End of the trail

I thought about keeping this in my private journal, but I think it is a problem common enough that maybe I should write something more public. It might be of interest to the FS community.  IMO, this is a subject extremely interesting to many people, but one we talk about obliquely or not at all.  Lots of my colleagues are in similar positions and more generally this applies to CS and all old guys. I also feel confident in writing since I feel generally successful and not aggrieved and I am looking at the development it with surprising indifference.

I didn’t get promoted this year. I figured my chances were 40-60 against and I lost the toss. At my rank, promotions don’t mean much more money and there are very few practical advantages other than the honor of it all. There are good things, as I will explain, but first a little background.

Our FS system gives us time limits within our grades.  A “normal” career will last about 27 years and the person will honorably retire at the FS-01 level, a rank equivalent to an army colonel. To survive longer, you have to jump to the senior FS, which I did in 2007.  After that, you get six years to make it to the next grade.  I got a little extra time, since they gave me credit for the year I spent in Iraq and Congress didn’t get around to ratifying my promotion until 2008.  Anyway, I can keep my job until January, 2016, when it is “hit the road Jack” and I have to retire.

This is not a bad thing. I will be sixty.  I have been eligible to retire since 2005 and I have been “kinda meaning” to retire and do something else, but I hung on because the FS was fun and I felt like I was contributing.  My finest hours were my service in Iraq and now doing extraordinary things in Brazil.  These came after I could have retired and leaving those songs unsung would have been a shame. Of course, I would not have known what I didn’t achieve.  Now, however, I don’t think there is much left for me.  I think that the job I am doing in Brazil is the best I can do. Future assignments would be coming down from the peaks. 

So how is the lack of promotion good news?

This was probably my last chance for promotion.  As I said above, I did the best I could in Brazil and the reports that my Ambassador and DCM wrote reflected that. Ambassador Shannon wrote something so good for for me that I would certainly be too embarrassed to write for myself.  It won’t get better. If that is not enough, I am out of luck. I don’t want to be a DCM or a DAS, so PAO Brazil is as good as it gets for me, but evidently not good enough. It is still a little ways off, but I now can see clearly the end of my FS road.  

If I was not forced out, I would think of excellent reasons to hang around like a fart in a phone box.  I would not leave, but my usefulness would have peaked.  We have people like that at State.  They are ghosts of their former glory.  It is sad and not for me.  You should always leave when they still want you to stay.

When I talk of retiring, I don’t mean to do nothing. I still feel energetic and will find a good job where I can still do something good. I will have the luxury of taking a job that means something to me w/o having to worry too much about the salary & benefits. My forestry enterprise could use some attention and I have lots of personal things to do before I take that final road to glory.

So life is good.  I still feel little pangs of pain for not being on the promotion list.  At this point in my career a promotion is a “positional good,” i.e. you want it because not everyone can have it and you have the “why not me?” question when you see people you think are less worthy.  Having served on promotion panels myself, I can answer that question truthfully in ways that need not make me angry or sad.  Some is just the luck of the draw.  Promotions are statistically valid in that the better people tend to do better, but there are lots of anomalies in both directions, as well as more people who could be promoted than can be.  I also admit that I have certain personality traits not immediately appreciated by the bureaucracy.  I consider them mostly good and if I have not changed them up until now, I sure won’t be doing any major renovations at this late point.

I will go gentle into that good night with no raging.  It will be going on 32 years by the time it is done, hard to believe.  I had a good run and I think things are better at least in a small way because of things I did.   The FS treated me fairly and I was able to build a good life both in and outside work. There is no job I would rather have had.   

P.S. – One of my favorite movies is “Groundhog Day.”  I may take more lessons from simple comedy movie than it has to teach, but I see it as the story of the iterative pursuit of excellence.  The main character, played by Bill Murray, repeats the same day, February 2, over and over again.  He finally moves ahead only after he lives the day right in all its aspects.  I think the FS is like that in many ways.  We go from place to place doing similar jobs, trying to get better at doing them.  Up until this tour in Brasília, I always tried hard but didn’t really get it right.   I am not saying that my performance in Brasília is perfect, but I think it is right this time.  I am entitled to move along now.

P.S.S. I have learned to love poetry in my later life. I only wish I had been able to appreciate it sooner. Maybe you have to be ready for it.  Anyway, I am reminded of the Tennyson Poem, Ulysses, that I didn’t appreciate in HS.  I don’t hold with the revisionists views of the work and take it for what it is, w/o irony. The relevant part is below.

…Come, my friends,

‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Jabuticaba & the rainy season

Rainy season has started.  It usually doesn’t rain all day, but when it rains, it rains hard and the grass turns green overnight.  I planted some corn a while back and had to water it every day.  Now nature will take care of it. I hope to get some corn this time.  Last year I had corn, tomatoes and beans and then they were set upon by ants.  I never saw anything like it. They just killed everything.  This year I am vigilant. I don’t know how well it will work, but I got some grill starter.  It is sort of like napalm, i.e. a sticky jell that burns.  If I see lots of those ant armies again, I plan to nape them. Don’t you love the smell of napalm in the morning? So far no large numbers of ants have shown up.  Perhaps they fear my deterrent.

The bigger plants have ears, but I am not sure they will be good. I didn’t get enough corn sprouts from the first batch and had to plant again. They have to pollinate from each other.  Each of those little hairs is a flower leading to a grain of corn. If they don’t get pollinated, they don’t turn into corn.The picture below is from two weeks ago when we still were in the dry season. The round topped tree is the jabuticaba.  You can see that I don’t water the lawn during the dry season. I raked off the dead grass. The grass looks dead in that picture, but it is already growing back.  It comes right back, it seems within hours of the first rains.

I got a fair number of tomatoes a few months ago by planting smaller tomatoes that matured faster than the bugs could find them.  If I has to rely on my farming skills, I would soon starve to death. For all my watermelon growing last year, I got only one eatable melon. It was actually pretty good, although small. But it is kind of fun to try to grow things, since I know I don’t depend on them.

I have not been cutting the grass since I got rid of the sheep.  I tend some parts of the yard, for example, I trim the hedges, but mostly it is “natural.” I have been bringing seeds back from the various plantations around Brasilia.  Some grow. I bought some seeds and a couple bags of dirt, including some terra preta – a kind of black charcoal looking dirt – at local garden store, Leroy Merlin and made some little garden patches that you can kind of see in the picture. Little plants are coming up now.  I think I will make the front into a more tended garden for the neighbors.  The back, where only I go, can stay more natural with my flowers mixed with the grass.  I like that much better.  It is fun to see what comes up.

One of the interesting things in the yard is the jabuticaba tree.  The fruit grows right on the tree trunk. You can see a picture at this link.  Go to the bottom of the page.  It flowered after the recent rain, as you can see in my pictures. The fruit is supposed to have all kinds of special health benefits. I don’t know about that. They are kind of like grapes and taste okay.  You cannot get them outside Brazil or even very far away from where they grow, since they begin to ferment in only a few days so you cannot keep them long.  I am surprised that they don’t have a greater following among health nuts.  They have a funny name and are exotic. Maybe they will be discovered like açaí  That stuff tastes like dirt and the only way you can make it reasonably palatable is to dump in loads of sugar, but the alternative food & medicine folks love it.  They say it is the health secret of native Amazonian health.  I have seen native Amazonians. I am not sure theirs is a lifestyle we would want to emulate.

Gala in New York

I was happy to get back to Washington, which is a city I love.  It feels like home. I have been coming back since 1984, but I still recall when I first walked around the place.  It was exciting to be in the capital of the United States.

But my main event was in New York.  I took the train.  It is better, IMO, than the plane.  It takes about the same amount of time in total, when you count in all the time in airports, taking off your shoes and passing thorough security checks.  Beyond that, the train deposits you at Penn Station, which is already in Manhattan.

Manhattan is a wonderful place.  It feels very familiar because we all have seen it so often in movies.  I think I could be happy living there, but I could not afford it. 

It is a very walkable place and easy to find your way around.  One reason NYC was so successful is its good planning.  It is mostly a grid pattern and as the city grew, developers could anticipate where the city would go.  This was very important.  Crime is down now.  It is hard to imagine the way it was not long ago.  There are also lots of bikes, including those rental bikes.  I was lucky to have a nearly perfect day.  It got up to about seventy degrees with warm, but not hot sun.

I came for the gala at IIE.  It was supposed to honor Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, but she didn’t make it.   Education Minister Aloízio Mercadante accepted the Kaufmann Prize for her.  He is a very charming guy and he gave a perfect speech about the importance of education and Brazil’s commitment to moving forward through education.

It was good to hobnob with the classy folks, but these are not my favorite things.  I need a role to play and at these sort of events, I really don’t have one. I bought a tuxedo for the event.  I figured I rented one too often and it was time to own.  They never go out of style, so when I take the road to glory Espen or Alex can use it. They are about the same size as I am, or will be. 

Tuxedos cost a lot to rent and the rental firms set it up so that you really cannot get it back in time, so you always have to pay a fine.  

Who knew that tuxedos don’t have belt loops?  I bought the 43 long from Joseph A Banks.  That is my coat size and it fits nearly perfectly.  I used to wear 42 long, but to my amazement I became much more muscular as a got older. I developed especially massive muscles around my middle.  But even with that body change, the pants are way too loose.  This has not been a problem with my suits.  I don’t believe in spending the big bucks to have my pants tailored, so I rely on a belt to hold my pants up. That is why they invented belts.  In the absence of that important piece of fashion tech,  I felt a little loose all night. Fortunately, I didn’t lose it.  That is the kind of thing that goes viral.  There is always someone with a video to catch all your embarrassing moments and share them with a world inexplicably eager to revel in the embarrassment of strangers. 

I have a really nice belt with a big Texan buckle. I got it a couple of years back and use it will all my clothes. It gives me a mark of distinction. I had intended to wear it with the tux, but no. 

I walked back from 55 Wall Street to my hotel on near the start of the Holland Tunnel, about two miles. They say that New York is the city that never sleeps, but it does at least in the financial district.  I thought about how safe the city has become and hoped my information was right.  I made it back w/o incident, so I am here to tell you that a tuxedo clad guy can safely walk the “mean” streets of New York at 10pm, even as he has to often pull up his gradually falling pants. Potential assailants probably thought it a too much trouble to mess with a crazy guy.  If you can’t be tough, be crazy.

My picture up top is Mercadante with some SwB kids. Below is a drum band. They banged on those things to announce the call to go to tables. The others are street scenes.  I took them with my BB, so the resolution is not as good as usual. 

Forest visit 2013 September part 2

These are the pictures from the other farms. Above is the boundary between the two regimes on our new forest.  When we harvest the bigger ones, they will essentially trade places. Below is a food plot in the new forest.

Below is the food plot on the Freeman place. 

Below is a longleaf pine.  We planted four acres of them. They are a little too far apart to produce a regular timber plantation, but they will be really nice trees.  I am happy to see many survived.  They are in the “grass stage.” What happens generally is that they take a little time to establish and then they shoot up. 

Below is tobacco growing near the Freeman farm. The Virginia economy used to be based on the horrible weed.  One reason land is relatively inexpensive in Brunswick County is that the tobacco industry collapsed a few years back.  Much of the farmland was replaced by trees like mine. 

Forest visit September 2013

We went down to the farms. Trees are looking good. I don’t have any real news beyond the pictures.  Above is the CP road view. That I take for reference.

Above is my reference picture from 2013 with me as reference.  Below is the same place in 2009 with the truck as reference.  The trees are getting too big for the pictures.

Below are the food plots cut for fall.  They are full of bobwhite quail. 

Fracking 99% successful

Fracking 99% successful

A new U of Texas/Environmental Defense Fund study shows that new natural gas fracking operations capture 99% of the methane. This corrects an earlier speculation by a couple of activists from Cornell who claimed that escaping methane negated the significant effects of natural gas in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  

I am trying to give the Cornell folks the benefit for the doubt and assume that their motives were not merely political. If we extend this consideration to them, we find that they might have fallen victims to old data and perhaps looked backward instead of forward. It makes no sense to believe that “greedy” firms would want to let lots of their product just be lost. They would constantly be working on ways to get more product, even if they cared not at all about their image or following laws and regulation. And let’s give credit to regulation. EPA regulations are coming on line that will ensure that there is no backsliding.

Older wells are less effective. This is not surprise. Methods and technologies improve. Think of a computer that is twenty years old. If you studied computers in general and included the 1993 version of the PC, you would not have an accurate picture of what was possible in 2013.

The news about shale gas was good and it keeps on getting better. It has changed the equation in the Middle East. In the last five years, fracking has created more than a million jobs and pumped more real money into the U.S. economy than the total of the borrowed stimulus. It has helped the U.S. reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, so that we will reach our putative Kyoto contacts w/o having to take the draconian steps envisioned. It is putting money into rural economies and helping spur the return of industrial production to the American heartland.

As importantly, our fears and apprehensions associated with the process are proving exaggerated or unfounded. Natural gas will provide the bridge to the future. It is allowing us to drastically reduce our CO2 emissions, while bringing jobs and money back to the USA. It is very close to being a miracle.

Good Environmental News

The Economist runs an interesting section on the environment, pointing out that sound economic growth has proven the best environmental medicine. Wild rates of extinction predicted 40 years ago have proven exaggerated and rates are slowing. Similarly, predicted climate change is much more moderate and may even provide a net benefit by 2083.  

Climate change is real, but it has been sort of “paused” for the last 17 years. Climate change experts have come up with many explanations. One might be that earth is less sensitive than they thought.

In any case, U.S. CO2 emissions have been plummeting since 2006. We will probably exceed our putative Kyoto targets in a year or two, not that anybody seems to care anymore. It was fun to bash the U.S. and GW Bush for not doing enough. Whatever we did was more than most of the others and it didn’t require all those laws and controls advocates so loudly demand so now they mostly keep quiet about it.

America has done all asked of it in reducing CO2 emissions and it looks like we are on the road to cutting even more by 2020 and beyond. And we did it without Kyoto. Now it looks like climate change will be more on the low side, we can adapt.

This is beginning to look like the other apocalypses I have survived. In the 1950s we were told nuclear bomb would wipe us out. In the 1960s it was the population bomb. We were supposed to be starving in the streets of America by around 1985. In the 1970s we faced global cooling and the wipe out 20% of world’s species by … about ten years ago. Actually between 1980-2000 we lost nine, not 9% – nine. Of course, we also had the energy crisis. By now we were supposed to have pretty much run out of fuel. All that new natural gas is evidently not there.

Think of those SciFi movies that used to frighten us. “Soylent Green”, that science fiction dystropia was set in 2022. “Escape from LA” took place in 2013; “Blade Runner” is supposed to be in 2019. I suppose it could get really bad by then.

I am not saying that the thing above, with the possible exception of global cooling, are not problems, but they are not the world ending things we feared. Population growth continues, but at a slower rate and will probably reverse within the lifetimes of some people alive today. Species are still being lost, but nature is adaptive and so are people. We have been saving more land and restoring habitats. Wildlife is returning or not wiped out. Brazil lost 90% of its Atlantic forest, but not a single bird species was lost.

IMO the biggest ecological problem we face today is not global warming but invasive species. My opinion has to do with natures adaptive ability. I believe that species will adapt to warming. But that same adaptive capacity in invasive species is already creating trouble all over the globe.

I am not suggesting we become complacent, but we can best address our problems by keeping calm and carrying on with our step-by-step improvements. The people who told us in 1953, 1963, 1973 … 2003 and now that we have to make immediate and radical changes have been wrong. Had we made radical changes we would be worse off. In any complex situation, it is usually better to try lots of things, check how they are doing, make adjustments and move forward again.

Life is better now for the average human being than in any time in human history. I am reasonably certain that it will be even better for our kids, if we don’t overtax them with SS (see below). So let’s continue to adapt and learn as humans have always done. Future generations is look at our urgent worries as we look at those of our parents and grandparents.

And I find that those who talk most loudly about the great problems tend not to solve problems at all, great or small.

Driving less now and forever?

America reached peak gasoline in 2007, i.e. Americans are unlikely ever to use as much gasoline again as we did in five years ago. Most of this comes from people driving less, something most people thought would never happen. This is good news.  Our CO2 emissions continue to drop. And it is not only because of hard times. Young people just don’t seem to want to drive as much.

My parents never owned a car and I did not buy my first car until I was twenty-nine years old. I don’t drive much even today. I prefer to ride my bike or walk. One of my “lifestyle choices” is to shop and find entertainment near places I can walk, bike or take public transportation. I find a cultural gulf with friends who grew up with cars. They will drive long distances to get to the “best” restaurant or store. Not me. They think I am silly for satisfying; I think they are silly for being so demanding about things that make little difference.

My kids are not really car people. They choose their activities based on location. Evidently, this is the way many young people think. It used to be that kids got their driver’s license as soon as they could, often when they were only sixteen. Today, fewer and fewer seem to care. A full third of young people ages 16-24 have not bothered to learn to drive. If this trend continues, it means big changes.

Perhaps we just missed some big changes in how people live. On the one side, Internet makes it less necessary to leave home. Kids can meet friends w/o going out. This is not always a good thing. It probably contributes to the growing girth of the American population. But another trend is urbanization.

Young people are moving to urban areas that are walkable. But urban areas are also moving to where people live. C&J have owned the same home since 1997. It used to be in the suburbs. Today it has become as city. I could always walk to the Metro. Now I can walk to all sorts of restaurants, movies and stores.

Higher gas prices probably helped kick this off, but I think it has now become self sustaining. Another important trend has been the reduction in crime. Many people like to live in urban environments, but were pushed out of cities by crime. Reduce crime and you bring back vitality to urban areas.

The only thing missing from the urban equation is good schools. Good schools were the reason we moved to the suburbs. Urban schools still largely suck, which is one reason that many affluent urban areas are almost child free. Some people like it that way, but divorcing affluent people from children is not good for the future.

No matter how successful you are, you will probably have only a little more than  thirty years of productive working life. After that, you will depend on the production of people younger than you are. If you cheaped on their education and neglected their development, your life will be worse. But that is a subject for a different post.

Peak gasoline

Another example of our vastly changed energy landscape is the fact that we a have passed “peak gasoline.” We did this way back in 2007 and it looks like we will never again burn as much gasoline as we did in that year. So, we are producing more oil and gas and using less gasoline. Who would have predicted that ten or twenty years ago. Our CO2 emissions are also dropping quickly. This is good news for almost everyone, but it creates a problem for highway maintenance. Highways are maintained by gasoline taxes. Less gasoline burned means less money.  

A simple solution would be to raise the gasoline tax, although this is a dynamic equation. As you raise the tax, you get less use and in the medium and long run less revenue. But raising gas taxes is politically very difficult, especially in a political season and in the last few years the political season never ends.

These developments continue to amaze me. Coming of age in the 1970s, we were told that we would run out of oil and gas soon, that there was no way people would burn less gasoline w/o draconian measures, maybe rationing and that the energy future would be a bleak succession of shortages and decline.

Today we have achieved success beyond that wildest dreams of the experts of the 1970s. If we could go back in time and tell them what happened, the experts would think we were crazy or worse. The “worse” would be that you would be an energy crisis denier. Everybody hated them. but they were right.

It goes to show how unpredictable things really are and why the only real way to plan is to let lots of options be tried. No central solution works for very long and usually creates trouble. Imagine if we had been able to implement those “expert” solutions of the 1970s.

We used to talk about peak oil back in the old days. That is a meaningless concept. Turns out, however, peak gasoline makes a lot of sense.

Nine Eleven twenty-thirteen

I still remember how I felt on 9/11/2001, but it seems a long time ago now.  I don’t think we should forget big events like this, but how much should we privilege them? 9/11 was certainly a big event that changed the course of our country and the world.   

It is important, however, not to see such big events as sui generis.  When we declare that something is unique, we give up the ability to learn from it.  We can learn from events only when they can be put into a system or a recognizable pattern.

After a while, the memorials become perfunctory. I mean no disrespect by saying this.  As I said up top, I still remember and during the memorial at the flagpole some of the feelings came back. I did indeed think about the ebb and flow of history during the minute of silence and during the next hours and days.  I think this is what should happen. This is more useful than simply bring back emotions, as deep or real as they may be.