Snow in the Virginia Woods

It has been cold again this year but this year we are also getting more snow. They got a lot of snow in southern Virginia & North Carolina, so I wanted to go down and look at the snow on the farm.  Well, it wasn’t a lot of snow by Wisconsin standards and it will melt in a few days, but there was more than usual and it created a different look for the place. You really wouldn’t guess that you were looking at southern Virginia.

I saw a couple cars in the ditch on the way down and I didn’t dare take the back roads, as I usually do.  Instead I went down I95 all the way down to Emporia and then went over on 58. I also didn’t dare drive down the dirt roads on the farm.  You can see that 623 was good in the spot above, but look near the bottom and you can see why I didn’t want to drive up the farm road.  It is harder to walk through the snow but it is nice to feel it underfoot. There were a few animal track, but it was otherwise undisturbed. It is nice to have land.

It was a long trip to see it and it took longer because of the adverse weather conditions. I finished almost the entire audio-book Infotopia, which I found very interesting and useful (I hope) in my job.   This was one of the three audio downloads on that Mariza gave me for Christmas.   It was a good gift.  Audio books make long drives bearable and even beneficial. I lose my NPR a few miles outside Washington.  I don’t like music radio or those silly talk shows that purport to give advice that will solve problems that I don’t have. Audio books do the job.

Another good audio program is “the Teaching Company”.   Alex likes them too because they are around forty-five minutes long, which fits his workout schedule.

Anyway, take a look at the nice pictures. 

(Re)learning Languages

I got my “welcome to post” notification from Brasilia.   It is still more than a year in the future and it seems sort of ironic as I watch the snow falling outside my window but the future has a way of becoming the present faster than you think.  

So much advance notice is unusual.  I had my boots on the ground in Iraq about a month after I first even thought about volunteering for the job, but usually we get around a year.   Two years is unusual unless you are assigned to hard language training. 

Portuguese is an odd language when it comes to our training.  It is a “world language” and it is a fairly easy language to learn, but it is not as common as other “easy” world languages like Spanish or French.  Since it is not a  not a “hard language” like Russian, Arabic or Chinese, the FS sometimes doesn’t build in enough time to learn or relearn it as it does for officers assigned to posts with hard languages.   This system can work for French or Spanish, since there are lots of people in posts with those languages, Portuguese maybe not so much.   I don’t know if I explained that well, but it makes sense to me.   Suffice to say that for this PAO assignment they really wanted someone with good Portuguese, so this time they built in enough time to make sure of it and I am the beneficiary.

This is very exciting.  I learned Portuguese at FSI a quarter century ago and I got to be fluent when I was in Brazil for a couple years.   In those days you had to use the language all the time, since English was not that common in Porto Alegre.  But fluent is not necessarily the same as good.  You can speak very fast and fluently but not get the grammar or the words exactly right and I never felt really confident.   Diplomats should be really good at the languages of the countries where they are assigned and this additional training – with some consistent work – will put on the polish.   I hope so.

I don’t expect to speak like a native, but I want to get very good.  We have numbers from 1 to 5.  I want to get to 4 before I leave for Brazil, but the numbers don’t mean much.  I think of it in terms of foreign actors.  I want to get to the equivalent of Ricardo Montalban, but I am afraid I had only reached the sophistication of Sergeant Shultz on the old Hogan’s Heroes in my previous time.  I am not starting from zero this time.  I have been reading the WSJ in Portuguese.  I don’t get all the details, but I can understand most of the articles.  I also bought a dozen of Brazilian movies.  W/o the subtitles I would be out of luck, but even in the short time I have been doing it; the language is starting to come back.

Technological advances make it a lot easier to learn languages; at least it has become a lot easier to get the materials.  I can read Brazilian newspapers online and listen to radio and TV.  And of course Brazilian-Portuguese movies are easy to find.  There is almost no comparison to how it was twenty-five years ago.   I remember being happy to get those old newspapers and having to copy audio tapes.

Look below at what I just did   I used Word to translate the paragraph above into Portuguese and then back translated into English.  It did a decent job.  I would have to make a few minor corrections.   The strangest thing is that it translated the word Portuguese into English.   It also left out some of the subtlety, such as “I want.”  The Portuguese translation is better than the back translation to English, it has the “I want” (quero) for example.  This is understandable, since it is like making a copy of a copy.  But the translation certainly still makes sense and is a thousand times better than I could do on my own – the wonders of modern technology.  

Desta vez, quero aprender a escrever português.   Temos de aprender a falar e ler-se nos nossos cursos de língua, mas nós não aprender a escrever, pelo menos não como escrever bem.    Aguardo com expectativa a obtenção de muita ajuda a este respeito de Bill Gates.   Microsoft Word é muito bom na fixação de palavras que estão escritas quase corretamente.   Ele faz isso em inglês, parto do princípio de que é possível fazê-lo também em português.

Back translation

This time, I learn to write English.   We must learn to speak and read in our language courses, but we do not learn how to write, at least not how to write well.    I look forward to getting a lot of help from Bill Gates.   Microsoft Word is very good at fixing of words that are written almost correctly.   It does this in English, I assume that it is possible also in English.

It is really interesting the way that the machine can translate in seconds.  But somehow I am staring to understand how John Henry felt when he saw that steam drill rolling up.

When Confidence outruns Competence (or a Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations)

There are times when my confidence outruns my competence. I cannot easily detect those instances beforehand, since blindness to the problem is essentially included in the definition. But years of painful experience have taught me how to recognize the general conditions, sort of the weather of error.

With all due modesty, I have a gift for quickly assimilating information and expressing it well to others.  With all due concern, this is a dangerous gift when not properly managed. There are two big pitfalls. The first is that it tempts the possessor not to prepare sufficiently for engagements. If you can “wing it” there is strong temptation to do just that. This is a clearly defined fault and while it is easier identified than address, it is simple (although not always easy) to manage by larding in “extra” time and care. The second pitfall is harder is more of a stealthy problem.   It is too easy to extrapolate from what you know into things that seem to make logic sense but are not really supported by the data.

The reason the extrapolation trap is so dangerous is that you MUST go to places where you may fall in, since you must make decisions and draw conclusions based on incomplete or contradictory information.   It is embedded in the very nature of decision making. If all the facts are clear and known, you don’t need to make a decision; you can just use a formula. So you have to extrapolate and there is danger in jumping too far as well as not jumping far enough.

The two bits of folk wisdom don’t always work together.  You need to look before you leap (i.e. hesitate), but you cannot jump a chasm in two hops (i.e. be bold).

If you are waiting for a solution, I will disappoint you. IMO, it is a problem that can be managed but never solved. Two things have made me think about it a little more recently.  

The first is my investments. I studied stocks ten years ago and got reasonably good at investing in my small way.  Of course, it was easy to seem smart back then when things in general we headed up, but I did better than the averages.  But I don’t really pay attention any more.   One reason is that with the kids in college and forest land to pay for, I don’t have much money to invest, but the bigger reason is that I am just not interested.  When I was moving some money in the kid’s college fund, I just realized that I should not buy any individual stocks.   I just don’t know enough about it.   So I am defaulting into index funds. That will guarantee that I will not make big money, but it will also protect against catastrophic loss. That might seem like a no brainer, but it hurt my self-concept to realize that I just don’t know enough anymore and I probably will never again learn enough to go back in.   So in this case, I take refuge in mediocrity … and forestry, which is slow but steady investment. A man has gotta know his limitations.

The second problem is more serious because mediocrity is not an option. I am talking about my job. Over the years, I have studied  the components of my work, such as negotiations, leadership and communications, and tried to integrate them into a continually improving and developing performance.  Of course, I produced some failures as well as successes, but on balance I made significant forward progress. As you can see from some of my blog entries, I have tried to stay in the forefront of applying new technologies of communication to public diplomacy. But I have recently had some serious doubts about my continued prowess.

I think we can learn lessons from the past and I reach back for analogies and lessons all the way to the dawn of history.  That is why I think it is good and useful to study and think about things like the grand strategy of the Byzantine Empire, among other things.   My trust in these things is based on the implicit assumption that fundamental human relations are constant, so there is something to be learned by looking at how things worked in a variety of places, times and circumstances. Not everybody agrees. My extrapolation comes from believing that things that Thucydides wrote 2500 years ago apply to our modern age communications, albeit with greatly accelerated connections.  What if this is not true?

The new media is creating a kind of global consciousness that may be a discontinuous break with the past, a “novus ordo seclorum” to steal the fancy phrase (I am still the historian and I have a dollar bill).  Discontinuous change invalidates previous experience.

I have helped design an FSI course on the social media and it has a lot of aspects of my personality are fixed in the structure and this goes beyond the fact that I am personally giving the keynote and handling one of the big “learning organization” modules.  Although it is about the NEW social media, the premise I embedded is that social media is more an anthropology or human relations question than a matter of technology. To me the actual technologies are superfluous.   I realize that this is the thinking and design or a classic historian. Not everybody would be so dismissive of the latest and greatest techno-wiz (BTW – I use the word wiz in both its slang versions) and I fear that it might be me who is out of line.

I recognize the weather of error, but it doesn’t tell me what to do.  It could be that my anthropology paradigm is a good one, or it could just be all wet.   I will do a couple of interactive talks at the new FSI social media seminar next week.  Maybe that will give me better insight.

Compared to What?

They say that misery loves company, but that is just an uncharitable way to put it. Comparisons are useful because they provide insight into problems and possible solutions. For example, you should be a lot more willing to change your habits if you see that you are doing poorly while everybody else prospers but if you are part of the larger trend learning from the experience of others might be less immediately useful. The Economist shows graphically how rich countries have fared in the recent recession.

Americans suffered in the “great recession” and it is cold comfort that Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, the UK and the whole Euro-zone suffered more. But it should make us stop to consider the root causes of a downturn that affected a passel of countries with such a wide variety of institutions and economic programs.

The precursor the problems of the 1930s was the rapid rise of the U.S. as a creditor nation along with the circular flow of funds from Germany in the form of reparations to the allies, to the U.S. in the form of loan repayments back to Germany as loans, all the while the U.S. market was not absorbing significant imports. The great economist, John Maynard Keynes foresaw some of these problems in his “” (1919). In the 1970s, we had the problem of recycling petro-dollars after the quadrupling of oil prices in the early 1970s and further hikes around 1980. That liquidity went into loans to developing countries which soon became a problem. Recently, we had the rise of China, which has followed a neo-mercantilism strategy of selling outside while maintaining trade barriers and an artificially low currency. The dollars that pooled up in the Middle Kingdom were/are recycled into debt in the U.S. and elsewhere, helping keep interest rates low, but also helping to create a debt overhang.

 The Panic of 1907, which I include only for the sake of completeness, because it spurred the creation of the Federal Reserve and because I just finished reading the book in the link, was also precipitated by rapid growth and investment in the U.S. It is unusual in that it was largely “solved” by the intervention of one individual, J Pierpont Morgan. This would be the last time that one individual was ever able to take on that role.

The Great Depression ended only with the onset of World War II, which is a fairly high price to pay to end an economic downturn. Amity Shlaes has written a good book called “The Forgotten Man” that details some of the policy fits and starts that did not alleviate the depression and may have deepened it. The end of the recession of 1982 is still way to close to be dispassionately assessed. We forget how bad that one was. Unemployment reached 10.8% but it soon eased and we had a quarter century of decent economic growth punctuated by two short recessions.

We don’t know what will bring us back to prosperity this time, but I have confidence that we will recover. We always do.If you look back at history in the last century, it seems we have a painful downturn every twenty-five years or so. The times of trouble last for around ten years (except in the 1907 case). Let’s hope this one will be shorter. But since nobody has been able to “predict” even the past accurately, I don’t have a lot of confidence in anybody’s ability to predict the economic future.

Flying Johns

I have been watching the Institute of Peace building going up outside my office.  Most of the time it is pretty prosaic work, like the guys laying concrete in the picture above.   But sometimes there is something more unusual, such as the flying portable toilets, pictured below.

I imagined how it would be if some poor guy was using it when the crane picked it up.   I suppose the best course of action would be to lock the door, hunker down and hope for a soft landing.

As long as I am on construction, below are pictures from the hot lane construction along the I-495 beltway.  I wrote a post re the hot lanes last year.  I took the pictures from the rolling Metro, which accounts for some of the blur.


Happy Birthday Espen (2010)

I wrote about Espen’s birthday last year.  He is unenthusiastic about me putting too much about him or recent pictures of him on the blog.  He came home for the weekend and we had a cake, but Mariza and Alex were unable to come, so it wasn’t a party.   Espen wanted to go over to Fuddruckers for his birthday dinner and we had a good talk, but I don’t want to post all that on the blog.  Suffice to say that I miss him, but I am glad he is close and proud of him. Happy birthday, Espen.  We love you.

Natural versus Sustainable

Below is my article for the next issue of “Virginia Forests”.  It is based on an earlier blog post, so if you have a feeling of deja vu, that is why.

Everybody has his/her own idea about what is natural, and often thinks everybody else’s ideas are wrong.  What is a natural forest, for example?  Is it made up only of native species?  Does it feature only local species?   Is a tree farm natural? The distinction most often made is that “natural” is what the situation would be like absent human activity.  Of course, nobody has ever seen that.  The “natural” Virginia of 1607 was the result of thousands of years of human activity.  Natural is not an attainable or even a useful goal when talking about forestry.

I think the goal should be sustainable, not “natural.”  Natural is a slippery, arbitrary and often arrogantly used term.   It assumes also that an environment that results from random chance and the interactions of non-human animals and plants is somehow qualitatively different than one with human influences and implies that human interventions are always damaging. This is just not true.   Besides all that, some environments that are natural are not sustainable and some environments that are sustainable are not natural.  Many of the most productive, beautiful and sublime environments are the results of long term human interference and management.   They are not “natural” if that term implies human-free.   But they beautiful and productive and they are sustainable.  

That is why I also quibble with words like “recovery” or “damage” used too freely when talking about human interactions with the environment. They can sometimes be appropriate.  Humans do serious damage to the environment and recovery may be necessary, but they too often go too far.   Some radical misanthropes who call themselves environmentalist actually believe that somehow the earth would be better off without humans.  Of course, this is a very short-sighted and ironically very human-based point of view. 

We would not want most human-influenced, human created, environments to revert to a pre-human state, even if that was possible and even if we could determine what non-human even looks like, since there has not been such an environment in most of the world since the end of the last ice age or before.  The wonderful “natural” environments of pre-Columbian America were by no means natural.   They were created by Native American activities, especially the use of fire, for example.  Humans have changed the environment ever since there have been humans.  Other animals have done so too.  Change is written into the book of life and all life creates change.  Everything is always in the process of becoming something else. Natural environments come back quicker than we often think and The truth is that it takes a lot of human effort to prevent nature from obliterating the most of the works of humans. 

Sustainable is clearly the better concept.  It provides a wide variety of choices and varieties of human influence. We will always have human influence as long as we are here.  So let’s go with sustainable, which is achievable and good, rather than some hypothetical “natural” state.

A well-managed tree farm clearly meets the standards of sustainability and through the “ecological services” it provides, such as cleaning water, providing wildlife habitat and just making the world a prettier place, it helps make the rest of Virginia a sustainable environment.  The constant learning and experience sharing provided by organizations such as ATFS, university extensions, departments of forestry and others helps us all adapt to changes in the environment.  This is a sustainable ecological system and we can all be proud to be participants.

Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire

It seems an esoteric subject, but it still makes a useful study today.   I went to see a talk by Edward Luttwak on the “Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.”  Luttwak is an interesting guy who has done lots of things.  He not only writes books about the Byzantines, but he also write regular commentary about current events and even is part owner in a cattle ranch in Brazil.  BTW – for reference I also attended a lecture on Byzantine history at Smithsonian and wrote a post re.  

Luttwak started with the sources, of which there are many but they are complicated.  If you study of the pre-Byzantine Roman Byzantines, you have a lot of history and archeology to study.   Byzantium is harder in some respects and easier in others.  While there is a wealth of numismatic evidence, archeology is not as helpful.  So much was concentrated in Constantinople (Istanbul) and that has not been well studied.  One reason is that the Turks didn’t much care about the Christian-Greek-Roman civilization they displaced and more modern archeologists were more interested in the ancient Greeks, but probably the most important reason is that the city has been continuously occupied.  It is just hard to dig in such a crowded place.  But what you don’t have in archeology, you make up for in manuals and diplomatic reports.

The uses of intelligence and guile 

The Byzantines were very sophisticated in their study of diplomacy and what we would today call intelligence or anthropology.  They did research observations, made reports and wrote field manuals a lot like we do today. They needed them. For much of their history, the Byzantines were beset by enemies all around.  They didn’t like to use their army too often because it was relatively small, and expensively trained and equipped. It was better to use leverage, so they studied everybody around them, found their strengths, weaknesses and vanities. The reports still exist.  Often the Byzantine sources are the best historical documents for neighboring people. The early history of the Turks, Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians, Hungarians and others comes mostly from Byzantine observations.

Divide and conquer

The Byzantine method was to get enemies to fight each other.  Flatter, cajole, threaten or bribe as appropriate.   Their longest enduing and most dangerous rivals were Muslims, but then as now the Muslim world was not united. The Byzantines noted that no connection between supposed religious fervor and willingness to take bribes. When their spies told them that there was talk of jihad, they would send around gift baskets to local Muslim rulers, which often served to dampen enthusiasm for the holy war, at least temporarily. Their politically incorrect assessment was that these guys were either at their throats or at their feet. True or not, that assessment worked for them.

Byzantine diplomats studied everybody and reported back and they interviewed anybody who came to Constantinople.  Often the emperor would meet important foreigners himself. The system worked reasonably well, evidenced by the fact that the empire endured for centuries in a very rough neighborhood.

The Byzantines believed in being benevolent when they could, but they recognized that this came only through strength, never weakness. Always be combat ready but avoid combat if possible. If you can bribe or trick your way out of a mess, why not?

It reminds me of the saying l learned, “Any problem you can buy your way out of is not a problem; it is an expense.”  Maybe the original thought came from our Byzantine ancestors.

Soft power

Success of this kind of strategy required an openness not usually associated with the Byzantines. Luttwak pointed out that they allows a mosque in Constantinople (for foreigners and visitors).  They also freely translated their texts into other languages.  Unlike the Muslims who insisted that the Koran remain in Arabic, the Byzantines were liberal with their sacred texts.  The Byzantine monks Cyril and Methodius created a written language for the Slavs and many Slavic languages are still written in the script named for Cyril.

Rise comes before the fall

Luttwak thinks that the weakening of the empire came as a result of too much temporary strength (pride goeth before a fall). Life was good in 1025. That was the year when the Emperor Basil II left the empire in possession of lands from what is now Iraq into Southern Italy.  Borders were secure and the Empire prospered.  There followed a golden generation, when the Byzantines got flabby.   They permitted large landholders to take over tracts formerly occupied by people who supplied the border troops and didn’t pay enough attention to security.  When the threat did come, they were not united enough or clever enough. After  the Turks wiped out much of the professional core of the Byzantine army and captured the Emperor at Manzikert in 1071, Anatolia opened to the Turkish conquest and colonization.  The Empire never really regained its footing.   The real death blow came in 1204, when the 4th Crusade sacked Constantinople. The Byzantines regained the city, but after that the “empire” was more of a local Greek state than an empire.   By the time the Turks finally conquered the city in 1453, there was not much left but the city itself.  

The held on long enough to keep learning alive

The Byzantines were in every way heirs to the Roman and classical civilization. It was they who kept the works of the classical authors and they would almost certainly have been lost if the Empire had fallen to the first Muslim attacks.   As it was, the final fall of the Empire and the scholars who fled the declining Empire helped spark the Renaissance in Italy and Western Europe. We sometimes forget that the light of classical civilization was not really extinguished in the East until 1453. By that time, the West was ready to take back its heritage.

Charlottesville, Waynesboro & Harrisonburg

I went to Charlottesville for the meeting of the Virginia Tree Farm Committee.   Unfortunately, the meeting was in Richmond.  They alternate between those two places, and I just screwed it up.   I had actually written the correct place in my calendar, but went to the wrong one.   Well, I am not crucial to the meeting and It was not a total loss.  I got to visit Alex, since Harrisonburg is not far from Charlottesville.   In fact, I think that my desire to see Alex might have figured into my mental slip. Above is the main street in Waynesboro.  

Alex had classes until 3:30.  This was good when I had planned to attend the meeting, but now I had lots of time on my hands.   I thought I might drive up along the Blue Ridge Parkway but it was closed, evidently weather related.  So I went through Waynesboro.   I  was not seeing it on the best day but they did have an A&W.  I like the hamburgers and the root beer.  A&W fries are not good, however.

Above is the dining room. I had it to myself. Below is the outside.

I followed a little road north.  It was a charming rural area.  I wanted to stop off at Grand Caverns, but it was closed for the season.   Again, not the best time to come around.   Since I was still too early, I walked around Harrisonburg.   You can see pictures.

Alex likes his classes at JMU.  He has a couple of Asian history classes, symbolic logic and an anthropology class on North Americans native people.  He found the gyms and good running trails.  College life is good.  We had supper at “the Blue Nile” and Ethiopian restaurant.   Harrisonburg is well endowed with restaurants and services.

Rain mixed with snow scared me a little when I left Harrisonburg at around 6pm.   I don’t much like driving up I-81 because of all the trucks even in good weather.  The weather cleared up not too far into the trip and there wasn’t too much traffic on 66. I got 42 miles to the gallon on this trip, which is good for going through the mountains. I usually get good mileage on the way to Charlottesville along 29.  I think it is because of the slower speeds and the hybrid does particularly well on the rolling hills. I get a significantly better mileage at 50 MPH than I do at 65. 

Below is the city hall in Harrisonburg.

Swine Flue

“If you see 10 troubles coming toward you, you can be sure nine will run into the ditch before they reach you,” so said Calvin Coolidge and he was right. He could also have added that politicians will work the people into hysteria about those nine, take credit for vanquishing them, be distracted enough not to properly address the real one and then blame the tenth (the one that actually arrives) on somebody else.

It seems the swine flu may be the mildest pandemic ever and likely fewer people will die this year than in a normal flu season. We could credit the fast and effective action by the authorities, but there wasn’t much of that. The vaccine is only now becoming generally available. 

Please let me be clear that I am not saying that our efforts to fight the flu were misplaced. I got my own flu shot a couple days ago. It is only that we had a fairly routine problem which the authorities made sound like the return of the Black Death.  Unfortunately, this has become a common communication method.

According to the media, stoked by politicians and special interests, almost everything is an existential crisis.  When you look back, the disasters not only did not destroy civilization as we knew it, but are not important enough to be reported a few months later. On to the next “hair on fire” crisis. This is not a coincidence.