Coca-Cola is good for you

Parts of grievance industry are in full assault against Coca-Cola et al.  It is true that Coke can make you fatter. But there is the easy and obvious solution – Diet Coke.  I have been drinking around two liters of Coke every day since I was about seven years old. That makes it a whole half century and roughly 36,000 liters of Coke.  Around ten years ago, my advancing age overtook my quick metabolism. To cut calories I switched to Diet Coke, then Coke Zero. Problem solved.

I am in my eleventh year of Coke Zero, which means more or less 8000 liters. When I was in the Iraqi desert, I drank little water and mostly Coke. It hydrates well and it is a myth that it doesn’t refresh or that it is unhealthy. The only harm it seems to cause is that I have to pay for it, whereas water would be mostly free, although not always.   

If we believe that people are getting fat because of soft drinks sweetened with sugar or corn syrup, we should just get them to switch to calorie free soft drinks. It is hard to break a habit but much easier to substitute one. I didn’t have to give up Coke; I just changed the existing habit.

Drinking mass quantities of Coke has been useful. I don’t get dehydrated. In fact, I credit Coca-Cola with much of my management success. In the classic business book “In Search of Excellence” the authors advocated “management by walking around”. They said that leaders had to get out of their offices and talk to people in the organization. I agree. Drinking lots of Coke reminds me to get off my ass, since I have to go to the bathroom a lot I walk around.

Back when I was in college I had a couple of housemates who were vegetarians. Not only that, they were hostile to the “big food industry” and the reserved a special animus for Coca-Cola, which they identified as a type of devil’s brew. They had several annoying habits. Among them was making mooing sounds when someone ate a hamburger and constantly telling me that Coca-Cola was going to poison me. Since I was in robust health and neither they nor any of their hippie friends (we still had hippies back then) were up to ordinary physical standards, I discounted their advice. When they told me that Coke would kill me, I would ask them when.   

I have come to the conclusion that not only is Coke not bad for you, it has positive health benefits. As I mentioned above, you are always hydrated. I run, ride my bike and lift weights and never have to make a special hydration effort. Beyond that, the mild caffeine dose helps keep you alert all day and more energetic, so you get more exercise, so it is better than plain water.

So let’s praise Coca-Cola, at least in the calorie free forms, and encourage its use.

Forced to buy imaginary fuel

A circuit court vacated the EPA’s cellulosic ethanol mandate that required firms to blend cellulosic ethanol with gasoline or face fines. The problem with this mandate was that zero cellulosic ethanol was produced and firms could not blend it. They were being fined for not doing what could not be done. Even Kafka would be surprised at the brazenness.

The rule originated in a 2007 law that elevates hope over reality. They wanted a fuel that could be produced inexpensively from a waste product. Who wouldn’t. So they figured that they could mandate into existence by government fiat and ruled that refiners MUST blend cellulosic ethanol into gasoline. They created a market for an unavailable product in the belief that they could call it into existence, more or less in the manner of creating wine from water.

This miracle failed to happen. Lots of people talk about cellulosic ethanol, but nobody has been able to make it in any quantity. Or maybe, put another way, it makes much more sense to blend in Jack Daniels or Jim Beam and burn that in our cars and trucks. At least those products are available.

Cellulosic ethanol has been a big disappointment. It should work. It is such a good idea and it would solve so many of our problems. It is a magical solution to our energy needs. The problem with magic is that there is no such thing. As a tree farmer, cellulosic ethanol could be a big deal for me and I have studied the cellulosic ethanol equation in significant depth. I don’t believe it can EVER work, even if a technology is developed that easily converts wood wastes to ethanol. The problem is physical bulk. Raw materials such as forestry waste and corn husks are bulky and they are spread all over the place. Simply gathering it together is a challenge. The problem is moving them to a plant where they could be converted to ethanol and storing them.

If you want to make energy out of wastes such as this, the solution is to burn them directly. Dominion Power is converting some of their coal burning power stations to accept wood chips. This makes sense and I plan to sell chips. It is not as exciting because it is old tech, but it will always be better to convert to energy with fewer steps.

The problem with government experiments is that they cannot easily admit that the experiment has shown it cannot be done. Ethanol from cellulose was a nice idea that was proven impractical by experiment and experience. Give up and move along. There are things we just cannot have, not matter how much we all agree that it should be possible.

Facebook envy

Envy is one of seven deadly sins for good reason.  It harms both the object of the envy and the person feeling it.  And there is no doubt about its power.  Veja reports on a study that shows that Facebook is accentuating envy and making connected people less happy.

It makes sense.  You can feel envious only if you know that others have something you want.  Facebook provides ample raw material for envy by providing outlet for another of the deadly sins – pride.  People write about their successes and their good luck, sometimes about the stuff they acquired.  Of course, envy can be provoked by the mere knowledge that someone seems happier than you are or are getting more attention. Most people think they deserve more than they have, so it is easy to cloak envy in the feelings of injustice.

According to the study, the thing that annoyed people the most by far were pictures of people having a good time while travelling or partying.  Of course, this is one of the most common things on Facebook.

Facebook teaches something that most people know but in the absence of direct evidence can ignore.  It shows us that our experiences are not special.  No matter where you go or what you do, somebody has been there and done that already.  We are not wired for this revelation.  In a small group, the kind we lived in for most of human history, each of us can be unique. Get enough people together, however, and we start to look like statistics.  It is unsettling.  

It is worse in Facebook because it is more personal than mass media. If you read about it in the paper, it is them; Facebook is us.  We feel it more personally when we think we know the people.

I recall an old advertisement that showed a professor telling his class that they could not all get published because of the tyranny of the publishers. A student stood up and explained the publishing potential of the Internet and that they could all be published. Social media – the Internet in general – let’s everybody be published. We all have the freedom to talk and write. But the numbers of readers and listeners has not increased. Frustrated authors can now publish, but they remain frustrated because nobody reads. I also recall a note written in a computer lab when they still had those big mainframes and card readers.  It said, “To err is human, but to really mess up you need computer support.”  Social media magnifies individual reach but also accentuates defects.

Paper or plastic

We have been using the same shopping bags for around fifteen years.  We bought a bunch at Giant.  I think they are made out of recycled plastic for Coca-Cola bottles, so it is appropriate.  I use them because I don’t want to waste plastic bags, but mostly because they are much more convenient.  I can stuff in five or six 2 liter bottles of coke in each one w/o worrying that they will break and send everything crashing to the ground.

I am not sure how much pollution my shopping bags avoid. Plastic bags are bad for the environment, although banning them for shopping may not have much of a positive effect.  Lots of people use the bags for garbage. If they don’t have the plastic shopping bags, they buy plastic garbage bags.  Paper shopping bags cause no net harm to the environment, at least in America, since they are produced with a renewable resource and are biodegradable.  As I wrote in other places, paper is produced from thinning.  If forest owners cannot earn money from this, they cannot afford to thin and forest health is adversely affected.

Lately I read of another permutation.  The reusable bags get dirty and may carry pathogens. I don’t know about that.  I am not sure that I can wash my recycled plastic bags. I will try one. 

Banning plastic bags may cause more plastic to be used, as I explained above. Not using paper may harm forest health and reusing the same bags can make you sick. Nothing about the environment is simple.

Immigration world turned upside down

Things have changed and the verities that have ruled our world since before any of us can remember do so no longer. In the course of just a few years, the immigration equation has changed because the demographic variable is very different. Birthrates are dropping all over the world and populations are aging. We have taken for granted that the U.S was a magnet for immigrants and our challenge was keeping out the excess. Our challenge now will be getting productive ones in.

Fertility rates (the number of children a woman can expected) have dropped in Mexico and Latin America and once the current demographic bulge is passed Mexico will have a lower growth rate than the U.S. does. The massive flow of immigration from south of the border is stopping and will never resume.

I wrote a longer note re Brazil a few weeks ago

What about other sources? Who would ever have believed that China would have a labor shortage, but it is on the way. This year for the first time in history China’s working age population shrunk. This will now to be trend for a generation. The number of 15-24-year-olds will shrink drop very quickly, by 38m, or 21%, over the next decade.

Europe and Japan long since entered this demographic decline. Deaths in many places are exceeding births and populations in Japan, German & Russia, among others, are actually shrinking already. I recall the gloomy symmetry in a school in German that had been converted to an old folk’s home. One old lady explained that she had gone to school there as a child and would die there.

There are places in the world were populations are still growing, principally in Africa and the Middle East, but even here the rates of growth are falling fast. Of course there is a difference between dropping rates of growth and dropping population, but the one portends the other.

Let’s be clear. Total population will continue to grow worldwide, but at a slowing pace until it begins to decline in absolute numbers near the end of the century. What affects us in particular is the diminishing rate of growth and where it happens. The world is growing economically and there is a shortage of skilled and semi-skilled labor already. If/when our own country resumes its robust growth, we will be in competition with others for this shrinking pool of workers.

This is a paradigm shift. America has always had the choice. We could accept immigrants or keep them out but there was always a rising tide of huddled masses yearning to be free in America. Now we’ve got competition. We are no longer the only game in town.

There is no such thing as destiny, but the thing that comes closest to it is demography. The workforce of 2025 is already born. We cannot make more if we need them. All we can do is move the ones we have and they will have more options than before.

Brasília Days

It rained for four days w/o stop. Sometimes it rained little less and sometimes it poured really hard. I walked to the grocery store on Sunday while it rained only enough to make you feel a little damp, but I don’t think it stopped raining completely for a full hour during those four days.  Today it rained too, but it didn’t rain all day.   In fact, the sun came out strongly.  While I was eating lunch, outside but under a roof I saw it rain a little, rain a lot, become very sunny and then rain again.  In other words, today was more like the “usual” summer weather here.  This time of the year in Brasília, it usually rains every day but not all day. “Todos os dias, mas não o dia todo,” is the phrase I learned in Portuguese.

The four days before today were rainier than usual, but the weeks before were dryer.  It rained only a couple times a week, which is strange.   It was sunny and it got a little hot during the middle of the day.  But the temperatures in Brasília are nearly perfect.  It gets down to around 65 at the coldest and never more than 90, w/o much humidity.

Brasília is pleasant, although the original design is not conducive to things like walking, biking or generally being a human not sitting in a car.   It improves as you get away from the original plan, but the parts of the city are disconnected.  Riding my bike to work, even during the dry season, takes significant commitment.  The city represents what some intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s thought the future would look like.  It is purposely car dependent and unfriendly to pedestrians and bikes.  There have been some improvements, but it is hard to fix the core of the city because of various protective rules.  Lago Sul where I live is better than the planned city and there is a nice bike lane along the main road, but it tends to end where cars merge and it is dangerous at these points.   In general the places where you can more or less ride safely are separated by nearly impassible stretches.   When I ride to work, I use some sidewalks, where there are sidewalks.  After that, I have to cross a bridge on a “sidewalk” about three feet wide, then ride on the grass, pass as quickly as I can under an overpass, then get off the bike and run up a grassy bank.  I finally get to the end of a road that leads to the Embassy.   The way home is a little easier.  I take the back road to one of the main highways at a point that features one of Brasília’s few stop lights.  When the light turns red, I run across the street – RUN across the street before the traffic catches up with me.  If you are not quick you will be dead.  On the other side of the big road, I ride through a series of parking lots until I come again to my bridge and the way home.

The sad thing is that it could have been such a great city.  With this marvelous climate and mostly flat topography, Brasília would be the perfect place for sidewalk cafes, bike trails and tree lined boulevards. Brasília is still a nice place in spite of the plan.  It could be fairly easily improved with a few pedestrian crossings and sidewalks and trails.  

My pictures show some of the pleasant little places on my walk to the grocery store.  As I wrote, Lago Sul is nicer than the center city, but it is still designed such that there are lots of dead end streets.   I think the trees with the spikes on the trunk are floss silk trees. My pictures show some of the pleasant little places on my walk to the grocery store.As I wrote, Lago Sul is nicer than the center city, but it is still designed such that there are lots of dead end streets.I think the trees with the spikes on the trunk are floss silk trees.

Time enough for resting when the job is done

One of my favorite movies is “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray.  It is an old movie now; maybe you could call it a classic.  The lead character – Phil Connors – relives the same day – February 2 Groundhog Day, over and over thousands of time.   No matter what he does during the day, he wakes up in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania at 6:00 am on February 2 to a clock radio playing Sony and Cher “I got you babe” and nothing has changed.  Nobody except Phil has any memory of the past experience. He gets to move to the next day only after he gets the endlessly repeating Groundhog Day just right.  He starts making better connections among the people of the town fitting into their lives and helping them.  Finally he feels he has done the best he can and the next time he wakes up it is February 3.  I saw the movie dozens of times and probably read too much into it, but the reason I like it so much is that it made me think about pursuing excellence.

Way back in my classical education days, I was enamored with the Stoic philosophy.   I read Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” in Greek class (although mostly on the English side of the Loeb Classic, I admit) and studied how Stoicism influenced Western thinking in general.  What I took away was that you accept your task, do your duty, not expecting necessarily to get credit or even to succeed.  You cannot control what happens to and around you, but you can control your response.  It is more complicated than this but IMO “Groundhog Day” tends to follow the outlines of Stoicism.

In the end, it is not so much about what Phil does as what he becomes.  He realizes that perhaps he cannot change the things that happen around him, but he can change and improve himself; control his own responses to the circumstances and in that way find his own place and control his own destiny.  When he achieves excellence, and lives the perfect day, he can move to the next step.   

Foreign Service life can be like “Groundhog Day.”  We go to assignments in different places but lots of things are the same.  I often had the feeling that I am reliving the same experience.  I do the same things and apply similar strategies and sometimes I feel like I have not really made any progress.  Things seem pretty much the same after I leave as they were before I arrived.  Each time, however, I hope that I can learn something and do better next time.  I always joke that it is better to be lucky than smart, but joke or not it is true that much depends on circumstances.  You have to adjust to the environment and its particular opportunities and threats. Sublime plans executed by superb teams can fail in an unfavorable environment and poorly planned and executed plans can succeed when things are just right.  You have some control in that you can sometimes choose the environment where you will act, but not always and things will change, often in unexpected ways.  Today’s royal road to success may be tomorrow’s path to perdition. Brazil may be the last day in my “Groundhog Day” saga and I think this time it will be the perfect day, or at least as near perfect as possible in this imperfect world outside the world of movies. Circumstances are great. Our Brazilian friends want many of the same things we do in the key area of educational exchanges and they are willing to put resources behind their aspirations.  This opportunity arrived almost exactly the same time I did and it made education and related institution linkages the theme of my time here.  My team in Brazil is as good as I could get.  I am halfway through my time here and things have worked out much better than I expected or predicted.  My problem has been too many opportunities.  I have had the luxury of taking choosing from among them. This is harder than it seems, since I have to turn down good proposals, but it is better than the alternative.

In fact, sometimes I am tempted to look for a reason to flee Brazil early so that I can quit while I am ahead, before my Royal Road turns into perdition’s highway.   I am afraid my luck won’t hold.  But then I think again about the Stoicism.  My job is not done.  I need to persist until the end, take the sweet with the bitter. Besides, sneaking out early is not a realistic option and I am reasonably certain I can hold it together.   

Most other jobs I could get would be a letdown anyway.  I cannot think of a better place to work as a public affairs officer, no place I would rather work and no time I would rather be doing it. In public affairs, this is the chance of a generation in Brazil.   I always tell people that five years ago would have been too soon and five years from now might be too late and I believe it.  The connections we help create between the American and the Brazilian people shape relations between our countries for the rest of my lifetime and beyond.  It is too important to let it go before I have done everything that I can do.

My picture up top is a posed picture of us in front of a group of Brazilian English teachers who will go to a variety of U.S. universities to learn to teach English better. Two years ago, we sent twenty.  Last year we sent fifty.  This year we will send 1080. This is an example of the opportunities.  Our Brazilian friends want to send them and pay for their tuition.  U.S. institutions are happy to have them and we (the Mission) facilitate the connection.  All of us “suits” look alike, don’t we?

My bike trails (again)

Biking is a big part of my life.  I use my bike as transportation, mostly to work but also in general.  My parents never owned a car.  This made me dependent on feet and pedals.  I got used to it.  I really dislike driving in the city, although I like the highway when there is not much traffic.  This condition is becoming less and less common.

Nevertheless, Brasilia is a challenge.  It should not be.  Brasilia’s great climate and even topography should make it the ideal place for bikes, but as I wrote many times before, the basic design is bad.  The city was designed for an earlier time and an ideology that was more interested in cars than people or the environment. 

Still, I persist in riding my bike, even if I have to ride on the grass a lot.  My bridge, however, is can sometimes be a challenge, as you see above. I am a little concerned that I have become so used to this sort of obstacle that I am a little contemptuous of the challenge. I ride right past holes like that. Someday, I could get stuck in the holes or fall in the river.  But not today.

I have great confidence that Brasilia will someday be a superb city for bike riding. It can be retrofitted with trails and, as you see above, they have begun.  Unfortunately, that trail doesn’t really go anywhere.  It is recreational, not useful for commuting.  It spills into a road and a parking lot, as you see below.  There is not much traffic on a Sunday during the holiday season, when I took the picture, but less pleasant other times. The problem is that much of the poor design was intentional on the park of the designers and has been seen as a heritage issue that shouldn’t be changed. I suppose this too will change. 

Success in Public Diplomacy

If a survey tells me that more Brazilians have a favorable view of the U.S. on the day that I am done here than they did on the day I arrived, I don’t care. I won’t take credit for that. Conversely, if we find that opinions have declined, don’t blame me. In either case, my effort is like tossing a bucket of water into the Pacific Ocean and expecting to be credited or blamed with next year’s weather conditions. Let me say plainly that I don’t think that our public affairs efforts can have a substantial and sustained effect on which country is most popular or favorability ratings, the kinds of things measured by surveys. Furthermore, I think measuring such things is nothing more than an expensive game, with results that are often not statistically valid and usually not substantively valid either.  

So, what good are we and why don’t I just go home?  I think we are very effective at improving things that really matter. We do lots of useful things that build specific relationships and create long-term cooperation and – yes – in the long-term more favorable attitudes generally. But the road to this bright happy region is poorly blazed and full of curves. If I am honest, I can almost never be sure that our efforts produced the good result and the bigger the result, the more uncertain.  

This makes perfect sense if you think about it for more than a minute. Our success almost always stems from effective partnerships. We attract partners by identifying mutual interests, shared values and common goals.  If we are good at partnership building, we will attract lots of helpers, all pulling in our direction, but doing so autonomously, using their own imagination, innovation and intelligence to get the job done. And if we are doing our jobs right, we cannot closely control this process.  If we try, to micromanage things we will lose the benefits of our partners’ innovation and imagination, and we often lose the partners too. Nobody likes people who boss them around. 

How do you measure who did what when the favorable outcome results from the synergy of so many partners, some of whom are not working directly with us, not to mention the effects of good luck (which you really cannot control) or good timing (which is a kind of luck you can influence)?  The further permutation is that the effort itself is complex. 

I make a big deal about drawing the distinction between something that is complicated and something that is complex. An old fashioned watch is complicated.  It has lots of parts that need to fit together and work together.  If one part stops working, the whole system stops working, but as long as you keep things working according to the plan and in good repair, you can expect precise results. Complexity adds that variable that the components change, evolve and adapt in relationship to each other. An ecosystem is complex. Complex systems are both more robust than complicated ones and less predictable. If you remove a key part in a complicated system, it stops working and if you add a new part, it is probably simply redundant. If you remove a key part in a complex system, the other parts adapt to the change. It may weaken the system OR it may strengthen it.  Sometimes subtracting effort is better than adding it. In a complex system, a new component will be integrated in and will not long remain redundant, as it would in a complicated system. 

All human systems are complex. Public affairs is more complex than many because of the dominance of people and forces outside the direct control of the public affairs professionals. In easy conditions, we could say we help manage an “external staff;” in most cases we are dealing with the ambiguity of not knowing who we are “managing.”  Measuring complicated systems is simple in theory if not always easy in practice.  If you identify the parts, they either work as they should or not. Complexity is harder because you cannot properly identify all the parts and they are in states of constant change and adaptation. 

Figuring out where our influence starts and ends is hard. I don’t want us to brag like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise, but I also don’t want to ignore our significant influence on events. 

In many things, our input is necessary but not sufficient. For example, I am morally certain that the 1080 secondary school teachers of English in the CAPL program would not be going had it not been for our active intervention.   But our Brazilian friends are paying for them, the State Secretaries of Education are choosing them, RELO identified schools,  Fulbright did much of the logistics, WHA did the paperwork for visas, our Consular sections actually did the visas quickly, IIE did the placements  and, of course, the teachers are going.  Speaking of complexity, all of us above have influenced each other and our program is very different – and better – than originally envisioned. 

Falling back on my habitual agricultural/forestry metaphors, who is responsible for the apple harvest?  Is it the person who picks the fruit, the one who sprays the flowers, the one who cares for the trees, the one who plants the trees, the one who identified the field for planting or maybe even the long gone beaver whose dam created the rich soil of the meadow?  Not all contributed equally, however, and some would be interchangeable, i.e. somebody else would or could have easily done it.  

Anyway, regarding credit taking and giving, I was thinking of a kind of reverse Bayesian approach, with conditional probabilities used for influence. For example, in the CAPL program, we (USG controlled people and resources) perhaps contributed 45% to the probability of success. As those teachers come back to Brazil and influence thousands or millions of Brazilians, our relative share of the credit will diminish as other factors play a bigger role, but as the total size of the influence is so much greater, ours will remain a growing contribution. We are in relation to the results what the guys who planted the apple trees are to the subsequent harvests. 

I am not really that fond of the Bayesian analysis in these cases, but it produces nice looking charts and graphs and it has numerical aspects that satisfy bean counters.  IMO,  we really are back to the ancient art of telling the story and making subjective judgments about our own role in success (or failure) and that of others.