The picture is our first dog, Fang.   Springer Spaniels are supposed to be gentle and he looked sweet and docile, but he wasn’t.  In those days before the dog whisperer, he was an incorrigibly bad dog.  He got increasingly out of control.  If you left him alone in the house, he would chew up whatever he could reach.  He knocked over the fish tank and scratched holes in the rugs.  He once even chewed up the metal Venetian blinds.  You would have thought that impossible, but you would have been wrong.  You had to literally fight him off to eat your lunch.  He would sit there growling and lurch at your food if you made eye contact or gave him an opening.  As I think back, it is amazing how long we tolerated his aggressiveness.  He bit everybody … except my mother.  He was afraid of my mother, but one day he bit her too.   After that he bit no more. We were sad to lose our dog, but it was good to be able to eat w/o having to watch for the rushing dog.   The vet told us that he was a “fear biter.”  I don’t know what that meant.  I think he made that up.

Our next dog, Sam, was the most docile dog in the world.   He never bit or growled.  He would bark at visitors, and it was hard to get him to be quiet, but then he hid in back of us when they came in.   I was locked out of the house once, so I climbed in through the bedroom window.  I didn’t hear a sound from Sam, except I could hear his claws on the linoleum kitchen floor as he backed up.  I still couldn’t find him, until I saw him hiding under my father’s bed.  As soon as he saw me, he came out bravely.  Everybody liked Sam.  He was a good looking dog, a Chesapeake Bay retriever.  He had some of the instinct.  He used to point at rabbits and squirrels, although he never bothered to pursue them. 

Our last dog was Xerxes.   He was the dog of my father’s later years and he reflected some of the infirmities of old age.  Xerxes was even more cowardly than Sam and not at all aggressive.   He is cringing in most of the pictures, because he was afraid of the camera.  If he heard a loud noise, he would go crazy.  Thunder storms and the 4th of July were not pleasant times.  My father treated him with a gentleness bordering on deference.  “He has rights too,” my father would say.  Probably as a result of this, Xerxes paid no attention to my father and would not come when he called.   

I have seen the “Dog Whisperer” on TV a couple times and it is clear to me now that we just didn’t know how to treat dogs.   Dogs are pack animals.   They need to know who is master.   We were always ambiguous about that, so the dogs personality and natural inclinations came to dominate the relationship.   Sam was my favorite dog and gave us no reason to complain except that he was too timid.  But compared with Fang, who you constantly had to hold back, it was a better situation.    I think Xerxes just got corrupted.  My father spoiled and indulged him.    We used to have cats until I was around five years old.   They were not really our cats; they just sort of moved into our house sometimes, sort of community cats.  They all had the unimaginative name of “Kitty.”  It made it easier to remember their names and there really is no use in naming cats anyway, since they never come when called.  In those days it was considered cruel and unnatural to keep cats in the house and they wandered the streets.   You “put the cat out” at night.  Sometimes they would come back.  In between, they would enter cat society and alternatively fight, mate and kill birds & mice. They came back when they got hungry and/or when they couldn’t find a better offer.  Cats have no sense of loyalty.  Once Kitty had kittens.  One of them had six toes, so we called him “six toed Richard” after one of my mother’s similarly endowed cousins.  We got rid of the ultimate Kitty and never permitted cats again because she scratched my sister once too often.  My sister was a toddler+ at the time and wanted to play with the cat in a way independent felines evidently didn’t appreciate.  I got along well with that particular cat and even once gave her a bath, w/o getting scratched up.  I guess it all depends on how you approach things. 

My cousins Luke & Irma and their son & Tony, who lived upstairs from us, had the meanest cat I have ever seen.  I don’t remember what its name was, but we called him “Heathcliff” after the obnoxious comic book cat.  He was the Fang of the cat world.  One Christmas, my sister and I were watching Tony while Luke and Irma went to midnight mass.   We didn’t know where the cat had gone until we saw the tree shaking and found the cat climbing inside and batting at the ornaments.   I chased him away from the tree and he ran off and disappeared.  Soon he reappeared.  He had climbed up the back of the couch and was attacking my sister.   I drove him off again and he went and hid in the basement. 

His sojourns in the basement were his undoing.  He didn’t care to use his litter box and preferred to crap on the basement floor.  He did this with monotonous regularity until my cousins got sick of cleaning it up.  That, plus his unusually ornery temperament, doomed him.  I was sorry to see him go, since he was unfailingly entertaining, but I could see the logic in getting rid of him. 

The only other pets we had were fish and salamanders.  We never were very good with fish, so we raised guppies.  They require no care.  I had a green salamander, a newt that sat on an island in the fish tank until once we filled it up too much and he crawled out.  My mother thought that it was my fault because I used to take him out and let him crawl around where he got a taste of freedom.   He didn’t savor it long.   We found him a few days later dried up under the radiator. I subsequently had a red and black salamander that fared better.  He too escaped, but he survived in the basement, where it was damp and where he could eat spiders etc. We had an old house and part of the basement still had a dirt floor.  About a year after his escape, my cousin spotted him, much bigger and apparently thriving.  I don’t know how long those things live, more than a year, evidently.

Gallows Dunn Loring Development

The neighborhood was very different when we bought our townhouse eleven years ago.   Actually we bought a piece or red dirt and the promise that they would build a townhouse.   Ours was the first new development of its kind in our immediate area.  At that time it was a kind of pass over zone.  There were nice neighborhoods all around, but we had some gas stations, warehouses and fast food outlets.   It was a low rise neighborhood.   But it had two big assets.  There was the Dunn Loring Metro stop.   We bought because the Metro was only a seven minute walk from our front door.    It was also a central place on the way to Tyson Corner.    

The Metro was the real key. 

The Dunn Loring Metro opened in 1986, but for the first ten years of its life was almost exclusively a park and ride.  Our town house complex was one of the first walking distance developments.   When we bought, there were big plans to in-fill the place and increase the density to encourage transit oriented development.   We had to take that on faith, but it did start to happen.   Since we bought, a big town house complex developed across from the Metro.   There are also high rise condos near the Metro and down Gallows Road and we have a Marriott Courtyard Hotel.   But the immediate area, the one we saw outside our door, didn’t change much.   It was the ugly mix of cheap warehouses and metal buildings.  Now the big changes are on the way. 

Most of the buildings across the street are torn down and the others soon will be.   I don’t mourn the loss, except I miss the Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.   The plans are to build something like fifteen stories high. Condos and hotels will be on the top floors with retail on the ground floors.   The plan is sound.  I hope it works out.  Our neighborhood will be a lot better.   Our town house complex will go from one of the densest developments to one of the least dense.   Don’t know how many more years we will be here.   The irony will probably be that we will move away just about the time the neighborhood gets walkable and nice, but after we retire and no longer have the daily need for the metro, the high value property will be less attractive.   When we chose to live near the Metro, we paid more for a smaller space in order to get the better commute.    That logic will probably change.  

Above are the old buildings being torn down.   It takes only a day or so.  The buildings int he background were built a couple years ago.  Ones like that will go up.  They are not so pretty, but they have retail etc.   And they are better than what they replace.

Roosevelt & Jefferson

I have a minor stomach bug and didn’t feel well enough to run on this beautiful day, so I went for a walk instead during lunchtime.   I went down to the Roosevelt Memorial.  It is a pretty big and impressive thing, as you can see in the picture, and there is a lot of flowing water.  

This size and complexity of the memorial goes against Roosevelt ’s wishes.    He told Felix Frankfurter that he wanted a memorial no bigger than his desk and there is a memorial about the size of a desk near the National Archives.  But the Roosevelt legacy outgrew the man.  

All monuments are really as much about the time when they are constructed as about the people or events depicted.   You can see the 1990s (when the Memorial was built) in the Memorial itself.   For example, although Roosevelt was crippled with polio, he didn’t allow himself to be pictured in a wheelchair.   I think there is only one such photo.   Many people at the time were not aware of the extent of his infirmity.   By the 1990s, such attitudes were unpopular. The compromise, in my picture, shows him seated with his cape covering the wheelchair.   This evidently offended some people, so there is also a statue of Roosevelt in his wheelchair. 

I think we have an interesting question.   Roosevelt expressed clearly in his words and actions that he would not have approved of the monument or of his depiction in the wheelchair.  The question is, at what point does a man’s legacy become more important than he is and how much license should we have to fit a man of the past into contemporary morals and sensibilities? 

In pictures from the times, Roosevelt is always shown with a cigarette.  It was a big part of his personality.  We won’t see that.  This part of his image is gone.  There was a controversy about a stamp featuring the artist Jackson Pollock, who evidently smoked all the time.   The postal service made the stamp from a photo of Pollock.   They airbrushed out the characteristic cigarette.   

Modern technology makes this kind of ex-post-facto censorship much easier.  I think it is better to leave such things in and explain that times were different.  We cannot apply today’s standards to the people of the past. 

This applies to Thomas Jefferson more than most.   I also went to his memorial.   Jefferson was knocked off his high pedestal by his slave owning.   It is true that slavery was a terrible blight, but it had been around as long as human society.  The pyramids were built with slave labor.  Jefferson had the misfortune to be on the societal cusp that separated the 5000 years of human history when slavery was accepted from the last couple centuries when it was anathema to civilized people.  It wasn’t until around the time of Jefferson that large numbers of people began to see slavery as an evil to be extirpated and that outrage was limited generally to the Western world at that time.  There are still parts of Africa and Asia where forms of slavery are practiced.

It is hard not to judge Jefferson by today’s standards and harder still to understand how someone who could think so elegantly about freedom could have such a blind spot about the freedom of people he saw every day.  But we really cannot judge him too harshly for not making a clean break with a tradition that stretched back to the dawn of history. 

BTW – I met a former slave when I was in Poland .  He and his family were captured by the Soviets in 1939 and sent to labor camps where only those who worked got food rations.   The Soviets, enlightened as they were, would not officially allow children to work, so this guy’s underage brothers and sisters were not allowed to work and got no food.  It was the perfectly logical workings of a diabolical bureaucracy.   The family tried to share, but they all died except for the man I met.  He survived the Russian death camps and returned to Poland where he became a wood worker and was making decorations for churches in Zakopane.   He was a surprisingly cheerful man, with a still abiding faith in the goodness of God despite his ordeal, and not bitter at all against the Russians.   “It was a different time and place,” he advised me.   This is the only actual slave I ever met.  In America , after nearly 150 years, there is no living memory of slavery.  My friend’s conditions were much worse than those in Virginia during Jefferson ’s time.   Perhaps we should take his advice.

Jefferson was a great man, although a flawed human being – like all of us.  The genius of America is that we can take humans as they are, w/o demanding perfection, and through all these imperfect people create a more perfect country.

You Can’t Handle the Truth

These might be a little boring and unorganized.   My new job requires me to understand better how information is transmitted and received, especially via the new media.    I am working this out by writing it.   I would appreciate any comments from anybody who wants to read through. 

A Few Good Men

The audience is meant to side with the Tom Cruise character when the Jack Nicholson character tells him that he can’t handle the raw truth.   Cruise has cleverly manipulated Nicholson into incriminating himself on the witness stand.   Nicholson doesn’t get it.    He doesn’t like cruise; he see him as a pretty-boy w/o the experience, temperament or character to face the hard facts of life – the Truth with a capital T.   The audience sides with Cruise.   The court sides with Cruise.   Justice sides with Cruise.  But Nicholson told the truth.    Or was it just a truth.   

The use of the definite or the indefinite article makes a big difference.    “A” truth (with the indefinite article) is different from “the” truth (with the definite article) and different from truth expressed with no article at all.*    How different would it have been if Nicholson had shouted, “You can’t handle truth!” or “You can’t handle a truth!”

Thinking about a courtroom drama is appropriate when considering information on the Internet or in the new media.   How useful is “raw truth?”  How can we differentiate THE truth from a truth or truth?  Has Steven Colbert’s truthiness replaced truth?  Do we care if it has?

Eyewitness Not so Good

We overvalue eyewitness testimony and are improperly influenced by how much certainty and passion people express in defending their testimony.     In the courtroom drama, we give a lot more credibility to the guy who says that he is certain.   He may indeed be telling a truth, but he may also be wrong.    A lot of things influence our memories and perceptions.    There are things I believed to be true based on personal experience that have turned out to be objectively false.    (I read a good book re called Witness for the Defense re which I recommend, but anybody who keeps a journal knows how memory can change.) 

Failure of Memory

The key concept is change, not fade.   The false analogy is that memory is like a book or a movie.  We think that with time some things are lost, but the fundamental integrity of the information is sound.   In fact, memory is living and reactive.   It constantly reorders facts and perceptions to integrate new information.   This is learning and is a good thing, but it changes memory.   We usually don’t know this has happened and we are rarely put to the test.    We all know that people’s honest recollections of events differ.   We are less accepting of the fact that our own honest recollection of facts differs over time.   

Memories change.  That is why perjury is such a difficult concept and the concept of repressed memory led to such abuse and injustice.   It is a virtual certainty that if you were asked under oath to describe a situation that happened six or eight months ago, you would be untruthful about some, or many, of the details.   That is assuming that you are trying to be 100% honest.   The irony is that some of the things you are most certain about & the things you felt most passionate about would be the ones that were the most wrong.  Passion clouds judgment and alters memory.    It is a truth; it is your truth, but it is not THE truth anymore.

When I stared to write this, I was thinking about the concept of truth on the Internet and in the new media.   My digressions above were necessary because the Internet is a sort of collective memory and it is subject to a lot of the same risks and pattern mistakes as individuals.   But it has the added factor of group activity and the magnification that technology offers. 

The Myth of the Unfiltered Truth

Internet provides first-person immediacy with all the benefits and traps that entails.  First-person accounts appeal to passion.   Passion is a big part of humanity, but passion often destroys logic and makes it difficult to see the big picture.  There is an old saying that if you make all your decisions with your heart, you will end up with heart disease.  Passion tends to lead either to inappropriate action or just as often no effective action at all.   First-person accounts are always incomplete.  

Listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.    Everybody knows the story that he was deaf when he wrote it and he couldn’t physically hear the music that has evoked so much passion in listeners for generations since.   Beethoven didn’t need to hear the music because he understood the concept and the context.   He understood the big picture and could orchestrate it in a symphony.    Now imagine you get to hear the oboe player and nobody else.    What kind of impression do you have?   Let’s expand your world.   You “have access” to all the musicians.   What are the chances that you can assemble them all into anything resembling the symphony?    Well can you – maestro? 

I know this from my experience in Iraq.   I reported what I saw and heard, but I didn’t always have the context.   I was surprised to see how my information, aggregated with others, produced a coherent big picture that was completely beyond, and sometimes ostensibly contradictory to, my on-the-spot perceptions.

Self Organizing Systems & Their Discontents

A lot of people put their faith in the self-organizing ability of the Internet.   I have reasonable faith in things like Wikipedia to develop useful truth, although we clearly need to have a “trust but verify” attitude.   But most of the Internet is not truly self organizing or truth seeking.   Many of the participants on the Internet have no commitment to truth at all.   In fact, much of the information on the Internet is put there by people actively spreading their biased viewpoints, if not actual disinformation and propaganda.    Many contributors and webpages are well financed by governments, pressure organizations and wealthy individuals.   

Internet is easily manipulated by trumped up facts and passions and it is getting worse.     YouTube posting can provide compelling pictures and sound that are as manipulative as Nazi or Soviet propaganda shorts.   Your intuition tells you to believe the evidence of your own eyes, but it is too easy to forget that the maker of the video controls all the angles, timing and perspectives your eyes are delivering.

The Golden Age That Never Was

Of course, speaking of Nazi & Soviet propaganda, there was really no golden age of truth.   The new media doesn’t introduce more manipulation; it just sort of democratizes it.   This probably means that most people have a better chance of finding the truth about things that concern them.    It is simultaneously easier to pass lies off in the short term and harder to make them stick in the long term.   The mass lies of propaganda past are probably made untenable by the Internet.  On the other hand, the smaller lies will probably more persistent.  “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time,” said Abraham Lincoln.    The Internet doesn’t change the general categories, but it does change distribution.    Internet makes it much harder to fool all of the people even some of the time, but it makes it easier to fool some of the people all of the time.   More disturbingly, Internet facilitates the aggregation of those people fooled all of the time.   A few isolated weirdos are just curiosities.    If enough of them find each other, they may form enough of a mass to become a real menace.    Like the embers of a dying campfire, if you spread them out they all burn out, but if you gather them together you can have a conflagration on your hands.  Internet makes this much easier. 

As I wrote in the first paragraph, I am just working through these ideas.   I am done doing that for now, but I really need to get this clear in my mind so that I can do a good job in my new job.


*BTW while English makes these distinctions, many languages do not.    Scandinavian languages stick the direct article on the ends of words with a pattern I never quite understood.  Slavic languages don’t have articles (direct or indirect) at all.   Arabic has only direct articles.   These languages find different ways to make the distinctions I am talking about above, but I wonder sometimes how the ability to easily express certain concepts affects people’s perceptions of those concepts.    Linguists and anthropologists have been on this case for many years.   They seem to have discovered many truths, but not THE truth, although many particular experts will tell you that he has indeed discovered and explained the ultimate reality.   

When I was in college, I read and liked a book called Language, Thought and Reality.   This book explained the Whorf hypothesis about language.    It made a lot of sense to me.  My anthropology professor told me it was wrong and implied that I would get a bad grade if I didn’t agree with him.  

  That was back in the 1970s.  A lot of things we learned in the 1970s, especially in anthropology and sociology, was crap.  Those were proto-PC days.  Most social scientist still believed some variation of the “blank slate” in those days and the very idea that human potential was limited or partially determined by structures or innate tendencies offended them viscerally.    Noam Chomsky, despite his general pernicious misunderstanding of the world and politics is a good linguist, argued persuasively against the Whorf hypothesis.  We have come a long way since then and, although the PC crowd still filters the public interface, the inquiry has become more of a science and the truth much more nuanced.   The most recent good book on this subject, IMO, is Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought


Below is the lantern Espen bought me at LL Bean. You crank it up and it produces light. I already had a crank up flashlight that I have been using for more than a year. These are great innovations. You don’t need to think of batteries or plugs, probably as close as you can come to that free lunch.

Anybody who tells you that he understands the economy in all its complexity is lying.  It is not possible for one person or any group of persons to understand.   The data is not available and even if it was there is no way to integrate it.   Beyond those two formidable problems, the economy is constantly changing, so you will always be a couple steps behinds.   These are some of the reasons why central economic planning has never worked.   And the economic planners have even another hurdle: their plans and action will change the assumptions and facts. 

Central planning is grabs the popular imagination because people haven’t thought through the factors and we just find it hard to accept that something so important to our lives is fundamentally unknowable, unplanned and chaotic.   What I just said is another basis of misunderstanding because it is only true within a flawed set of assumptions.   The economy cannot be comprehensively planned by anyone whose job it is to be a planner, but it is certainly not unplanned.

We have in place a wonderfully effective method of aggregating distributed knowledge and allowing for dispersed decision making.   Our market system works better than any alternative to give most people the capacity to make choices about their lives.  It produces the best results in the long term, but nothing is perfect all the time.   

It seems a contradiction that the free market requires government intervention in the form of rule of law, regulation and periodic kicks in the ass.   I learned this in Eastern Europe.    When I went there after the collapse of communism, I thought that all that was required was to get rid of the oppressive state structures.    The fall of communism provided a kind of laboratory, where we learned that removing the state interference was necessary but not sufficient.    Governments and civil society have to build the sinews of the market economy.     

The difference between a life saving medicine and a deadly poison is in the dosage and the application.  The same goes for government intervention.    We need to keep this in mind with all these bailouts.    The lifesaving therapy, applied too broadly, becomes a deadly poison.    It is also good to keep in mind that what worked yesterday may not work today or tomorrow and that this does not need to signify failure, abuse or incompetence.    I ate a big meal yesterday, yet I think I will need to eat again today.   I didn’t fail to eat properly yesterday; it is just an ongoing solution.

There exist truths that are unknowable by us in an absolute sense, but they are not unknowable in a practical sense.   They may also be unknowable to any one or any group of us but they are not unknowable by all of us aggregated into societies and markets.   When large groups of people make estimates independently, the aggregated estimate is usually better than the individual estimates of even the best and the brightest among them.   That is why democracies and markets work.   Governments can tap these reservoirs of human information, imagination and innovation but cannot control them.   The seeming contradiction is that it only works as long as you don’t try to make it work.   

Government management of the economy is a chimera.    Having the government take decisive action is very appealing and we sometimes need the intervention, but knowing when to stop, combined with the wisdom to know that perfection is impossible and that we cannot get everything we want, is the key to long term prosperity. 


Respect is a complicated and apparently internally inconsistent concept, with tinges of love, hate, fear and admiration all at the same time.   It is precisely because of those complications that respect is a key element in human relations.  

Niccolo Machiavelli, the father of realpolitik, reasoned that it was better to be feared than loved based on his assessment of human nature that, “… they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you.”   I am not quite as cynical as Machiavelli, but you can see this pattern over and over in politics and foreign affairs.  The colloquial American phrase is “What have you done for me lately?”

Machiavelli avers that it is indeed better to be BOTH loved and feared when possible.  This describes being respected.   You earn respect by being consistent over the long term.  If people know you will be consistent and will act with integrity, they will often accept what you do, even if they don’t like the things you are doing.   And I have been repeatedly surprised how quickly acceptance can turn to support.   Success matters.

That is why you cannot give up when you hit opposition or try to run your affairs like a popularity contest.  Public opinion is indeed fickle and despite what people tell pollsters it is usually based more on impressions than on facts.    

People who don’t respect themselves have trouble respecting others.  That is why we have some much trouble with some people and places.  The proper response is not to lower the bar for these guys, but rather demand more from them. 

How much more insulting is it to imply or say outright that some people are unable to reach the higher standards we set for ourselves, so we will create a kind of ethical junior varsity for them.

I was moved to think about this by the guilty verdicts for the five immigrants who planned to attack Fort Dix and murder American soldiers.  Actually, it was not the verdict itself, but the subsequent gnashing of teeth about what this would mean to the “Muslim community.”  When you read carefully, however, you see that most of the teeth gnashing is done by the professional victims, who don’t speak for the community they purport to represent.  Actual people involved want to be treated with respect AS Americans.  One Albanian immigrant said, “I don’t know what they were thinking. They were just out of their mind and they should be put away for life. The Albanian community is nothing like this. We come from a country that has a reputation for religious diversity and tolerance. To go against the American government _ that’s unacceptable to our community.”  Got it – respect. 

All immigrants have revealed by their actions that they prefer the U.S. to wherever else they came from.  America is the land of their choice.   Many of us have forgotten this simple truth so we let the malcontents speak for “the communities” and don’t give or demand the proper respect from everybody else.   Treat each individual as a human being, not a member of a group, and we will all be better off.  It is the principled choice.

As for those five clowns who betrayed the country that welcomed them, they seem to be getting the justice they deserve.   These were stupid young men who were misled by all that holy war BS.  It is a pattern we see too often.  I always felt sad when I saw detainees in Iraq.  The pattern was you would see around ten stupid young men, who really didn’t think clearly about what they were doing and one hard eyed bad guy who had led them to hell with his hatred.  The purveyors of that poison are complicit, but the young men evidently were determined to kill innocent  for no reason we can ethically accept, so let’s not waste too much sympathy on them.  

The Joy of Virginia Forest Land

People own lots of things but we form special relationships with the land we own.   Wound up in land is the concept of connection of our ancestors’ to the earth and our legacy for future.   There is no surprise that people have deep feelings for land that has been in their families for generations, but it is astonishing how fast the same connections form with adopted land.

I have loved forests and wanted to have my own part of one for as long as I can remember.   But buying a forest is not something most people do.   Most forest owners inherit them.   I would have to borrow the money to buy my forest so I couldn’t afford to do it as a mere indulgence, so I started to study on the economics of forestry.   I was surprised and encouraged to learn that forestry was an excellent, if illiquid, investment.    According to Forbes magazine, timber investments from 1990 – 2007 timber produced a compounded annual return of 12.88%.    You just cannot beat that if you have the time and the inclination to wait for nature to take its course. 

Most people who invest in forestry do so through REITs and TIMOs.   That option didn’t appeal to me.   That makes forestry just another investment.   My logic was the reverse.  I was looking for a lifestyle choice, not a mere investment vehicle.   I wanted to own a forest and I needed to justify it as an investment, not the other way around.   And I wanted my forest that I could stand on and manage.    After investigating the economics, I decided that I felt secure enough in my judgment on this matter to base my retirement savings on growing trees rather on a capricious stock market. 

Of course finding the right forest is harder to do than buying stocks or mutual funds.   I needed to find a place close enough to my house that I could visit but far enough from Northern Virginia that I could afford the land.   My research took me to Southside Virginia on the Piedmont south of Richmond.  This is the land of the loblolly pine.   The soils of the region were denuded by generations of cotton and tobacco farming and the land has been returning to forest for more than a century.   The decline of the tobacco industry, which pushed people off the land and the distance from growing cities kept land prices lower.   

Successful forestry on one tract of land requires successful forestry in the neighborhood.  Wood is heavy and hard to transport.   Unless you have enough forested acres in a roughly 60-100 mile radius to sustain a forestry industry and mills, you really cannot grow trees profitably.   The forests of Southside Virginia meet this need.   I knew this was where I would find my forests. 

I called a rural real estate broker called Rick Rawlings in Lawrenceville.   He didn’t think I was serious when I called him and probably didn’t change his mind when I showed up at his office in Lawrenceville.   He wanted to steer me to small tracts of land suitable to building a getaway cabin.    I told him that I didn’t care for such things.   I wanted a place for forestry – real forestry.    He told me that he had some tracts that were 100+ acres, but they were isolated and it would cost me a fortune to bring in things like electricity.  “You would never be able to build,” he warned.   He smiled when I told him that is exactly what I wanted. 

He showed me several tracts of well developed timberland and then told me about a recent clear cut.   It was 178 acres of clearcut plus 2, but there was good site preparation and I could see the tops of the little pines poking above the weeds & old brush.   I also liked the streams and the mature hardwoods left near them.   That was my first tract. 

The first thing an absentee landowner needs to do is get to know the neighbors and make some local allies.   They are the ones who can protect your land … or not.   Fortunately, the land had a hunt club already associated with it and they were happy just to keep on with the previous relationship.   The hunt club maintains the gates and the no trespassing signs.   Their presence on the land also discourages squatters or some clowns planting drugs, which can be significant problems.    In this rural area, everybody knows everybody else and they all knew about me.    I had to overcome a bit of a stereotype when I drove up with my Honda Civic Hybrid, but when they figured out that I knew about the trees and wanted them to keep on hunting, everything was okay.   A couple of the guys took me around and showed me the various thinning and timber operations they were working on.    When I got stuck in the mud, the local farmer came and pulled me out with his tractor.   I was really interested in hearing their stories about the land and their experiences.   

I also joined the Virginia Forestry Association and got the communication director job for the tree farm project.   My job mostly consists of writing an article for the Virginia Forests magazine four times a year and I get to interview and write the story of the tree farmer of the year.   I learned a lot from these things.   Forestry is kind of an art form.   Local conditions make a big difference and by local I mean difference of a few yards or a change in the slope of a hill.   The more successful tree farms you see, the better feel you get for understanding your own.    I have never met or even heard about a tree farmer who didn’t love his forest, and everybody you meet is eager to talk about their particular places.   I know I am.

I don’t depend on my forest for current income, so I have the luxury of experimentation.   I have done pre-commercial thinning and biosolids application.   I am reasonably certain that these things will make the forest grow faster, be a better place for wildlife and just look better, but I am not sure it will actually be worth the outlay in terms of actual income.

Anyway, I have been happy with my forestry investment choice.  You cannot rush the trees, so I sometimes wish I had got into the business sooner and been further along.   But I then I remember that I couldn’t.  Besides the obvious lack of money (or more correctly credit), I didn’t have enough understanding of the forestry business.   Liking trees is not sufficient.    I also do not think I could have done this deal in the pre-internet world.  It is amazing what you can find on the Internet and all the research you can you do.   For example, Southern Regional Forestry Extension has online courses.   You can download these on ITunes. 

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The old Jimmy Stewart classic was on today.    I suppose that it was scheduled well in advance, but the movie is particularly appropriate these days given the Senate seat sale apparently underway in the great state of Illinois.   “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was made in 1939, so I guess it shows that political corruption is nothing new.   But I fear that we seem to have lost the capacity for shame.   Now we see things in terms of political maneuvering and tend to treat it more like a game. It should not be. Politicians do not own their offices.  They just are holding them for the people. 

That film made an impression on me.   I saw it on TV for the first time on the day before my mother died.    That whole day is strongly pressed into my memory.  We didn’t handle it well.  My father was trying to protect my sister and me, but I think it ended up isolating us.  I figured if I just didn’t believe it was possible, it wouldn’t be true.   My sister was only fifteen.   My time would have been better spent being with her than watching television by myself.   Sorry.  Seeing that movie brings back those memories.   Thirty-six years later it still stings.  But that’s not all.

As with all real classics, the impressions from the movie grew beyond it with the outside experience.  When I joined the FS and came to Washington for the first time, I walked around the Capitol Mall, as Jefferson Smith does in the movie and I had a similar reaction.  I still do.  Even after all these years and daily familiarity with the monuments, they still move me. 

Of course, it is painful that Jeff Smith is such a complete rube.  We have a kind of fetish of the outsider in the U.S. that innocence and inexperience are the keys to successful political leadership.  I think that is wishful thinking and a caricature of the valid argument that not all expertise and intelligence resides with experts and professionals.  We need and benefit from a constant influx of new people and new ideas.   It is too easy for people within the beltway and the political class generally to think they have cornered the market on knowledge.  But like anything else, there are skills and experience that are useful in government and they are not always self evident or easily acquired. 

My view on the movie is more nuanced than when I saw it when I was seventeen.    Then I just saw the good little guy against the big corrupt machine.    I used to think that politics was about right and wrong, that there was a RIGHT answer.   Now I understand that we have politics because we disagree about what is the right thing to do.  When we all agree, we don’t have politics; we just have laws or customs.   Politics is about compromise in all the connotations of that word.    I don’t believe that a politician as a person must or should abandon principles or values, but the TOOL of politics is at best amoral.   That is why it is best to keep as much out of politics as possible.   Reserve politics for the real disagreements. 

As I watched the movie again today, I thought of how Jeff Smith should have gone about his work in the Senate.   He could have built that boys’ camp, but maybe not at that exact location.   In fact, the dam the Taylor machine wanted to build might have improved the setting.  They could have a nice lake and get to watch the nearby construction.     If all parties to negotiations have positions they cannot or will not compromise, it is unlikely they can come to any kind of mutually beneficial deal.   The idea is that everybody gives and gets.  When one of the parties takes a “my way or highway” stand, as Jeff Smith does, nothing moves.  

There are sacred principles that cannot be compromised.   There are things we will fight for and die for, things we will impose on others.  If you cannot think of any, you are soul-dead.   If you can think of too many, you are a self-indulgent narcissist.   Given a few more years of experience, Mr. Smith would have been more effective, if less certain of his righteousness.     It probably would not make a very interesting movie, however.

In a Better Mood: Clean & Friendly Doha

When I glance back at my recent entries, I see I was not in the optimum mood.  It really helps to get out and meet people.  

Below is the moon over Doha Islamic Center, a very interesting spiral building as you can see. 

I didn’t expect to get to see Doha, but fortunately some of the guys stationed on the base thought of a reason to get us out and so we went to a restaurant in town and got to walk around the market.   I could not see as much because it was dark, but I suspect there was not much in the market to see that wasn’t lit up anyway.  I regret not seeing more of Doha itself, although I don’t think there was more than a day’s worth of looking, it seemed a nice place. People who like to shop would like it here, IMO.

The streets were very clean and lively and prices were reasonable.  I paid about $15 for my meal at a nice restaurant.  Coffee at a place that looked like Starbucks was around $2.  

The market had all kinds of goods, not all of them directed at tourists. The most interesting shop sold falcons – yes, the birds – and falconer supplies. There are probably not many stores like that around. Falconry is a popular sport among the rich around the Arab world. The falcons hunt other birds and small animals like rabbits. The return in terms of meat per unit of input is low. It is a luxury, which is why it has always been the sport of nobles or people with lots of resources and time on their hands. It requires patience to train the birds and knowledge of the environment to deploy them to hunt and it probably becomes part of a whole lifestyle.

The falcons in the shop didn’t do anything interesting, although it was interesting to look at them for a short time.  I didn’t ask how much they cost and the store proprietor didn’t try to sell me anything.  I expect he could easily tell that I was just a looker and not a falcon enthusiast.   My guess is that most people who come through his shop don’t intend to buy anything and he has become accustomed to the gawking traffic.

It was good to get out of camp.  The whole trip will now have a better place in my memory.  Living in the cans is no fun.  The cans in Al Asad were better because they were outside and your window got natural light.  Beyond that, I have a roommate here.   He is a good guy, one of my coworkers, but I would prefer my own place. The cans here are stacked on top of each other and all of them are housed in an enormous warehouse.   It is like living in a giant steel hive. 

We also work inside a big steel warehouse with little tents or boxes set up as rooms.   It is sort of like an exhibition hall.  We don’t have enough computers to go around, so there are a few of us always made redundant.  W/o computers, you really cannot do much work in a modern office setting.  I am not sure why they brought us all the way here for this work.  I suppose it is cheaper than sending us to an offsite in W. Virginia or Florida, or even keeping us in Washington, where most of my colleagues have to be in TDY.  I am an extraordinarily good deal for them, since I live in N. Virginia and they don’t have to pay me for hotel or meals.  Once they pay the air fare, there is not much variable cost in having us work in Doha.  They already have the hives and the chow hall is cheaper than per Diem.  Actually they give us per Diem – $3.50 a day – for incidentals.  I would say that I shouldn’t spend it all in one spot, but I already did. 

I had to buy toothpaste and a couple pair of socks, which I forgot.  While I was there I got a nice shirt and some junk food.   Strictly speaking it did not take up the whole ten days per Diem, which comes to $35.00.   When you get to my level, you get the big bucks.

Flying to Doha

Another post out of chronological order. 


I dreaded the flight to Doha.  When I got to the ticket counter, they couldn’t find my reservation.   I had a momentary feeling of guilt mixed with relief that I could avoid the trip.   It would not really have helped, however, I would just have to go the next day and meanwhile it would have been a lot of trouble.  They found my reservation, but not my seat so I got an exit row with a lot of leg room.  Sometimes it pays to be oppressed and forgotten.   I got better than I expected.

I was listening to an audio book re expectations.  People enjoy more things that are more expensive or harder to get.  The placebo effect works because of expectations.  People get real fake drugs because they think they will.  And they get better relief from more expensive placebos because they perceive higher quality.  You get what you pay for.  Maybe it will never be possible to get really cheap drugs because people may get the relief they expect and they expect less when things cost less.

The mind makes it so.  I was telling Chrissy re conditions in Iraq.  As I described the sand, snakes, scorpions, heat, hardness, fumes, bouncing and hazards, I realized how objectively it was horrible.  But it was not that bad.   All these bad things were balanced by the sense of purpose, friendship, the experience and the fact that I chose to do it. The interesting distinction is that the hard parts are all objective.  It is hot, or not, sandy or not etc.   The things that mitigate it are all subjective.  Within broad bounds, the actual physical experience is a lot less important than how you chose to react. 

Doha 1:  Arabs Like America (When They Actually Experience It)

I talked to a young guy called Josef on the plane.   He is native to these parts but currently attending Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.    He confirmed some of what I heard about Doha.   He proudly told me that the natives all get things like free health care and scholarships.  Many attend university in foreign countries as he did.   They get this with the added benefit of not paying taxes.  All this largess is made possible by the hydrocarbons created by plants and animals in the days of the dinosaurs and before.   Talk about the luck of the draw.  

I am glad, BTW, that he brings some of this Doha money to Virginia paying out-of-state tuition.   It is still a good deal.  Education is a big deal of us in the U.S.   Last year we had more foreign students than ever in the U.S.  and the U.S. hosts more foreign students than any other country.    We had a little dip after 9/11, because of visa problems etc.  but we made up for it. 

Josef told me that he loved America.   Since he started the conversation and seemed so enthusiastic, I will accept that he didn’t say that only for my benefit.    Personal experience trumps the statistical study and he said that Americans all over our country (he travelled a lot) were nice to him and welcoming.   Now if we could just get all those other billion people to have a similar experience with real America, we wouldn’t have an image problem.

Doha 2:  Caste Systems

 It is an odd mix.   All the stewardesses (there seem to have been no men) on Qatar Airlines are Asian.   I think they were Indonesian.    All the people doing construction looked like South Asians and there people from the Philippines crowded the airport on their way to work as domestic laborers.    The population of native Doha people is small and they don’t seem to take part in the everyday work of the country.   

It is not so strange that immigrants do the less attractive jobs in a country as rich as this, but it is odd, IMO, how there seems to be such complete national specialization.    I understand that my observations are limited and I should not extrapolate to the general condition from the small sample I have seen, but I have never seen anything like it.   It is all very neat.  I don’t know if it results from a plan or is just self organizing and auto correlated.   Both things must be at work. 

I thought re alternative histories.  What if WWI had not sapped the power of the British and they had held onto their empire for a longer time.    Given the general trends, it probably would have developed into something more integrated and you may well have others from the empire making their way up the social and political latter.   It happened in the Roman Empire, as full citizenship was extended until it encompassed the entire empire, so much so that people from the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor, speaking Greek still called themselves Roman a thousand years after the German barbarians kicked out the last emperor in Rome itself.

Anyway, in the age of imperialism, a place like Qatar or the oil rich and easily defended deserts of Arabia would be controlled by some imperial power.   I figure the Brits would have it, but given the evolution mentioned above, it might be actually run by Indians, citizens of a British Empire with an increasingly Indian accent.   That integration of Arabia with South Asia may yet happen.   If they keep on coming, there will be more of them than the ostensible natives.