probably produce many more applicant than the university could accept. After that, rely on random chance; hold a lottery; do a random number; I like rock-paper-scissors. Whatever works. Make the process completely transparent. Students could be told the odds, which would give them a better chance of predicting outcomes than they have today. 

Consider the advantages of my “rock-paper-scissors” solution. 

1. It is very cheap. It doesn’t require big boards of experts.

2. It is simple. Kids would not need to spend hours fighting with complicated applications and assembling all sorts of portfolios.

3. Randomness eliminates bias.  A roll of the dice is fair. Dice have no memory nor can they be affected by prejudices unconscious or overt. Random chance recognizes neither race, gender nor creed.

4. It will increase real diversity. The outcomes will reflect the populations from which they are chosen.

5. It will introduce new sorts of people and ideas. One of the values of diversity is that it helps groups make better ideas. Studies have shown that groups of experts do a better job if the group contains some variety, even if the variety means someone less prepared. 

It is time we gave up this crazy idea of classification and abandoned the idea that we can accurately predict outcomes. A little randomness is good. We cannot avoid it anyway and should take advantage of it. It will make us all better off. 

Using the tools of randomness works in lots of life’s decisions, BTW. We should always do our homework, but at some point we have all the information that we can reasonably gather. Additional gathering will not help and may actually hurt. After you have gone as far as logic and research can take you, a coin flip is as good anything else and better than wasting time on the arrogant idea that you can figure out all the angles. 

Consulate will Reopen in Porto Alegre

I got to go to Porto Alegre to tell the Gauchos that we were going to reopen the consulate in Porto Alegre. Well, not really inform, confirm. Everybody who might care already knew. It had leaked in Washington and was becoming general knowledge. Nevertheless, confirmation was appreciated. I got to do print, radio and TV. They appreciated my enthusiasm and previous connections to Porto Alegre. Mariza being born there was a big hit.

I did the usual public affairs work besides this.  The Federal university did its first CONX program.   They gathered about a dozen students to talk about U.S. elections with an American expert.  Universities in Santa Catarina, São Paulo, Pernambuco and Roraima also participated, presumably with similar gatherings.  

I spoke with deans at the Federal University about connections with American universities.  We agreed that so much is happening that it is hard to keep track.  It is an embarrassment of riches. But we have to get a handle on it.  It is great when professors set up cooperation or exchanges, but the key to happiness is sustainability.  We need champions to get things rolling but we need institutional relationship to keep it moving.

My last stop was the law school. They are working on investment laws. I didn’t know, but they told me, that Brazil has no bilateral investment treaties. This obviously is not a crippling impediment to investment, since there is a lot of it here and American firms have been investing in Brazil for hundreds of years.  But it does add to uncertainty and creates unnecessary risk. Until recently, the Brazilians were not very interested in the idea of investment agreements, but now that Brazilian firms are making big investments elsewhere, interest is growing. We (in this case the Consulate in São Paulo) will probably participate in a program on investment law in September.

In the evening I had churrasco with Elio Lee, a friend from my first time in Porto Alegre. We have both grown older, but after a little while we found that we had not changed all that much. 

Porto Alegre has really improved. I was not bad before, but today it has become a truly pleasant town.  The neighborhood where we once lived, moinhos de vento, was a nice place back then. Today it is positively great, with lots of nice little shops and restaurants within minutes of our old apartment. You can see our old street, Rua Santo Ignacio, and a nice beer restaurant in the pictures. We could have bought the condominium apartment for around $60,000 back then. Today it would cost millions. We missed that boat. Of course, back then we didn’t have money to invest anyway.

Joy of Forestry

This is my contribution to the next issue of Virginia Forests.  It is based on some earlier posts, but is arranged in a different way.  I have the joy of writing the article for the Tree Farm in each issue.  Below is my article.

If you want to grow longleaf pine, you need fire. Longleaf is a fire-dependent species. And we want to grow longleaf pine.  That is why we clear-cut five acres when we did the thinning winter last year.  After that, we sprayed to get at the poplars, which had grown from roots. In December we burned.  One of my friends got some longleaf seedlings that went in this spring. Other friends made fire lanes with their tractor.  I say “we” but I really mean them. All this happened while I was working at my “real” job outside the country.

I am the luckiest man in the world. People always help.  Together we are creating a demonstration forest in Brunswick County. It will showcase best forestry practices for this part of Virginia. The land includes already a wonderful stand of loblolly.  We will apply different silvicultural practices (various thinning densities, fire, herbicide treatments etc.) to show the different results.

The longleaf are near the edge of their range in southern Virginia, so it is less certain. If the climate changes, however, the range may move north. Longleaf once grew all around the South. Today they are less common because they are harder to grow than loblolly. That is why the State of Virginia is helping us grow them.  Longleaf require fire to grow well and are hard to establish. Once established they are great trees. The caveat is the long needles (hence the name long leaf). Ice storms can weigh down the branches and cause damage.  Individual longleaf are beautiful trees and a vigorous stand of longleaf is even more beautiful. I won’t live long enough to see my trees mature, but I hope to enjoy their vigorous adolescence.

My experience with forestry in Virginia has greatly exceeded my expectations. Owning forest land had long been one of my dreams and forestry fits well with my full-time job working as a Foreign Service Officer. I move from a lot.  I started in Brazil and worked in Norway, Poland and Iraq during the war. Now I am back in Brazil. Forests provide roots – literally – in my nomadic existence. I move; my forest abides. I would have a place to come back to, where I could watch developments over the years. This was my dream, at least, but I never thought it would come true.  I finally managed to buy some land on my fiftieth birthday, back in 2005. I thought I knew more than I really did. I read a lot of books. This was not enough. I was also a little out of my element in rural southern Virginia. I was born and raised in the urban environment of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  When I think back on my land “adventure” it seems pretty dumb. I clearly was in over my head. I was saved by the kindness of strangers who became friends.  

Local people gave me advice; hunt clubs assisted with land management; forestry officials were helpful; Boy Scout troops wanted to make trails; Tree Farm gave me management goals and there were lots of inexpensive seminars on everything from timber selection to wildlife management.

All I had to do was let people share my dreams and they contributed time and more importantly local knowledge and forestry expertise. Sophisticated people say that people like me are naïve, maybe so.  I believe in win-win outcomes and I don’t care if it sounds cliché. The secret of joy is finding ways to give people what they want in the framework of what you want. Maybe I don’t “maximize profit”, but I am morally certain that I get more than I would in other ways. I find that joy in my forestry and in the friendly people of Virginia.

I just could not do forestry without all the help I get.  I am neither smart enough nor rich enough to make it happen alone. My friends get to use my land for hunting and other recreation, but they use it in ways that I want it to be used. What is important to me is that my trees are growing robustly; that the water that runs off the land is clear; that the soil is getting better; and that wildlife abounds. I get all this. I get to watch the trees grow as long as I live and leave it to the kids.  Is there anything else anybody could reasonably want? Maybe a horse when I get too old to walk around comfortably, but that would be another story.