Being too busy

One of my most valuable tasks as a leader, of my own life and of my organization, is setting priorities. Priorities mean NOT doing most things in order to concentrate on those of highest value added. I spend a lot of time and energy thinking of ways to skip steps, simplify procedures and get other people to do what I need to get done. As a result, things that used to take me days to do, I can now knock out in hours or sometimes I don’t have to do them at all. This is as it should be. Much of this happy outcome is the result of thinking about the process, i.e. not being busy.

There is an old story about a guy who is locked out of his house. He needed to get in quick and calls a locksmith, who tells him that he can solve the problem for $50. The guy agrees. The locksmith shows up, takes a look, thumps the lock with a little hammer. It opens and he asks for his $50. The guy doesn’t want to pay. “$50 bucks,” he stammers, “for thumping the lock? I want an itemized bill.” He gets it – $0.05 for thumping the lock; $49.95 for knowing how. We should strive to know more and do less.

All successful people are busy sometimes, but if you are busy all the time, you are either not in control of your life and should spend more time trying to figure it out, sort of like glancing at a map before setting out on a cross country journey instead of wandering Neanderthal like until you stumble over a route. I suspect most people are not as busy as they say. As the article says, many of us derive status from appearing busy all the time. Not me. I am a man of leisure and proud of that. If I can get more done than in less time, that is how I want to derive status. I am content if people think my success is the result of dumb luck because working hard for meager results is just kind of dumb.
Competing to be the busiest
We don’t feel important, experts say, unless we have too much to do.

Saturday in New York

The weather was nicer today; evidently Saturday will be the one nice day wedged between cold ones.  Today the wind had that soft feel; tomorrow back to the rough stuff.

We went to the Met today.  You can never spend enough time there, so we didn’t even try.  We just enjoyed what we could at the museum and then walked through Central Park to the Neil Simon Theater, where we saw the play “All the Way,” about Lyndon Johnson, starring Brian Cranston, who played Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” one of Chrissy’s favorite shows, which makes Cranston an actor she wanted to see in person.  It was a good play, worth seeing

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at Lindy’s Café, where they claimed to have the world’s best cheesecake.  I don’t know if it was best, but it was very good and very big portions.  Chrissy and I also had Irish coffee in honor of St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow.

It was a full day and fun.  Chrissy arrived yesterday.  Instead of taking a taxi, we used one of those bike taxis.  It costs a lot more, is less convenient and unsafe in the traffic.  It is something interesting to do – once, maybe once.  Actually, I would not recommend it.

Private-public-partnership saves Central Park.

It was a cold and gray day, but still worth it to walk around in Central Park.  Central Park is a monument to lots of things.  From the original smart idea devote a big area of the middle of the city to a park, the wonderful “planned spontaneity” of the design by Frederick Law Olmsted, to the extraordinary voluntary management by the Central Park Conservancy, Central Park has been an example.

It really was not that cold, but I was unprepared for the cold there was.  I just didn’t have warm clothes to bring from Brazil, so I faced the 25 degrees and bitter wind with a running windbreaker and a sweatshirt underneath.  I joke that it was the same temperature in Brasília as New York, both 25 degrees, but one Celsius and one Fahrenheit.  I bought a hat for $5, which at least kept my bald head warm.

Central Park is familiar, like going home to a place you never lived because of the frequent use of the place as a setting for movies and TV.   It is also familiar because of the design.   Lots of places copied Olmstead’s designs and the man himself actually designed some Milwaukee parks.  It was the default design of urban parks for generations.

The thing that interested me most today was the role of the Central Park Conservancy.   Central Park was not always as pleasant as it is today.   The NYC was unwilling or unable to maintain it to a high enough standard.  NYC contracts with the Conservancy, which is a non-profit private group, to run  maintain the park, but most of the money to do the needed operations is raised privately by the conservancy.   It is a successful example of public-private-partnership and a good lesson that collective action need not be organized by a government authority.  People working in voluntary association can do wonders given the chance.  

Public need not mean run by government.  The public includes more than that.  The word has developed a somewhat pejorative connotation.  Think “public” restroom and what do you think?  It need not be this way. Central Park is a public park in every important sense.  It is run by “the public” but by the public that cares the most.

My pictures show Central Park this morning.  The lower picture is a newly planted Princeton elm.  They are resistant to the Dutch elm disease and yet have the nice shape.

Bright and brightening American energy future

We might worry that the American energy boom is creating too much prosperity, since we have bottlenecks in inadequate, ports, pipelines, rail and shipping. Of course, adapting to those things will create jobs based on REAL wealth.

IMO, we sometimes forget that real wealth comes from real stuff. This is a real stimulus, both the biggest hope for an eventual robust economic recovery tomorrow and the thing that is keeping our economy growing today, albeit a bit anemically.
We should also make the distinction between infrastructure that is real and that for show. The real infrastructure it built to satisfy needs created by tangible things like our American energy boom. We see that as wealth creating and good. So we are tempted to make bogus investments, that look like this but really don’t carry anything. Real investments raise the economic temperature. The bogus ones are more like lighting matches under a thermometer and hailing success. Glad to see real need which will create real wealth.

A Boom In Oil Is A Boon For U.S. Shipbuilding Industry

Ten supertankers are under construction and there are orders for another 15, but just three years ago the tanker market was barely moving.

Speaking of the energy boom, the ingenuity of our fellow Americans is not limited to fossil fuels and our happy challenges will soon include how best to integrate abundant energy from alternative sources.

As solar and wind become cheaper and batteries improve, more people will be in the energy production business. However, the temptation to go it alone should be resisted. As the linked article says, “Distributed resources such as solar and storage can generate more value and have better economics for customers and society both if they are connected to the grid.” I think of it like the Internet. You CAN have a stand alone computer, but does anybody really want one?

Why the Potential for Grid Defection Matters 

This blog post explores why cost parity doesn’t necessarily equate to widespread customer defection, why defection would create a suboptimal electricity system, and why even the specter of customer defection is relevant.

Fear tactics

Interesting misuse of statistics.  Cancer is a serious issue. The report on which this is based headlines “Effective prevention measures urgently needed to prevent cancer crisis.”  But there is no crisis. Why is cancer rising? Because people are living longer.  If you live long enough, cancer will kill you.  Our ancestors were “spared” cancer because most died of something else first.  The black plague was a great way to avoid cancer or heart disease. It seems less a crisis to know that increased cancer is caused by longer lives.

It reminds me of the headline from the Onion “World Death Rate Holding Steady At 100 Percent.”  It went on to call all medicine a failure, since it clearly had not prevented even one death in the long run of history.

The good news is that cancer rates have been dropping for two decades, that is when you compare the comparable.  Naturally, an 80-year-old has a greater risk of dying of anything than a 20-year-old.  If you have more old guys, more people die. It doesn’t mean life is more dangerous.

BTW homicides using guns has also dropped a lot.  They are down 49% in the last twenty years.  Rape rates have dropped to one-sixth of what they were 20 years ago.
The fact is that almost everything is getting better, but we don’t know that because the reports are much worse.  Some of this just has to do with the news.  But much of it is the active measures by activists to create fear to gain more funding or political power.  Life is not perfect today, but it really is better than ever.

But if you want to be afraid, let me help.  I can guarantee that sometime in the future something will kill you.  Nobody gets out of here alive.  And if you live long enough, you will get cancer.  Believe it.

Fire in the forests

Fire is unavoidable in natural systems. What and how it burns is often a human choice. The article acknowledges good fire management in Southern pine country, where practice and culture accept prescribed burning. There is an irony in the West. Westerners sometimes feel closer to nature, but the region is the most urban, i.e. people living in cities, in the U.S. People living in cities surrounded by vast open and ostensibly natural spaces, IMO, make make it harder to manage land well, since those whose experience with land consists mostly of hiking and vacationing tend to think that nature requires no management.

Southern fire managers have more practical experience than anybody else. It was not always so and it is earned knowledge. It would be good to apply that knowledge elsewhere. I recommend looking at the Southern Fire Exchange.

The linked article quotes Scott L. Stephens, professor of fire science at the University of California at Berkeley, saying, “Why don’t we hear about all these houses burning down and people dying in the South? They’re doing a better job.”

Scientists say megafires in West will grow bigger, hotter

Weird rain

The “dry” rainy season has now turned more normal and wet.  It has been raining every day, fortunately not all day.   I have been lucky in that it has not rained much on me while riding my bike to and from work.  Yesterday, my luck ran out.   It started to rain at around 3pm and didn’t let up until after 10.  I hung around until a little before 6pm.  After that it gets too dark.  So I embarked in the rain and got completely soaked. 

It was not that bad.  The rain in Brasília is warm and once you get completely wet additional drops make no difference and I had dry clothes at home.  Of course, I got a lot of red dirt up my back, down my pants.

It rained again during the night and in Saturday morning, but there was an opening around 2pm. This time my luck held.  I rode over to the Embassy to lift weights.  Exactly as I arrived, it started to rain.  And it stopped almost exactly when I wanted to leave.   Sweet.  But was even more interesting.  As I rode done the hill, I noticed that the road was completely dry except for where water had flowed from the slightly higher slope of the hill.  This is how it is in Brasília.  It can rain hard in one place and not at all a few yards away.   I took the picture above to illustrate.  You see we have the sun in one place, rain in another and a rainbow at the end.

It does make it hard to predict the weather, however, or even report it.   This afternoon, it rained at the Embassy, but I don’t think that it rained at my house, less than four miles away as the crow flies.

Learning languages

Freakonomics radio asks whether it is worth it to study a foreign language and answers yes for people learning English but no for Americans learning other languages. At the risk of being called an apostate, except in specific situations like my own I have to agree, but with different reasons.

My experience with foreign languages is mixed. When asked what languages I speak, I always say “only one, Portuguese.” I also SPOKE Polish, Norwegian & German and I read Latin & Greek, but those things are gone like the snows of last winter. I can bring them back, as I did Portuguese, but not easily.

It is sad. I love to speak Portuguese. It is a beautiful language, especially the Brazilian variety. It truly is a joy to speak. But I know that by this time next year, my once fluent Portuguese will be ragged and then end up like my 3+ Polish … gone for all practical purposes. I can promise myself, as I always do, that this time it will be different, but it won’t. Some people are multilingual; most are not and a significant number cannot really even learn one second language well. And almost nobody can maintain a language w/o more time and effort than most of us can afford.

Freakonomics figured the economic value of a second language and found a low marginal value. It varies by language. Something like Spanish, which is common among Americans, gives little economic value. Others do better. I bet Portuguese is a more valuable language for Americans, since it is not too hard or too common. But there are opportunity costs. Language learning takes time that you might use for other things.

I studied classical Greek and I am still glad I did (don’t ask me why). But the way I learned Greek is exactly the same way I learned math. Study, repeat, study, repeat … it takes time. If I spent that Greek study time and mental energy on math or engineering, might it not be better for me? I could have passed through differential equations in that time. Language is a kind of luxury. I indulged my habit because I could. You can well argue for the humanities and languages. I do. But I got TOO good at Greek. One year would have given me enough insights. And I forgot it all now anyway.

English is the exception (Of course, that doesn’t apply to us) because it is so useful. In all human history, no language has so dominated the globe as English does today. We Americans are lucky that we speak English, but it presents us with a dilemma in that we have less incentive to learn other languages. And if we do choose to learn another language, it is hard to choose which one. After English, there is no slam-dunk choice.

As a diplomat, I demand of myself and my colleagues that we used the language of the country, but that is not always so easy. I used to speak Norwegian reasonably well. But after a while, I couldn’t get better. Norwegians would indulge me and speak to me in Norwegian for a few minutes. Then they would just get sick of it and go to English. A good thing about Brazil is that this happens less frequently, but give it a few years. I recall when I first went to Poland. People did not speak English very much and I had to use Polish all the time. A few years later, that had changed. I ended up having my most intense conversations with my driver, Bogdan. The Poles “enjoyed” my “fluent” Polish, but sometimes told me that I used words like a peasant. Thanks, Bogdan.

If we are learning language as an academic exercise, which most Americans really are if we admit the truth, the language to learn, IMO, is Latin. Latin has the world’s richest and most diverse literature (although English is catching up) because – like English – it was a world language, albeit a smaller world. People from lots of different cultures and background wrote in Latin and they did so for more than 2000 years, so we have a real time perspective. It also makes Latin descended languages easier, if you need to learn one of them.

I think it is a good thing to learn languages for spiritual or humanities reasons (this coming from a guy who studied very relevant Latin & Greek) but as for it being necessary or even very useful … the world is learning our language faster than we can learn theirs.
PS – When I was studying Greek & Latin, the things I wanted most were books called Loeb Classics that featured the classical language on one page and English on the opposite. Now that I am better off and can afford them, I bought a couple from Amazon. I tried Greek – Polybius – that I used to know well. It was all Greek to me. I couldn’t make out two words. I gave up. I bought Latin – Lucretius. I could kind of guess at Latin, but mostly because of Portuguese. I gave up on that too. I still have the books and revere them as a kind of fetish. But they would be more useful w/o the Greek or Latin.

New place for the old blog

I have been having trouble with my old blog page interface and it is no longer supported by the Yahoo host.  So I am moving here.  It is a little different format, but I will write the same simple stuff.  The old blog will continue to exist (I hope) but new I will make new entries here.