Bright educational future

We are often told how bad things are. This is good if it makes us strive to be better, but not if it leads to despair. I have been working on education for the last year & I am here to remind you that we have a superb higher education system and it is adapting and getting better all the time. I am particularly impressed by the community college system, which will, after all, help train the bulk of our future labor force.

I was reminded of the Morrill Act of 1862 and the follow up in 1890. You may not have heard of these things. These are among the greatest contributors to America that you have never heard of. or maybe don’t know much about. The others, IMO, are the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Homestead Act of 1862 & the GI Bill of 1944. The Morrill Act granted land to states to build universities that would teach useful things like science, mechanics/engineering & agriculture and research the same. Their mission was the Hatch Act of 1887, which established agricultural experiment stations. Our big research universities are land grant. Most are public, the exceptions being Cornell and MIT. But I digress.

I am impressed with the system. I find that it is much better than I understood it was before the visit. My earlier understanding was simplistic and outdated. I still thought in terms of a university or a school as the unit of analysis. I knew that schools created and maintained connections with other schools and the outside community, but what I didn’t really understand was the extent that all these entities have effectively merged. This is why the ecosystem analogy is apt. The parts of schools are not only interacting with other parts and outside actors; they are dependent and cooperative with entities well removed from their own cooperation. It is like the bird that eats berries on top of a tree in interacting with soil bacteria that allow the roots to take advantage of minerals many steps removed.

The coordinating mechanism is a kind of distributed decision making process. All the various actors are responding to the changing circumstances, incentives and opportunities. The mature educational ecosystem provides lots of shared services or at least opportunities that all can use. This makes the power of big institutions less overwhelming and empowers smaller institutions. It levels the playing field when everybody has access to resources that once were concentrated only in well-established institutions.

All this means that we are on the threshold of a new age of higher education. This is the same revolution experienced by big industry in the 1970s and 1980s. That was when the advantage of the big and established organizations eroded. You didn’t need to have in-house services when such things were available by outside vendors cheaper and more efficiently. The education establishment hung on a bit longer providing full services. In fact, the positions of the majors strengthened as customers moved to prestige providers. There were few alternative products and it was hard to unbundle them. The value of the name was strong.

I think this is changing rapidly. Educational wealth has been distributed wider. You can get a great education all over America and sometimes you don’t even have to enter a prestigious university program or a university program at all. The connections are all over the place now.

In my old world, you went through different stages. I remember one book I read called them “boxes of life.” You didn’t skip them and you rarely went back. You graduated HS; some went to college; you got out four years later and went to work for the next thirty or forty years and then retired. You were done with formal education for the most part the day you graduated. Today things are different. You have to keep learning. Students of various ages and occupations are mixing. Now you might go back to school or at least formal training many times during a working life. This education can be delivered in a variety of ways, at a variety of times by a variety of providers. The traditional four-year institution enjoys no advantages and the paradigm that brings people in at the bottom, processes them through a set program and graduates them at the end may in fact be a liability.

The new paradigm is much more customized. No two people take exactly the same coursework. Their needs are not the same. No one institution can satisfy all the needs. The expertise will not be available at any one institution. The expertise may not be available at all. It needs to be created in the process of the interaction of learning and teaching. It is an interesting new world.

My picture is just a big tree in New Orleans. I suppose I could think of a connection, but I just like trees. 

Unexpected Energy Future

I turned 18 the same year of the Arab oil embargo. Oil prices went way up and we thought the age of inexpensive energy was gone forever. What an unexpected change! The technology of fracking today has essentially created new energy that will last my lifetime and that of my children. And the natural gas is much cleaner than the coal or oil it replaces, a gift from God, with an assist from a stubborn American.

George Mitchell graduated from the Texas A&M as a petroleum engineer. His father was an illiterate Greek goat herder who had the good sense to move to America. George was so poor that he was almost kicked out of school for non-payment of tuition. One of his professors told him that if he wanted to drive a Chevy, he should work for Humble Oil (later Exxon) but if he wanted to drive a Cadillac, he should go into business for himself. George saw himself as more a Cadillac type of guy.

In 1982, Mitchell Energy was in danger of not having enough gas to supply its clients. In those days, experts thought gas would soon run out. Mitchell looked for new sources. He knew there was a lot of gas trapped in the Barrett shale in Texas, but nobody could get it out at a price anybody could pay. He invested $6million and had to put up with twenty years of ridicule from his friends for throwing money away on something that would not work.

It wasn’t until 1998 that Mitchell came up with a permutation of hydraulic fracturing that worked. (Fracking was not a new technology; it just had not been applied in this particular way before.) The way was open to the bright, happy future we now see before us.
Mitchell lived to see his dream work. He is still alive, now 93 years old.

You never know what’s going to work. Mitchell could have ended up wrong and ridiculed, as many dreamers do. Most big ideas fail. That is why we need lots of options and try lots of things.

Of course, this is not the work of only one man. Lots of researchers, investors and workers were involved. (BTW – Mitchell “gave back” contributing $44.5 million to A&M and $159 million to universities and research organizations.) Government provided incentives to unconventional energy. But I wonder if it would have happened w/o Mitchell. There is no such thing as destiny. Things do not have to happen the way they do. Fracking could have remained a “stupid and impractical” idea. That is what most experts thought at the time.

After the fact lots of things look obvious, but they could have gone other ways. There are myriad examples of people sitting on great opportunities w/o using them, ever. So thank you George. Well done.

Is tipping your favorite waitress a form of corruption?

A new Harvard study finds a connection between tipping and corruption. Let’s consider the whole field of influence.

Some people get a lot of what they want because they are “charming”. There are lots of components to this and less charming people tend to get annoyed by the success of their more charming colleagues. Socially adept people (this group overlaps a lot with charming) get more of what they want. Good looking people get more than unattractive ones. Celebrities benefit at the expense of ordinary folks. We can all add to this long list. The various gifts tend NOT to be distributed equally. Charming people often tend to be attractive, perhaps because being attractive is related to behavior as well as physical looks. These advantages tend to make them more successful in other areas of life. Is this wrong?

Humans are social animals. We spend most of our time in social webs and are constantly working on way to improve our position or influence others. It is what we do, coded into our genes. Those who don’t do such things are thought to be weirdoes, maybe even psychopaths. Besides these sorts, we ALL care what others think of us. Those who claim they don’t care about the opinions of others – like those who claim they don’t care about money – are often the ones who think about it all the time. (If you really don’t care about something, you don’t talk about it at all. The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.)

Let’s get back to tipping. It depends on the cultural context. Canada and India have a similar level of tipping, but Canada is low corruption country and India is very corrupt. The motives are different. In Canada tipping is recognition of good service; in India it is a advance payment for future service.

Some countries automatically add in 10%. In those countries you do not tip beyond that. Don’t let those waiters in France convince you otherwise. I like this idea. It is not a tip for good service, but more of a piece work, i.e. the waiter makes more if he handles 100 customers than he does if he serves only one. That is fair.

In the U.S. I tip just under 20%, i.e. I figure the 20% then I round up to the nearest dollar below that amount so that the credit card bill is an even amount. I used to try to modulate my tip based on the service, but I don’t anymore unless it is extraordinarily good or bad. This is rare. I think if you stay at a hotel that has a free breakfast, you should tip about 20% of what you would have paid. This can lead to a type of favoritism, however. I often stay at a hotel where I get a free happy hour. I leave my 20% tip and I have found that I now get much better quality drinks than I used to.

This brings me to loyalty programs. I am a gold member at a hotel chain and on an airline. This is a sweet deal. That is why I get those free drinks I mentioned above and I get to choose the best seats on my flights. This is very explicit. I get stuff free that others have to pay for because I have behaved in a particular way in the past and the firms hope to encourage similar behavior in future.

None of us wants to be treated “as well as” everybody else; we want to be treated better, i.e. as individuals. This is an inescapable fact of human life. When does it become corruption?

IMO, it becomes corruption when people are giving you things that are not theirs to give. If I offer a tip from my own money, it is entirely my business and not corruption on my part. If you accept the tip and do the same sort of job you would have done anyway, maybe with a little more joy, there is no corruption on your part. The problem comes when we are acting for others. I cannot be generous with the money of others, so if I give you a tip paid for by my employer, this is corrupt. If you grant me favors at the expense of your employer, this is also corrupt.

Things can be very unfair w/o being corrupt. If I own a company and I give you a special deal just because I like you, this is not corrupt. We all try very hard to cultivate relationships that will provide us with exactly this. We call it networking or making connections. It is the biggest part of many people’s jobs. It is the biggest part of the job of people like presidents & CEOs. Once they get the relationships right, many other decisions are very easy.


I took Mariza and Greg to No Extinction, a place where they rescue and rehabilitate big cats.  The jaguars are very beautiful, as you can see above. I was surprised that they have pumas/mountain lions in Brazil. I thought that they were North American animals. 

There was a funny story about the mountain lions.  They has a male lion and wanted to find a mate.  One became available, but the two didn’t get along. When they examined the new lion more closely, they found that it too was a male.  Its testicles had not descended and nobody, I suppose with the exception the the frustrated other lion, had gotten close enough to see clearly. The road to the Jaguar place takes you through the beautiful hills of Goias. It is a pretty drive, but I don’t trust the dirt roads.  Rain makes them difficult.

Finishing up my U.S. university trip

We traveled around the Louisiana and then to Washington.  As I wrote a few posts ago, much of what I learned was similar to what I learned before.  Educational exchanges require trust and relationships.  I will not repeat that analysis again, but I do what to share some of my pictures and notes.  Above are ferns on trees at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.  Many trees are covered in them.

The U.S. has lots of great universities.  I am fond of the more out-of-the-way state institutions.  There is a lot of excellence in these smaller centers and lots of people get their educations there.  We visited Louisiana Tech in Ruston LA.   It is a long way from New Orleans.  The Louisiana environment is a lot like southern Virginia, pines and mixed forests.  It was familiar.  Above is the biomedical building at LT.  Below is an interesting type of store.  I never saw a store devoted to irrigation.  It is especially surprising in Louisiana, where it rains a lot.

Below is a statue of Mike the Tiger at LSU.  They have a real tiger too His home is behind the statue. I took a picture of Mike, but he was just laying there.  The current Mike the Tiger is number 6. 

We also visited Tulane.  It is a beautiful university full or tradition.  It is long and narrow, only a couple blocks wide but about a mile long. 

Challenges of true people

The indigenous people Huni Kui live in Peru and the Brazilian state of Acre. About ten thousand of them are today spread over twelve indigenous lands in Acre. They are the largest indigenous group in Acre.

Pinuyá was founded in 1972 when three families arrived from other parts of the state.  They were not recognized until 1991 when they were granted 105 contiguous hectares (about 260 acres). The governor of Acre gave them another 200 hectares. With only 305 hectares, this is the smallest reserved area in the state. Today there are forty-three households and 162 people living on the reserve, which is 1.8 inhabitants per hectare. This is not enough for a hunting-gathering society.  The economy of the area is based on family agriculture, fish farming and crafts.

The reserve is surrounded by cattle operations and 70% of the reserved land is still covered in cow pasture.The forest was mostly removed in the 1970s when the government made a concerted push into the “empty” lands of the west.The band is trying to reforest the land with native species.Mariza and I planted one tree, as I discussed in a previous post.

Band leaders told me that they need more land. It is true that 305 hectares are not much to support 162 people. It is impossible with hunting and extensive agriculture. They told us about some intensive agriculture. They do fish farming and raise pigs, ducks & chickens, all of which produce significant amounts of protein with relatively small inputs.

When I was in college, living an organic self-sufficient life appealed to me. I never did it, but my research indicated that you needed at least five acres (a little more than two hectares) of fertile farmland to support yourself. This was a minimum using intensive methods and it still required part-time work off the land. If you have 305 hectares, it is likely that much or most of it is not fertile farmland. Beyond that, the Huni Kui want to reestablish native forests. This is something close to my heart, but it implies hunting & gathering. You need a lot more acreage for this kind of lifestyle. 

The rain forest ecosystem is not as rich as we might think if you look at the luxuriant growth, at least not for hunting and gathering.  Its organisms have evolved over millennia to deny their energy to others. Lots of the activity takes place high in the trees where it is difficult for humans to access. That is why populations of rain forest hunter-gatherers remained so small for all those millennia. The land simply does not support large human populations. Densities can be only around two or three people per square kilometer (although they are obviously not spread evenly over this land). There are 100 hectares in a square kilometer (metric is easy) so a band like the one we visited would need about 8000 hectares instead of the 305 they have.

The forest here is a tough environment and we should not idealize the life of the past in a paradise full of serpents and dangers. There is no going back to the old lifestyle and the people clearly do not want to go back.  The band’s leader wants preserve the best of his traditions and combine them with good things from the wider world.   (We noticed the popularity of mobile phones and this implies mobile phone towers close by.) This is a balance very difficult to manage or even envision how it could work.

I sure don’t know what to do. It occurs to me that the problem of combining the old with the new is not a problem only for people like the Huni Kui. Although it seems much more urgent among them, creating sustainable futures for ourselves and our children  is what all we face every day, a condition of being human. In their language, Huni Kui means “true people”. Their challenges are the challenges of true people everywhere.

Planting Trees

I planted my first tree when I was ten years old, back in 1965.  I grew a bunch of horse chestnuts from the nuts we used to collect as kids.  When the trees came up, I put them on the hill in front of my house.  One is still there, now forty-seven years old.  I know because my old house is up for sale and the tree is the picture.  Today, with my forestry operations I plant trees on a semi-industrial scale, but I still like to touch the dirt with my own hands. 
The Huni Kui gave me an opportunity when we visited their village.  One of the nicer parts of the welcome was a tree planting.  I got to touch the dirt and put the tree in.  Mariza got to help, so she was also part. They said we should visit our tree for time to time. 

The picture up top shows Mariza and I planting a tree. Notice the guy taking a picture of us using his mobile phone. I thought it was very interesting when the people wearing native costumes would pull a mobile phone from their pockets. The picture on the left is the band’s forester. He does not have formal training, but learned his business from tradition and experience. In front of him are the trees to be planted.

WWW beats muddy roads

There is a strange mixture of connection and isolation among the  Huni Kui in Acre. On the one hand, they are physically isolated. The dirt road would effectively cut them off from the rest of the world many rainy days of the year. On the other hand, they are connected.

When you drive the road from Rio Branco to Taraucuá you can easily mistake progress for problem.   The road is not good.  There is long stretch that is about the width of an American driveway that runs between two broad clay shoulders. The driver told me that this part has only been in service for about two years. Before that, the trip that took us five hours would have taken at least two days because the road would have been impassible when wet. The driver said that you just had to wait until the sun came out to dry the mud.

We got a taste of this on the road to the indigenous village of Pinuyá.  We got to the village easily. That was before the rain.  After the rain, the four-wheel drive vehicles dared not come back all the way to pick us up. We had to walk about a mile through the mud to meet our vehicles, as you can see in the picture.  It was an especially clinging mud that clung to our shoes a couple inches thick.  The grass along the road was not better in most places.  This has vegetation, but it is still a quagmire. You sink deeper into that than you do in the mud of the road.  So we took the road. This is what the road recently asphalted that I mentioned above was like a few years ago.  The narrow ribbon of asphalt makes it passable in all weather.

The people we visited in Pinuyá are isolated in many ways. As we learned by bitter experience, there are times when you cannot use the dirt road to access the asphalt road that leads to the wider world. The founders of this band came to this place in 1972, in fact, the get away from the wider world. The chief told us that at that time the town was far away. I can imagine and the whole town was farther from the wider world until they paved that part of the world.  Of course Rio Branco was more isolated.  The band didn’t move to the town, but the down moved to them. Today their land in encroached upon on all sides and the town is within the distance of a long walk.

When the elders were telling the story of the tribe, a couple guys were recording their comments on their mobile phones. They are clearly within the net of world communications, but not able always to get there physically. You see an interesting anomaly below. The guy talking is telling about traditions and singing traditional songs. The two guys on the side are using their mobile phones to preserve the tradition.

Taking a tangent, I think this is why Brazilians are so interested in distance education.They can reach these villages more easily with Internet than any other way. I spoke to the Acre State Secretary of Education, who told me that they were considering changing the school year to take advantage of the dry season. Acre has distinctive wet and dry seasons.It would make sense to work within the seasonal imperative than to try to ignore them or overcome them.

Louisiana: LSU1

Our first top was Louisiana State University Petroleum Engineering Research & Technology Transfer Laboratory (PERTT Lab) Well Facility, long name.  They have working equipment and study how rigs really work under pressure, literally under pressure.  They bring in various types of mud and oil to simulate real conditions.

LSU is a leader in oil and gas because this is so much oil & gas in Louisiana.  Much of this is conventional energy, but LSU is also gearing up to work on the unconventional new sources. Petroleum engineering is a growth industry as the new technologies have essentially created vast new sources of energy. Our friends at LSU told me that their students have 100% placement rate.  This is caused by the great demand surge plus a generational change.  Fewer petroleum engineers were minted after the 1980s. Many of those working today are near retirement. There is a shortage developing at the same time that the U.S. is expected to become the world’s largest oil producer within this decade and may become a net energy exporter within my lifetime. What a change!

LSU folks believe in hands-on experience.  With that in mind, they have their own simulation well.  This is a real oil well, but it has lots of equipment that can simulate conditions that students might face in their future.  They even have a hands-on test.  Students are uneasy about these tests because they happen in real time, and they have to make quick decisions.   LSU professors tell the students that it is better to create this kind of time pressure in the lab. You don’t want to have your first test in the real world.

The equipment is used by firms as well as students and academic researchers.  These firms, such as BP and Chevron, pay for the service and their work with students and professors helps everybody learn while pushing the frontiers of knowledge.   There are not many intellectual property issues involved, since much of the research is testing existing technologies and often involved with health & safety and environmental protection issues.  Firms want to share experience about health & safety and environmental protection, since they know that any well that causes trouble hurts all players in the industry, no matter who owns the rig.

Redundantly repeating myself

There is a lot of repetition in my notes from the Science w/o Borders visit.  That is because people are saying many of the same things.  It seems that the consensus is that the best way to build connections is through faculty exchanges and relationships.  There seems to be consensus that one of the best ways to do this is to work on joint research projects where both sides contribute and both sides benefit.  One of the ways to get this ball rolling is to hold workshops where potential participants can get to know each other and who has what expertise.  Finally, there seems to be a consensus that this system of relationships takes time to construct.  It is robust, but decentralized and grows organically.  We (outsiders) can help fertilize this process, but we cannot really rush it. 

Anyway, my plan is to write notes about what I hear, try to treat each one like the first time.  I understand that that many of the reports will look like many others.  Instead of being a problem, I see this as a confirmation that we are onto the right ideas.  Consensus is not always the way to go.  We all like to imagine that the few mavericks have it right and everybody else is wong.  Experience indicates, however,  that this is usually not true.