Diversions Feb 28

Below is a view of the buildings looking toward Dunn Loring Metro. It is not much to see, but growing.  The building the the front is a big post office.  You get very good service there.

Below is public storage.  We have a lot of those things around here.   People have too much stuff.  If you can’t fit your stuff in your own house, you have too much stuff.  Of course some storage is for people who are moving, but not that much.

Above – the crowds at the Obama inauguration trampled much of the vegetation around the Mall.  I suppose it will recover.  Most of the plants were dormant during the winter anyway.

Above – the road widening/renewal project has flattened much of the territory, making it look almost like a new development area.  Newer, taller buildings will eventually rise from the rubble.

Below is the fast food court at Gallows Rd and Arlington Bvd.  It features Pizza Uno, Wendy’s, Sweetwater, Panda Express and some others.  It would be okay except for the impervious pavement for the parking.

Below is the construction on Gallows north of my house.  It is making progress.

Facebook 2

I am still trying to understand the new communication technologies.  As I look back and forward, I come again to the constant in all communication.  Technologies don’t talk.  All communication happens between humans and humans.   It is like the old philosophical conundrum: If a tree falls in the wood and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?  The conundrum is easily solved if you define what you mean by sound.  It certainly creates vibration.  So it makes a sound in that sense.  But these vibrations only become meaningful as sound when somebody’s brain interprets it. 

When you add the human factor, you see that we are dealing with methods, not techie magic.   The technologies are just facilitators. Anyway, I noticed a couple of good articles to supplement my understanding expressed in my first Facebook posting. The Economist had a short but good article called Primates on Facebook that said some of the same things as my post re the limited of human cognition.  I didn’t know the source, but the limit of human interaction is called a Dunbar number, after an anthropologist who postulated that human face to face interaction can only go to around 150.  Somebody wrote a blog post about that.  It is more interesting than its title Extending Dunbar’s Number with the social web suggests. 

My own experience – that Internet steals memory – is evidently a common occurrence.  There was an interesting blog entry called Will Facebook ‘infantilize’ the human mind? 

But there is good news for geezers as I read in Older People on the Internet.  It makes sense.  Old people have time on their hands, are unenthusiastic about strenuous exercise and often no place to go, so they already have the prime characteristics of Internet nerds.  Large sections of the web will soon be big electronic geriatric wards.  That brave old geezer world will be well developed just about the time I get there, how convenient. I also got my Twitter account.  I like Twitter less, but I have been studying up on it.  Pew Research has a good summary of Twiterati demographics and habits.

Getting the Moving Finger

Nobody really cares about Iraq anymore.  A couple of colleagues and I did a “brown bag” seminar on our experiences there.  The few people who showed up did so mostly out of sympathy for me. It was nice of them and I appreciate the support, but Iraq is the past.  Media coverage mostly disappeared last year, just about the time things started to improve. Even I have trouble remembering that it was such a big deal not so long ago.

Iraq is no big deal and that is a big deal. It might be useful to consider how that happened.   It did not happen because the problem just went away.  It happened because we solved it.  In a less timid age, we might have said that we won a victory there.

Only a couple years ago, most experts were predicting defeat and not just a little one. The view was that Iraq would collapse into chaos and civil war and that it would take most of the Middle East with it.  In fact, the more “realistic” pundits claimed that had happened already.  Their sage advice was to get out as quick as possible and leave the place to its unavoidable violent tendencies.

Fortunately, some of us didn’t listen to these hollow men and despite their heckling went on to victory.  I feel a little shy about using that term “we,” but I stepped up to do my part too and together we – Coalition forces, brave Iraqis and sometimes even hapless civilians like me – did it. 

But is important not to waste what we have accomplished.  Given Iraq’s strategic significance, the mission ceased to be a “war of choice” the moment American forces crossed the border in March 2003. Now we have no choice but to see Iraq through to stability.

Many of the same people who called for us to give up a couple of years ago, now feel vindicated that we can withdraw.   The logic goes something like this:  “Three years ago, we said the U.S. should get out.  Now the U.S. is going to get out (mostly).  See, we were right.”   This is indeed logical – if you ignore the events of the past three years and you forget the effects of time.

Let’s do a historical thought experiment.  WWII ended in 1945.  Count back three years and you are in 1942.   Now imagine a peace activist in 1942 saying that this Hitler guy and the Imperial Japanese Navy are not really very dangerous and we are just making them mad by standing up to them.  Three years later he says, “See, I told you so.  You didn’t have to waste all that time with D-Day or Iwo Jima.”

I am belaboring this point because I have seen this kind of historical credulity before.   The Cold War ended unexpectedly in 1989.   No matter how hard you look, you cannot find any expert who unambiguously predicted this outcome even two years in advance.  In fact, intellectuals had great fun ridiculing Ronald Reagan for thinking that bringing down the communist empires was possible or even desirable.   Many were shocked into humility by the fall of the Berlin Wall, but they quickly recovered their composure.  Now it is hard to find anyone who will admit that he did not see it coming.   In fact, the new intellectual fashion seems to be that the fall of communism was inevitable and they have gone back to ridiculing Ronald Reagan, calling him a mere bystander at best and perhaps even an impediment.   (“We whisper together; are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in our dry cellar.”) 

George Santayana said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.   I don’t know if that all that’s true.  What is true is that those who don’t remember history are doomed to be tricked again in similar ways. 

There are large forces at work in history and everything that happens has multiple causes.  Our choices are bounded.  Timing is important.   The strategy that achieves wonderful success in one situation may be an ignominious failure in another.   But the choices we make DO make a different.  The choices we make change the shape of the future.   We choose.  This is the lesson of history we should never forget. 

Looking down from the high summit of time, it seems like events are determined.   The more comprehensive a change, the more it seems inevitable.  But this is an illusion. 

We achieved a victory in Iraq. We stared down a radical insurgency in the heart of the Middle East and beat it back.   This is something they said could not be done.  We did it. Iraq, despite all its flaws, is now the most democratic country in the Arab world.  Someday soon – not today, not tomorrow, but soon – historians will see the spring of 2007 as an inflection point in Middle Eastern history.   It will be seen as the time when the old barriers to freedom and development were breached and a new freedom was painfully born and began to grow, fitfully at first, but inexorably   They will see it as inevitable and our choices that made it possible will be forgotten.  

“The moving finger writes; and having writ moves on.  Not all your piety nor all your wit can coax it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash away one word of it.”


Mobile devices, such as cell phones, notebook computers and even hand-held games, may soon be the way most people get their news and information and become their primary way of accessing the Internet.    We have to be there too.  Some places may bypass conventional computers altogether (much like cellular technology bypassed land-lines), especially as more and more features are added to mobile devices.   Cell phones now come bundled with still and/or video cameras, global positioning systems and sophisticated computing capabilities.  Mobile devices fundamentally change people’s relationship to information because they are available any time and almost anywhere.   Mobile devices allow individuals to report what they see on the spot, along with pictures and connections.   User created content has essentially made individuals into media.  

Above is the hall of the new visitors’ center at the Capitol.  It took them years longer and a lot more money.  The guard told me that they had to reinforce all the doors and walls to make them more resilient in case of terrorism.  This extra precaution costs us billions, but you gotta have it.

Experts from private industry traded experience with veteran public diplomacy officers when International Information Programs (IIP) and the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) explored innovative and imaginative new ways to leverage mobile technologies for public diplomacy during a conference held at NFATC on February 19.  

It quickly became clear that mobile media, despite all the highfalutin hoopla, is just another part of the new media environment.  Several of the speakers emphasized the necessity of flexibility in the uncertain and protean world of the new media.    The new media is more fluid, fragmented, decentralized and personalized than more traditional media.  This creates challenges and opportunities for public diplomacy as well as for the traditional way we deliver messages at State Department.

Hearing the experts at the conference talk about exciting new communications technologies and even more coming soon, it also became clear that changes in new media environment are coming at an accelerating rate.  We have already seen some of yesterday’s most promising stars become today’s dinosaurs.   There is no reason to think this will be any different tomorrow, so it is silly and to try to pick winners among the new media.  Besides, we don’t have to.  We have an “all of the above” option.  What we have to do is experiment, recognizing that many will fail, but we will learn from the experiments that fail and that even those that succeed will work in unexpected ways requiring flexible responses.   The new media allows us to be flexible and being flexible means that we don’t choose “the best.”   Instead we try all appropriate methods, choosing the mix of media tools we think will work best for particular tasks.   We must use technology but not get beguiled by it, remembering that communication is the destination and the technology merely the vehicle we use to get there.  The mix will usually involve the newest technology used in the latest ways, but it will just as often include simple proven techniques such as personal visits.   Remember, we have the “all of the above” option.  Those are some of the lessons I learned at the conference.

Through all the changes in technologies, Edward R. Murrow’s famous observation remains true, “The really crucial link in the international communication chain is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.”   My colleagues and I at IIP understand that but we also know that we need to use all available and appropriate technologies to get within communication range.

I was happy to be able to attend this conference on mobile communications and proud that IIP is looking forward to the future, as demonstrated by its organizing this sort of meeting.  State Department is indeed using a variety of media to carry out its public diplomacy.   My colleagues at IIP are using twitter, Facebook, webchats, webcasts, podcasts, Youtube, digital video, blogs, online gaming and various mobile technologies to complement our more traditional Internet, speakers, outreach and publications.   Colleagues in other parts of State Department are also making innovations that harness the talents of State’s professionals.   It is an exciting time to work in public diplomacy. 

The Tao of Leadership

In a classic episode of M*A*S*H, Father Mulcahy grows some sweet corn.  After a summer of hard work and anticipation, he harvests the crop, turns it over to the chow hall cook and everybody looks forward to the hometown taste of fresh roasted corn.  But the cook has removed the corn from the cob and creamed it into the kind of slop he usually dispenses.  Insulted by the complaints, he replies indignantly, “I was just trying to be helpful. Next Fourth of July you can eat it on the cob for all I care.” 

Above is General Grant in front of the Capitol.  Grant was an unassuming man.  He could easily pass unnoticed.  They said that the only way you could tell if Grant was around was that things started to happen.   Grant was a great general, but he failed at everything else.  Is it enough to be really good at one thing? 

Leadership can be like that.   Sometimes it takes more time and effort to make a mush than to do the effective thing.   It is usually a good idea to lighten up and consider whether your problems are because of instead of in spite of your best efforts, but often the hardest thing to do is nothing.  Most of us have a kind of piece-work mentality.  We think we earn our money by how much we do.  Leadership often means that we add the most value by what we choose to leave undone.

A leadership technique that seems to work is to “get lost,” just be inaccessible.   I know that this goes against every fiber of the stay-connected zeitgeist, but sometimes you add no value and generally when you add no value in an organization, you are sucking up value by getting in the way.   At times when the problem is best solved by someone else, but you know that others may want to consult or defer to your judgment, the best response is to get lost. Doing nothing, BTW, is a very proactive strategy and is the appropriate one only in some situations.   It doesn’t mean you just sneak off to play golf, although in some cases that works by chance.  There are some places where things progress a lot better when the boss is not around and I am not talking about prescribed non-action here.

Of course, the whole technique presupposes that you have already built an environment of trust and autonomy, so that colleagues and subordinates will not merely cower in fear and indecision until your triumphant return.  And that is the big caveat. You are not allowed to reverse the decision for trivial causes and you can never get angry that it was made w/o you.  If you are prone to the character flaws that lead to these behaviors, you need to stay away from this technique, but recognize that your organization will never work at top performance because you won’t allow it.  And stop complaining about all the work you have to do or about your incompetent subordinates. That is the world you created by making yourself indispensable.   Live with it or change it, but in either case shut up about it.

And as the great Charles de Gaulle said, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”

I liked the “Book of the Tao” since I first discovered it when I was around twenty.  I bought a book at a used book shop for $0.25 called “The Wisdom of China and India.”  It was published in 1943.  They would never publish such a book today, since it lumped together these two great but very disparate cultures and presumed to aggregate the collected wisdom of most of Asia in one volume.  But it was a great book and I still have it.  The binding disintegrated when I gave it to Alex to read last week, but a little duct tape postponed its day of reckoning.

The philosopher Lao Tzu has some sage (really) advice on leadership and since this wisdom has persisted through various iterations and hundreds of generations, maybe there is something to it. For example:

“The Tao abides in non-action, yet nothing is left undone.  If kings and lords observed this, the ten thousand things would develop naturally.”


“Nothing is softer than water, yet nothing can be better at overcoming the hard.”


“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

If you translated this wisdom into more modern terms, you would say that this sort of leadership taps into the intelligence and imagination of the people.  It makes them partners.  This is especially valuable when innovations are needed.  (Please refer to my posting re management gurus.) Centralized, directive leadership can almost never identify and develop innovation because whether they mean to or not, they bring the power of the organizing to bear to defend the status quo or permit only incremental and usually ineffective change.   That is the paradox that when you abide in non-action, you leave nothing undone.  I would refine it a little.   Leadership’s task is to create conditions favorable for progress and innovation, but it does not directly create anything.  To employ my favorite analogy, it is like when I use proper silviculture on my forests.  The thinning, fertilizing, planning etc allow the trees to grow better, but I cannot micromanage wood or leaf production.    BTW – Below is the exchange from M*A*S*H: 

Father Mulcahy: Don’t I know it. All week I’ve been dreaming of getting butter on my cheeks, juice on my shirt, and a niblet wedged between two molars.
[walks up to the table]
Father Mulcahy: Where is the corn?
Cpl. Igor Straminsky: You’re looking at it. The mushy stuff.
Father Mulcahy: You… You creamed it!
[on the verge of tears]
Father Mulcahy: You… you ninny!
Cpl. Igor Straminsky: [everybody yells at Igor] I was just trying to be helpful. Next Fourth of July you can eat it on the cob for all I care.

A Note From a Virginia Tree Farmer

I am a Virginia tree farmer.   In addition to traditional forest products, I know that my land is helping to protect water quality, cleaning the air, giving wildlife a place to live and just making the world more beautiful.   If you are interested in learning more about tree farming, please feel free to contact me for a personal point of view, or contact the tree farm system at the links below.  

We all depend on each other in our interconnected environment and nobody can do it alone, so I joined the American Tree Farm System.  This hooks me in to people who can help me do a better job and connects me to others who need me to help them.   It makes me feel good that the things I do on my land and the plans are make are “forest certified” by an organization with long experience in making forests sustainable.   I recommend that anybody who owns even small woodlots consider becoming a certified tree farmer.

A lot has been changing in the woods.  We have learned how to grow more wood on the same land.  We know better how to protect and restore soils.  It has become more crucial to guard water resources and we have a whole new commitment to removing excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.   Besides markets for timber, we now have markets for ecological services.  We have a lot of great partners in Virginia. 

The health of my forest and our environment depends on the choices made by other Virginian and other Americans.   That is why we all need to be concerned about each other.   No individual or group can come up with a comprehensive plan for a sustainable environment.   But together we can, as we all make decisions based on our own unique knowledge, intelligence, imaginations and priorities.   Information is important in making choices and every tree farmer is on the cutting edge about his/her own farm.  I try to share my experience through my blog on forestry.    And I told the story of how I came to buy my own forests at this link


I got a Facebook page mostly because of my job.  Really.  The only way to understand web 2.0 is to be part of it.  That is why I started to blog a couple years ago.  I spent a lot of time last week and much of last weekend figuring out Facebook.  Facebook offers a lot of the advantages of a blog or webpage, but it also features a lot of things that are both intriguing and annoying.   

Above is the George Meade Monument on Pennsylvania Ave in Washington.  Meade commanded Union forces at Gettysburg.  A surprising number of people think it was Grant.  I guess one guy with a full beard and a Union uniform looks like another.  Many of the officers on both sides of the Civil War knew each other because they formed the West Point social network.

You can keep contact with a lot of people with this social networking system.  The big question is does Facebook broaden your contact network or merely dilute it?   What we have here is the classic failure to communicate across the interface between human technology and our Pleistocene brains.   It is like when a giant water pipe is connected to a narrow straw.    Only so much can go through and that volume is determined by the smallest part of the system.  
Technology can connect me with many thousands of people, but I still have to know them with my brain developed for life on an environment like the Serengeti Plains, where almost nobody ever encountered more than 150 different people in the course of a lifetime and interacted regularly with only a couple dozen at most.   Even after the advent of civilization, people just didn’t get around much.  Most people lived like Hobbits; they rarely traveled farther than what they could make in round trip between dawn and dusk.   The social capacity of the human brain is the weak link.
I am in danger of collecting too many Facebook friends.   I am quickly realizing that I don’t have the energy or inclination to keep up actively with hundreds of people that I could find, so most of my group will be passive.  A thousand friends do not mean a thousand daily interactions.  This ability to find new friends is the most annoying and intriguing aspect of Facebook.  

Below are the stirrings of spring.  In a couple of weeks, the spring season will be here.  Washington is beautiful in the springtime.  

The intriguing part is the connections.   We always hear about people being connected and the interconnectivity among opinion leaders etc is the basis for public relations – the power of connections.  If we don’t have the resources to influence or even reach mass audiences, we can reach the right social nodes, we can leverage the message.  I believed this but never saw it.  On Facebook you can see how this could work very graphically.   Some people are connectors who bridge lots of diverse groups; others are members of only a few.   

The guys with the most friends may not be the one with the most connections.  Maybe he has a thousand friends, but they all live in the same town and have similar jobs. You might have a very large but essentially incestuous group.  Of course, on Facebook you are not sure if the connecting guys are really influential or if they just are non-participating members of lots of groups.    Membership is easy to attain – and fake – online.  I wonder how much a person can be connected to more than about a dozen groups, considering again our Pleistocene brains.  I also wonder about a guy who would spend enough time online working on those connections.  He would almost certainly not be very much involved in the real world and probably wouldn’t know much either if he spends all his time connecting.  The term “hollow man” leaps to mind.   Of course he is likely to have a lot of corpulence over that hollow center. 

Facebook can also teach us something about the network effect, which is when something’s value is increased by getting more users.   Usually if more people share something, they each gets smaller part than if anyone had the whole thing to himself.  In a network, they all gain.  The pie gets bigger the more people step up to the table.  Telephones are the classic example. One person with a phone had nobody to talk with.  Two are not much better, but each additional entrant makes it more and more useful – eventually indispensable. Facebook encourages the network effect when you search for friends and almost requires it when you want to do something online (such as a quiz).    Happily and probably not coincidentally this is also great advertising for Facebook.

The biggest problem with Facebook is its openness.  And I don’t mean that some people tell way too much about themselves, although that is a problem too.  The real problem is that all your friends can see each other.  Most of us like to keep some of our social life in separate spheres.  There was a Seinfeld episode where George Costanza feared that if his fiancé entered his social life, relationship George would kill independent George.  He called it worlds colliding.  It was funny, but it makes some sense.  Some relationships are appropriate for some things and not others.

My general complaint against electronic communications is that they are beguiling.  Facebook is like that.  I spent several hours searching for friends and updating my page until I noticed that my legs were falling asleep and it was getting dark outside.  The virtual world provides too much active contact, or at least pseudo social contact.  We are all becoming like the Borg.  I think it is important to be alone sometimes. 

Or maybe individual thinking is going out of style, to be replaced by the hive consciousness.  We can all become like ants, bees or termites, beholden to the central consciousness. Those bugs do it with pheromones; we prefer electronic pulses.

Facebook is a lot like beer.  For most people, beer lubricates social interactions and they can enjoy it in moderation.  But some people abuse it sometimes and it makes them sick.  Others abuse it all the time and it makes them boozers and losers.  

BTW – I am still accepting new friends, as long as none of us are too demanding or clinging.   Don’t expect me to remember your birthday or the name of your dog and we will be okay.    My primitive brain is just not up to the task and frankly I just don’t care enough. 

Roundabout the Traffic Circles

I am not the only one who likes traffic circles or roundabouts.   One of my blog readers told me about the roundabout in his town of Monroe, Washington.    He told me that his town was the first to get a roundabout in Washington State and it took them a year to get approval from the Department of Transportation.  Now the state loves them and Washington State even has a roundabout page.    

Below is the roundabout in Monroe, Washington

Before the roundabout, traffic was snarled and tempers frayed.    After some confusion and trepidation among drivers unfamiliar with roundabout etiquette, this imported innovation evidently works like a charm. 

Below – Americans are not taught to use traffic circles.  These signs show graphically how it works.  BTW – the way it was explained to me in Europe was very easy.  Everybody yields to the traffic already in the circle.  Merge when there is an opening.

I saw my first roundabout when I went to the UK when I was in college.   I still remember marveling at the seamless flow of traffic.   You need a Goldilocks solution: drivers that are too aggressive or too timid can ruin the system, but traffic flows beautifully when they are just right.    I wondered why we didn’t have them in the U.S.    I figured that American drivers were just too ornery.     I am glad to find out that I was wrong.

Above is a traffic circle in Arlington, VA. The intrusive stop signs indicate that they kind of miss the point. I think these traffic circles are meant merely to slow traffic and maybe as decorations.

Above in Stanton Park with a statue of Nathaniel Greene, one of Washington’s most reliable generals and a hero of the campaigns in the Carolinas. Twelve streets feed into this square, so it acts sort of like a traffic circle. If you have a traffic circle, it is nice if you can have a monument in the middle. It gives the place a little more class.

Above is Maryland Ave on Capitol Hill. It is a nice neighborhood. This is a good example of an urban renaissance. Washington was not as nice 20 years ago. It was run by a crooked mayor and full of crime and disorder and some parts had not recovered from the riots way back in 1967. It goes to show how different things can be when they are run differently. It would have been easy to give up; good we didn’t.

Above is the same place looking the other way (you can recognize the trees). It is not as dark as the picture shows. I just got a bad exposure. But if you look a couple of blocks you can see why it was such a shame 20 years ago that this was not a great neighborhood.

Evolving Science

I was watching the History Channel today about Neanderthals.  Back when I was in school, we learned that they were a separate species from modern humans and that it was likely that anatomically modern humans were hostile to them and maybe wiped them out either through competition, conflict or a combination of both.   The Neanderthals were portrayed as brutes, who lacked the skills and organizational abilities that made modern humans so successful.   Now the Neanderthals have been upgraded.   According to scientists on the show, these guys not only were among our ancestors, but may have contributed the gene that makes it possible for us to learn language – the quintessential human trait. 

Science is not neutral.  It is embedded in current culture and sensibility.   Even if scientists answer all the questions in an unbiased way, the questions themselves are heavily influenced by the surrounding society.   The original theories of the Neanderthal were postulated in the 19th Century, in an age when conflict and competition was accepted as a part of nature.   Today being cooperative and inclusive is in style, so it should come as no surprise that we now see our long lost cousins in kinder and gentler terms.   I don’t know what the Neanderthals were like.    Nobody does.   We I do know is that our speculations often depend more on us than on what they were really like.

BTW – a fascinating book on the subject is Before the Dawn, which traces human prehistory by studying changes in our DNA.   The interesting thing is that evolution didn’t end; it is just not operating to the same sorts of characteristics.    Evolution doesn’t always go in the direction of improvement.  Fitness in the Darwinian sense just means that you contribute more genes to the next generation.  To accomplish this in the natural environment, you usually needed to be stronger, faster, smarter or very lucky, but the pressures have abated.   By Darwinian standards, the fittest person in history may be that woman who just had eight kids, on top of the seven she already had. 

Another change in interpretation has to do with dinosaurs.  I learned that giants were clumsy, lumbering reptiles.  Now we hear that some we agile and maybe were warm blooded with feathers.  Who knew?  Most of today’s real cool dinosaurs, such as raptors, were largely unknown when I was a kid.

Above are little dinosaurs? 

BTW – Chimps are very aggressive, as we were reminded by the recent chip attack.  In the wild about 1/3 of male chips die from violence. Primitive man was/is violent too.  That is our heritage that we struggle to overcome with our civilization.  There is no such thing as a noble savage (and Rosseau sucked anyway.)

Sources of Innovation: Gambling, War and Pornography

Sometimes we don’t like the drivers of innovation, but we like the innovation.   The science of probably and statistics was largely developed to serve gamblers.  They were the ones who really cared about properly figuring the odds and they were the ones who provided real working laboratories where elegant theories could be tested in relation the vagaries of human nature.    We can thank gamblers for our ability to assess risk and make better decisions about the complex interactions in our world.  A good book on this subject is Against the Gods: the Remarkable Story of Risk.

If we needed gambling to stimulate us to understand our complex civilization, we can thank war for having civilization in the first place.   The organizational structures our ancestors developed to provide protection and – truth be told – to dominate their neighbors were adapted to other tasks.  Causality in human events is always complex, with causes creating effects that become causes in ways that make it impossible to separate.    But throughout history you find a strong correlation between success at war and success in other endeavors of civilization.   This implies that the skill sets are at least overlapping.

In our own times, we can point to a variety of technological advances produced as a result of conflicts.  The Internet and the Interstate systems were begun to make our country more resilient in the face of massive attacks.   The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced innovations in emergency medicine, which are already saving lives in trauma centers around the world.     

Even if more total lives are saved because of wartime innovations than were lost in the conflicts themselves, we should be able to produce similar advances absent the destruction, but we don’t seem able to do that.   Maybe we humans need a threat to get off our asses, jettison some of the inertia of old comfortable habits and maybe sweep away the resistance of powerful individuals or interest groups benefiting from the old way of doing things.

The things that drive a lot of innovation in computer technologies are online games and pornography.   These are the applications that demand more and more bandwidth and greater computing speeds.    I don’t really need a very advanced computer for the simple word processing and accounting programs that I run and people like me really don’t push the innovators to imagine the better future.   It is the gamers on the edge that do it.

My boys play “World of Warcraft” online.   There are something like 12 million (and that number grows every day) players around the world forming an online community.   Few of them stop to think about the significance of what they are doing.   They have created a seamless communication network where participants dispersed throughout the world react in cooperation and in real time to actions conveyed by sophisticated moving images around the world at the speed of light.   What can be done in the “World of Warcraft” today will be done in the worlds of medicine, manufacturing, finance and science.   Today’s gamers (or their parents) are financing the innovation and, more importantly they are managing and testing them every day when they play their games.  Some are already taking the skills and insights learned in virtual worlds and innovatively applying them to their real world jobs.   The skills that helped them overcome the Lich King serve them well in the struggles with the competition. 

BTW – I think one of the reasons we often do better than would be predicted by looking at our school systems is that much learning – and most innovation – is done outside classrooms and away from the formal teachers. 

The games teach the pluses of planning, the dangers of lost control and the problems of managing staffs or teams. Take a look at this youtube video.   You can google WTF and world of warcraft and south park if you want to see more.

Above is a World of Warcraft city.

Maybe the dweeb playing video games is preparing better for life the nerd doing the homework the teacher exactly as the teacher says.