Another Victory in Iraq

See also Victory in Iraq 

A purple finger in the terrorist eye.  

Elections went well in Iraq.   It looks like turnout was high. The Sunnis and Shia voted in large numbers.   The day was peaceful.   Iraq is the most democratic country in the Arab world today, thanks to the courage of the Iraqi people and the strength & perseverance of America and our allies. We didn’t give up; we outlasted them.  Saddam didn’t go quietly into that good night, but he is gone.  The terrorists did not give up easily, but they were defeated. 

When I volunteered to go to Iraq things were not so good. Most of the experts predicted defeat for us, chaos for Iraq and despair for the people of the Middle East. They were wrong.  

How far we have come!   

I know the pseudo intellectuals will solemnly ask “what does victory mean?”   I am kind of a simple guy, so let me explain it in simple terms I can understand.  It seems to me that overthrowing one of the world’s worst tyrants, helping create a democracy where none existed before, defeating an extremist terrorist group in the heart of the Middle East on a battlefield of THEIR choosing, sowing confusion among our enemies and just doing what they (the defeatists around the world and the terrorists themselves) said couldn’t be done – this is victory. 

Emerson said that people’s view of the world is a confession of their characters. Some people can never be happy.  If their team wins in the Superbowl tomorrow, they will just complain that it may be harder next year.  It is their character flaw, their misfortune and none of my own.  I pity them, but I cannot persuade them and I don’t need to let them pull me down.  Today is a good day for democracy, peace and good people around the world. Despots and dictators are feeling less secure.  Al Qaida and their retrograde buddies are crying in their caves. That doesn’t mean that problems have disappeared.  That doesn’t mean that we have achieved an ultimate utopia, but let’s celebrate this big step in the right directions; let’s celebrate a victory.

The Iraqi people have stuck their purple fingers in the eyes of the terrorists.  They are riding down to road to democracy with all its joys and challenges.   Hurray for free Iraq.  I congratulate all the brave Iraqis I met during my time. You did good guys and it was a privilege to be among you.

On the left are USMC shirts on sale in Iraqi shops.  The US Marines were popular in Anbar by the summer of 2008 because they protected the people.  I saw these in the marketplace in Hit. You would not have seen this picture in the mainstream media.  Of course, with only a couple of exceptions, they were not with us walking around in the markets so they didn’t see this stuff. 

Follow this link to earlier stories and pictures on Iraq.

Privacy Ancient & Modern

Below is a statue of Admiral David Farragut.  He captured New Orleans in 1862, which split the Confederacy and virtually stopped the export of southern cotton.  His famous quote, “damn the torpedoes, go ahead full speed ahead” comes from the battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. In those days, they called naval mines torpedoes. The harbor was mined but Farragut ordered it forward anyway.

It is only embarrassing if you don’t talk about it. I had my first colonoscopy today and I am happy to say that I don’t need another one for ten years.  The actual procedure is very easy. They use general anesthesia and it is no more uncomfortable than an afternoon nap.

The preparation is the hard part. You have to drink about three liters of some chalky stuff.  It is really hard to drink that much of anything and this stuff is harder than most. You also cannot eat anything the day before. This was not as hard as I thought.  

Modern medicine is wonderful.  Things that used to be hard are now easy. They are very careful legally, however. I had to sign lots of forms and they told me lots of things about privacy. They worry too much.  I think we should expect reasonable – not absolute – privacy.  

Absolute privacy, the privacy where you were really unknown, is a thing of the past. Hanging onto this old fashioned privacy illusion is silly and counterproductive.    While some people are busily reinforcing the front gate with ridiculously stringent laws and regulations, they are eagerly tearing down the back walls, by putting all sorts of really personal information on Facebook or their cell phones.  Internet has got you anyway. The only way you can hide from Google is to have a really common name. Chrissy (Christine Johnson) is immune to Google search.  Most people are not.     

It doesn’t bother me if somebody can find out my buying or travel habits.  I voluntarily share information with Amazon, Safeway, CVS or Marriott, among others.    I don’t mind if this helps them tailor their offerings to my tastes, although I am mildly annoyed that some computer program can fairly predict my behavior by extrapolating from my previous choices.  As a Federal employee, I give the government the right to monitor my office computer use.  Frankly, I find this a type of protection from scammers etc.  Privacy?  All I want is that people cannot compel me to do things or buy things.   They can offer all they want. 

Below is the National Portrait Gallery, one of the most interesting museums in Washington.

Generally, I figure anybody who wants to find out about me can do so but they will soon get bored and go away.   I do, however, like to be unconnected.   I don’t own cell phone and I don’t use the one the government gives me if not on duty.  When I go down to the woods it is very hard to find me.   We can still get lost.  This is the kind of privacy we can still choose, but it is the kind of privacy most people don’t want.  They want to be connected all the time.   I hate it when those clowns talk on the phone when they are driving.   Few things are so urgent that you really need to take a call when driving … or doing most other things for that matter.  

But you don’t need details about everything.  That is why I included only the unrelated pictures in this privacy article.

Brazilian Biofuels

Below is Rio.  Chrissy & I went there in August, which was winter there.  It doesn’t get cold and the water was pleasantly cool.  It was fun playing in the waves, but I almost got sucked out by a rip tide.  I tried to swim in but found myself farther and farther from land.  Then I remembered to swim parallel to shore.  Rip tides are like rivers; they are long but usually not wide.  We didn’t see much of Brazil.  This was our first post and since we were so poor paying off student loans, setting up household etc we only went where the job sent us.  Fortunately, travel was a part of my job.  Brazil is a beautiful and diverse country.

I was in Brazil when the sugar cane alcohol fuel program was just a few years old.   Cities like Rio, Sao Paulo or Porto Alegre sort of smelled like a tavern, not a surprise when the cars are essentially running on rum. I was intrigued by the idea of turning sugarcane into fuel, but I admit that I wasn’t very impressed with the application back in 1985/6.   Porto Alegre has a climate like Savannah, Georgia.   It rarely got very cold, but it was cold enough to gum up the engines that ran on alcohol. But the Brazilians have overcome these challenges and their thirty-year experiment with alternative fuels seems to have succeeded. They have gone from importing 70%+ of their fuel for their cars to less around 10%, but there is more to the story.  I went over to AEI to hear Energy Lessons from Brazil to get the update.

Below is Porto Alegre from the window of our apartment there.  Rainbows like that were common.

The speaker explained that the impressive figures were a little deceptive.   The Brazilian success came not only from alternative fuels, but also from a lot of old fashioned oil that they discovered offshore.  And that was the first lesson from Brazil – you have to do all of the above when it comes to energy. 

Brazil has a big advantage in biofuels because the climate is great for growing sugarcane and sugarcane is great for making biofuel.  Making fuel from sugarcane is around 8 times more efficient than from corn.  In fact, corn probably uses as much or more energy to make a gallon of fuel as it yields, so corn ethanol is more just an energy carrier than source.  Beyond that, sugarcane is relatively unmanipulated, i.e. there has been little crop improvement done on cane, so there more scope for easy improvement than there is in corn, which has long been the subject of selection. 

Below is Brasilia.  The picture is within the city.  It was not carved out the jungle, as the myth says.  Brasilia was mowed out of the grass.  The climate is nice, with a dry season when it never rains and a wet season when it rains every day.  I like the rainy season better because it gets very green. There was a lot of space in 1985.  I suppose it has grown.

Even with all this, however, low oil prices in the 1990s almost killed the sugarcane experiment.  Ethanol from sugarcane is competitive with gas when oil is around $50 a barrel.   When oil gets too cheap, it drives out the alternatives, as I have written before.

Alternatives to oil are good for both political and economic reasons.   Most of the world’s easily exportable oil is under or near unstable countries often in places where democracy is not viewed with particular enthusiasm.   Less dependence on these sorts of places is good.  In the Brazilian case (which probably in applicable generally) having the alternative to oil made the economy more stable.  More than 90% of the cars sold in Brazil are flex fuel, which means drivers can choose the cheaper fuel, which moderates price changes.  Besides that, the alternative fuel employs people within the country, keeping transfers at home instead of bleeding money to various petrostates. 

Below is Gramado, north of Porto Alegre.  Southern Brazil had a lot of immigrants from Germany and N. Italy and had a very European feel, except for the exotic trees.      

We can learn from what the Brazilians pioneered.  Some of the technologies and techniques can be applied and adapted to American realities.   We need to find a better feedstock than corn for our biofuels, however.  I hold out hope for cellulostic ethanol, but nobody can predict the future.  Ten years ago, the Brazilian ethanol experiment was floundering; today it is flourishing.  In an uncertain world, you have to try all of the above with a wide portfolio of solutions … and be ready to be flexible when some of your favorites don’t work.  

P.S. In the Q&A somebody got up and self righteously asked why America with around 5% of the world population should consume 25% of the world’s energy.  Somebody always “asks” this question, but it is a silly question and the premise is wrong.   Energy consumption is related to output. The U.S. produces around 25% of the world’s output and it consumes a commensurate amount of energy.   We need to be more efficient in our use of energy, but we cannot get down to using the same % of energy as our population unless our economy collapses (and probably brings the world down with us) or others in the world catch up. 

Energy intensity

They call that energy intensity or energy efficiency.  Our energy intensity has been improving for the last 40 years, but our economy is growing even faster.   

Slothful & Indifferent

“Being yourself” is overrated and it is terrible advice to give a young person.  Much education and virtually all professional training is specifically designed to teach you to be different – and better.  Most success in life depends on your ability to play the proper roles.   This is as it should be. 

On the left is me when I was 19 and knew everything.  I actually had hair back then.

People left to just be themselves will often behave with slothful indifference, or worse. Doing the right thing is hard work that requires significant discipline and preparation.  Those doing the wrong things often rationalize away their failings, since the wrong thing usually results from the sin of omission rather than commission.  People neglect preparation or lack reasonable foresight and then find themselves in an untenable position.  Portraying themselves as victims, they plaintively ask, “What else could I do?” as circumstances “force” them into some questionable actions.

Random chance – luck – is an important factor in any result, but the chronically unlucky are probably making poor choices, often by what they are choosing NOT to do, as I discuss above.   

Below is a picture of my father (the guy w/o the hat) back in the summer of 1941, when he was 19 and knew everything. Even from our distant time, we can feel the joy of care free youth.  The Great Depression was ending.  Young men could find jobs. Later that year the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  By the next summer, my father was in Europe at the request of his Uncle Sam.

I am a natural procrastinator.  I have known that since I was a kid.   I compensate for this because I am a quick study with a significant talent to “think on my feet” or “wing it.”  I don’t say this to boast, but rather to point out the mixed blessing.  These skills allow me to get away with insufficient preparation and even when I pull off a success, it may not be the best I could do.  Because I recognize the problem, I can fight against the tendency, but I will forever struggle against the tendency to “be myself.” 

We are our own first creation.  We demonstrate who we are by what we aspire to be, by the choices we make and by the roles we choose.  My “self” is defined by my family, my forests, my diplomacy career and various long term habits such as reading and running.   I doubt anybody would have predicted this for me when I was born.  The things are do now are not the default option; I am not being my “natural” self,  but I am certainly being “me” – the me I have chosen, the one I want to be, not the one I was stuck with.  Sure glad I didn’t try too hard to be myself when I was younger.

My advice to the kids is don’t just be yourself; be better.  It will be more satisfying.

A Little Snow in Washington

Below is from the Smithsonian Metro stop looking east toward the Capitol, which is hidden by the fog and snow.

t doesn’t take much snow to paralyze our nation’s capital.  Even this little bit you see on the Capitol Mall was enough to shutter the local schools. It has been a cold winter (by Washington standards) but this is the first snow that has stuck to the ground.  The biggest snow storms come usually in February & March.  The sun is warm and the snow doesn’t last long, but they tie up traffic in this city of southern efficiency and northern charm.

When I was a kid they almost never closed the schools.   We had to walk miles through mountains of snow – up hill both ways.   When you reach your anecdotage, the hardships of the past are magnified in relation to the wimpiness of the present.    It has always been thus.  My father told me tales too.   Of course, things actually were hard for him in the Great Depression followed by WWII.  Those who compare our easy times to those years have a not studied the history and/or did not have a parent to tell them about it.

Below is the view from the Smithsonian Metro looking west toward the Washington Monument.

But we had hard times in the 1960s & 70s too.  This was mostly related to having to listen to the hard times stories of our elders, but decade from 1973-82 really was bad.  What we fear MIGHT happen now DID happen then, with double digit unemployment and double digit inflation. 1979/80 was the worst time of my life so far.  Not only did we suffer the economic malaise, but the environment was much dirtier than it is today.  The Ayatollah had grabbed the hostages; the Soviet Union was expanding all over the world; Central America looked like it would go communist; the debt crisis was crushing the developing world; interest rates were high and gas prices were higher. There was no way out.

My father told me that the 1930s were much worse, but I didn’t live through those worse hard times, so I feared the contemporary fall was forever. Ten years later, the Berlin Wall fell; the economy was expanding; gas was cheap and interest rates were coming down.  The boom that started in 1982 would continue with two minor shocks (1991 & 2001) until 2007.  Nobody would have believed that back in 1979.   There was a whole industry of doom and gloom books, predicting the imminent replacement of the U.S. by Japan, the collapse of the free market & the triumph of the Soviet Union.  Hard to remember now and you cannot find many people who will admit to believing those things, but they did and the experts were wrong.

America is never really down.  We are just resting before going on to our next success. 

But returning to the snow, it was indeed colder during the 1970s.   Earth has cycles.  The 1930s were warm years.  It returned to “normal” in the 1940s, so that the Battle of the Bugle occurred during the coldest winter in 15 years.   The 1950s were a bit warmer again, and then we had a cold decade from the middle 1960s until the middle 1970s.  That is the weather I remember as a kid. 

They didn’t close school unless there were a few feet of newly fallen snow.  Conditions have changed, however.   Most of us went to neighborhood schools and we walked to get there.   You might slip and fall walking to school, but a fatal accident is unlikely.  Today most kids are bussed to school.  It is dangerous to ride in a bus on icy roads.  That is the weak link and that is why they have to close schools more often today for smaller accumulation of snow and ice, that and the liability exposure.  Our culture has changed and so has our adaptation to the weather.  I was not at tough as my old man and my kids cannot be as tough as I was.   We won’t let them.


A homeless man killed the trees in the pictures.   I saw him carving on them with a pocket knife a couple years back.   He moved on when I asked him about it, but he came back.   The police can’t do anything about these kinds of incidents and they discourage citizens from even giving the miscreants a hard time.   I have not seen the guy around since I have been back from Iraq.   I hope he is gone for good, but maybe he is taking the winter off.   How many trees he killed all together I don’t know, nor do I have any clues on the motivation.  Maybe he was just bored.   Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.  There are dozens of dead trees about the right age in the neighborhood, but there are other possible causes.   

There are a lot fewer homeless around here than there used to be when I first moved to Washington.  I don’t know if they are gone or just gone someplace else.  There used to be a guy called Mitch Snyder, who ran a local homeless shelter. He deployed the homeless around the Washington area with the expressed purpose of making a kind of political statement.  I moved to Washington during the heyday of his activities, so I suppose some of my impression of the time was part of his street theater. 

I think it was back in 1999 when I was running near the Lincoln Memorial and noticed an unusual number of street people.   As I turned toward the Korean Memorial, I ran into a television production crew.  They were filming for a TV show called “West Wing,” with Martin Sheen playing President Jed Bartlet.  The guys lying around on the ground were ersatz homeless – i.e. actors. I watched the episode they were filming later in the season.   It was about the homeless in Washington. It was ironic that they had to hire their own homeless TV props to create the visual image they wanted.   Homelessness dropped a lot, and we have better responses than we did before, but it doesn’t take very many homeless to make a problem.

There is a legitimate argument about rights. All citizens have the right to use public spaces, but the public has the right to expect each individual to behave in a reasonable way. A homeless man is both a victim and a perpetrator. As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan commented, we defined deviancy down and learned to accept that people either w/o the ability or motivation to control their weird behavior could dominate our public spaces.  Bad behavior feeds on itself and engenders worse behavior. During the height of the homeless epidemic during the 1980s, many public parks were rendered unusable for ordinary citizens.  Kids couldn’t use the playgrounds.   A stroll in the park was like running a gauntlet of beggars.  When you lose public space, you lose public spirit and weaken the community.    

It is better now.  The homeless are fewer, but it is frustrating when one guy is responsible for thousands of dollars of slow release vandalism that deprives future generations of shade on hot summer days.  Sometimes we tolerate too much.

Happy Birthday Espen

Below is Frogner Park in Norway, where Espen was born.

Today is Espen’s birthday. The youngest of the kids is now eighteen. I remember the day he was born eighteen years ago.   Espen was born in Baerum Sykehus near Oslo. It snowed the day before he was born.  The snow mostly stays on the ground in Norway between November and March, but I remember looking out the hospital window at the fresh coat of white.  

Espen was named after a little Norwegian boy who we hardly knew.   It was one of Mariza’s classmates at the preschool and evidently a brat.    Mariza would come home complaining about this Espen.   “Espen slo pa mai.” (Espen hit me) Espen kastet jord pa mai.” (Espen threw dirt on me.)   My apologies to any Norwegian readers for the mistakes I made in spelling and grammar.   We liked the name.    All of the kids names are associated with countries.  Mariza was born in Brazil, so she has a Brazilian name.   We spelled it with a z instead of an s so that Americans would pronounce it closer to the Portuguese and not call her Marissa.  Alex’s  name was chosen when I expected to go to the Soviet Union.  Espen is actually a Norwegian name with a Danish origin.

The third kid in the family gets the advantage of having the first two break in the parents, so Espen developed fast.   He really loved a kind of bouncing swing that hung from the door frame.   I taught him to swim at the Kolsas pool before he could walk.   Like all kids, he could climb before he could walk, but he was especially good at it.   Our house in Norway had three floors, so he could make us nervous on several levels.

Espen only spent a year and a half in Norway, so he doesn’t remember it, but Norway was a great place for little kids.   It is safe & clean and there are lots of parks.  I am sure it made an impression on him, although the detail is forgotten.   

We moved to Silver Spring, Maryland for Polish training when Espen was about 1 ½ years old, so his first language was American English.   We got a house with a big yard and a fence.   Espen learned to climb over the fence right away. We moved to Krakow about a year later.

Espen adjusted well to Krakow and went to a Polish pre-school up the street.   He called it “two cats” because the woman who ran the school had two cats.  He learned Polish w/o knowing what he was doing and I got a great insight into language learning from him.   I heard him speaking to the cleaning woman in Polish, but he denied being able to speak the language when I asked him about it.   He told me that he didn’t speak Polish.  “Those are just the words I have to use with her,” he explained.  

We bought a house in Virginia after we came back from Poland in 1997.  Espen went to Strevewood Grade School.  Espen and Alex had a lot of friends during our three years there.   Espen played on the Fairfax County little kids’ league. His team was called the little wizards and they were good.

We moved back to Poland in 2000, this time to Warsaw.   Espen and the other kids attended the American School in Warsaw and they were lucky enough to get a brand new school building.   The American School in Warsaw was a very posh place.  It is hard for working diplomats to have kids in this sort of school, because many of their local classmates are fabulously rich.  The government pays for our kids but those local guys who can afford the tuition themselves are very well off.    Espen went to one birthday party where they drove around in little Mercedes go-karts and got helicopter rides.   He wondered why his birthday parties were so pedestrian.   The locals think that all American diplomats are rich, but we just can’t play in their world.   

Below is our home in New Hampshire.

We came back to the U.S. in 2003, but lived up in New Hampshire, as I got the job as State Department Fellow at Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy.   Espen attended the Middle School in Londonderry, NH.   It was hard for the kids.   Many of the families have been established there for generations.   It is hard for newcomers, especially since we knew we would be there only for a year. 

We moved back to Virginia in 2004, same place where we lived before.  Espen went to Kilmer Middle School and then George C Marshall HS.  He still had some friends here and made new ones.  As I write this, I hear them all downstairs talking.  Parents can’t compete with friends at that age.  Virginia is home now.

These are my brief thoughts about my son on his birthday. Of course, there is a lot more than I am writing.  Suffice to say, I am thinking about the last eighteen years.  I miss the baby and the child, and I love and I am proud of the young man he has become.  

Financial Diversity, Risk, Profit & Loss

A guy on the radio today was complaining that he lost all his money invested with Bernie Madoff.  He made his money with many years of hard work in the NY garment industry and Madoff took it all, according to the report  I know we are all supposed to feel sympathy or even outrage.   He was the victim of a crook you could understand how he lost SOME of his money. But this guy claimed to have a couple million dollars invested, all of it with Madoff.   When you money like that, you have the capacity to diversify.   If you diversify you don’t lose ALL your money.  Although what the newly poor old guy describes might be a personal tragedy for him and from his point of view, it is not a random outcome and it was not beyond his control.   

You have to ask yourself why somebody might have so much invested in one place, why they insisted on putting all their eggs into one basket.   The answer is never flattering.    The least offensive is that the basket keeper is just ignorant.   More likely are elements of sloth, greed & a flexible definition of honesty. 

This is certainly not the first time people have been caught up in this sort of scheme and it won’t be the last.   Many financial histories begin with the South Sea Bubble or the Dutch tulip mania, which was the first recorded speculative bubble way back in 1637.  The patterns are clear.   Somebody offers the prospect of unusually high returns with minimal risk doing something that is difficult to understand.   They often are also exclusive and have the slight odor of something skating near the edge of the regulations.   That is ostensibly why they can make the big bucks.  Ironically, they also sell the schemes by implying that the investment is safe because it will be protected by regulators.  The regulations provide a kind of cover that encourages credulous investors to take greater risk.  They  think they are clever, cleverer than the average people with their pedestrian investments. 

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.   There is nothing wrong with making risky investments.   Risk is how you make high returns, but you need to understand what risk means.   Risk means that you are trading a greater chance of losing part or all your investment in return for the chance of making more money.    You can manage risk by diversifying your investments.   A good number of investments that are individually very risky can be low risk when they are put together.   You might lose all your money in one investment, but you gain enough on others to make up for it. Nobody can predict the future, so the only way to protect yourself is to spread your assets.   

You can still lose big money, as almost everybody has in the recent hard times, but you won’t get wiped out.  You get problems when you try to identify the ONE winning thing. Never do that. This is Investment 101.

If you went back in time before the crashes and told investors in Madoff/Enron/Keating/etc that they should be getting money out of these things and spreading their risk, most would have turned you down.   They were making the big bucks and wanted to keep on making them. How stupid would you have to be to take money out of such winning investments? 

A couple years ago, I watched a program about a bunch of the victims of Charles Keating.  I saw one angry old man who actually tried to spit on Keating. I think it was the same guy who sat with his son for an interview. His son was a financial planner and he asked why his father didn’t ask for advice before sinking all his savings into this investment.  The old man answered honestly, “Because I knew you would tell me not to do it.” He wanted the returns and figured he could get it risk free.  A fool and his money …

Anyone who promises very high returns w/o risk, is lying and/or doing something dishonest and anybody who still chooses to invest is stupid or dishonest or both.   With the freedom to choose comes the responsibly to choose responsibly.  

It is too bad that the old guy on NPR Radio will have to find a job at Wal-Mart or Seven-Eleven, but according to what he said himself, he gradually liquated all his other investments so that all his money was left with Madoff.  You don’t do that even when investing with someone who is perfectly honest because shit happens.  I guess some people have to learn that for themselves and something we have to learn as a society every couple of years.

Cranes of the Southwest

We lived at the Oakwood temporary apartments near Waterfront Plaza in SW when I was studying Norwegian in 1988.  The area didn’t change much over the next two decades, until a few months ago. Now it is a forest of cranes and new construction is going up all over.  The crane above, BTW, is on the frozen river.

A lot of the change is related to the new Metro. Development follows the Metro, even if it takes a few years, even in bad neighborhoods.   But the neighborhoods have also improved.   Back in 1988, this area was not so nice. That was the time of the crack epidemic.   During my year in Iraq, I never heard a shot fired in anger.  During my six months in SW in 1988, I heard several.   DC also had that horrible mayor back in 1988. I couldn’t understand how he could get elected and reelected, but his constituency evidently viewed honesty, law & order with less enthusiasm than I did. That Washington is just a bad memory and things are getting better.

SW has lots of advantages.  You could see that even in the bad old days. There are lots of parks. The waterfront is pleasant and features restaurants and shops selling the harvests of the Chesapeake and other seafood.   You are within walking distance of the Capitol and the Smithsonian museums, as well as the Library of Congress.   Now that the Green Line connects this neighborhood to the rest of the Washington Metro region, it has everything.  

Below used to be the Oakwood Apartments where we lived in 1988.  Now they are condos.

Places can bring back memories and this place reminds me of Alex and Mariza when they were little.  Alex was born while I was taking Norwegian and we brought him home to the Oakwood.   I remember walking with the kids over to the Waterfront Mall, the one that is now torn down and rising from the rubble.  It was a sad place back then and we didn’t go after dark, but it had a Roy Rogers, Pizza Hut & a Blimpie and it was within walking distance.   We used to walk the kids.   Alex was a happy baby and Mariza was cute.  

Below is just after dawn on the Mall.  I am taking pictures more or less from this same spot to look at the changes of seasons.

I was posted in Brazil when Chrissy got pregnant with Alex.  Mariza was born in Brazil, but Chrissy and Mariza were medivaced to Wisconsin for Alex’s birth.  They left in mid-January because after that time it would not be good for Chrissy to fly.  I had to finish my duties in Porto Alegre and stay until March, when they sent me to Washington for Norwegian training. I had to take annual leave and pay my own way up to Wisconsin (the FS was less into those family rights in those days). I was up there for Alex’s birth, but then had to go back to Washington to finish Norwegian.   Chrissy stayed with her parents and came down a few weeks later with the kids. Mariza was just over 2 years old.  A few weeks is a long time in the life of 2 years old and when I met them at the airport she was a little shy, but then she stood next to me and followed me around.  I remember those times fondly, but it was tough. I don’t think I could learn a language under those conditions today. 

Below shows the tough market.  A couple years ago you couldn’t find a rental. 

I developed a system for language learning, not very original or subtle but effective.  I just memorized about ten minutes of useful generic sentences, things like comparisons (on the one hand … on the other hand) or intros (Considering the conditions five years ago …) etc.  When I would walk around or run, I would just repeat the whole story. Over & over.  Language is a physical skill.  You just have to keep saying it out loud until it is driven down into the subconscious. From the basic words and phrases, you can branch out with variations. People think you are crazy talking to yourself, but it works.  For weeks I talked to myself constantly. When I finally passed my Norwegian exam and went silent, I felt strange.  I remember running around Haines Point and noticing how lonely it was with nobody to talk to. 

Simple, Maybe not Easy

People make the right choices when they have the right incentives and they can do what they say they cannot.   According to articles I read, Americans drove 112 billion FEWER miles over the past thirteen months.  This is way higher than the previous biggest drop of 49.9 billion miles in the 1970s.  The drops in driving are across the U.S., with Rhode Island, Utah and Vermont the top three. Wide open Utah has little in common with compact Rhode Island. The drop is rural and urban.

Below is a picture I took in Germany.  English is not their native language, but I don’t think this is coincidence.

Gas consumption drops when the price rises.  All the rules, CAFÉ standards and exhortations are mostly just feel good palliatives, analogous to all those fad diets beloved by fat people and largely ineffective.  Solutions are simple, just not easy. Higher gas prices lead to less driving. Traffic and parking problems help in the long run. People make logical decisions. When driving in cheap and easy, they drive more.  When conditions change, they do too. Bad economic conditions are evidently extending the demand drop for gasoline. Simple, but not easy – there is no painless way to achieve change.  

And we do need to change. The environmental effects of carbon consumption are bad enough, but we also have the geopolitical considerations. Most of the easily exported oil is under or near countries that are unstable or run by despots and tyrants.    

Anyway, the continuing drop in driving and related drop in oil consumption is a bit of good news, but we have been in this place before.  This time we should do the right thing and get the incentives right.  The time to raise taxes on oil is when prices are low.  I have written about these things many times before.  When gas prices were high, I wrote that they would drop again and that we should raise taxes on oil when they did. The time is now.