The sum of all fears gets smaller

One of the biggest transformations in our lifetimes is happening before our eyes. America is becoming energy independent. U.S. CO2 emission have dropped to twenty year lows and are still going down (we will soon hit our putative Kyoto targets) while production of U.S. oil is at a 17 year high and we have never before in our history produced as much natural gas as we do today.

In a short time, the Middle East won’t really matter to us very much anymore and we won’t be so affected by various petro-despots. We will be producing most of our own energy right here in America and the rest will come from nearby.

I still find this hard to believe. But things like this happen. I remember when the Soviet Union collapsed. Nobody predicted it would happen and then it seems like no time that the thing that had threatened all our lives was gone.

I remember the 1970s. Experts told us that we would soon run out of oil and gas. We had to freeze in the cold. Today we have achieved energy production way beyond my wildest dreams at that time.

Some big fears I had in the 1970s have just gone away. Let me list the top five.

1. Soviet Union/nuclear war
2. Energy crisis
3. Population bomb
4. Global cooling
5. Stagflation (well that one could come back)

I graduated HS 40 years ago and worried about the future of my country and of the planet. Things turned out a lot better than I thought they would. 40 years from now there is a good chance I will be dead, but if I am not and I can still remember and reason, I expect that most of the big things i worry about today will be as quaint as the five listed above.

We should think about the future and work to solve the problems of today, but most of the bad things we fear don’t happen or turn out to be unimportant when they do. I hesitate to just be insouciant because it is so UN-PC, but that has always been one of my characteristics. It seems glib to say “don’t worry, be happy” but sometimes I think that is the best advice I can give.

Worse than a crap shoot

I have become more convinced that success depends less on good initial decisions and more on the ability and willingness to kill off bad ones. You just cannot predict with much precision. It doesn’t mean that you don’t plan, but it does mean that you plan to eliminate many of your endeavors and to modify all of them based on evolving conditions and new information.

This posture makes most of us uncomfortable. We like to believe there is more certainty in this uncertain world. We like to believe that experts, sufficiently intelligent and disinterested, could make big plans that would work. All of the big dystopias of the 20th Century were based on this error, as well as most of the little ones.

Uncertainty cannot ever be banished. The reason the free market works better than the alternatives is not that it can plan better but because it can through up lots of plans and trim off those that don’t work. Our world cannot be perfected. We should not try to do it.

This does not mean that we are helplessly adrift in a sea of uncertainty. We can create robust systems that will function and survive in a wide variety of possible scenarios and will prosper in thrive among the probable ones. We never really have a choice between two alternatives. We have a multiverse of choices, all of which change in fundamental ways based on our choices. It is a process not a plan, or maybe the plan is the process.

When my father wanted to express uncertainty, he would use the term “it’s a crap shoot,” referring of course to the game of playing dice. I only wish it was that easy. Dice are very certain. There are only thirty-six possible combinations and the probabilities of each are well known. You are six times more likely to roll as seven as you are to roll snake eyes (two ones) or box cars (two sixes). Risk is predictable. If you can find someone dumb enough to keep on betting that he will roll box cars before a seven, you will take all his money sooner or later, probably sooner. Unfortunately the world is not that certain so we have to have lots of options.

Rondonia: closed on Sunday

I am in Porto Velho, capital of Rondônia.  I will wait until tomorrow to judge better.  Almost everything is closed on Sunday.  I walked from the Oscar Hotel, where I am staying, to the Madeira River.  The only places I could find open were outdoor restaurants that had probably recently evolved from guys pushing carts.  There were plastic chairs and a kind of buffet.  It is always hot here and humid, so I stayed away from the mayonnaise potato salad.  Other things were okay.  I would not get fat if I lived around here. 
Near the Madeira River is a museum of the railroad. The Madeira-Mamoré Railroad was built 1907 – 1912 as part of a deal the Brazilians made with the Bolivians when they took over what in now the State of Acre. One of the purposes of the railroad was to link Bolivia with the wider world. The railroad was abandoned in 1972, when roads and waterways made it uncompetitive.  

One of my colleagues told me that the Oscar was really nice.  I have to wonder about his points of reference.  Suffice to say, it is no Marriott.  It is clean and functional, but not as nice as a medium priced hotel such as a Days Inn or Comfort Inn.  I think there must be a great potential market here for hotels.  Even small U.S. cities have a several decent hotels.  And they have chains, so that you can know what sort of standard to expect.  There is a dearth of good, medium priced hotels in Brazil and a dearth of good hotels in general outside big capitals.  We have the usual suspects (Marriott, Sheraton etc.) in big cities and Choice Hotels in a few secondary cities, but you are soon down to Ibis, and in many places not even that.  I wonder if there is something that discourages hotels in medium markets.

Woods of Home

I am in São Paulo again and I like it here.  But I was rereading “A Sand County Almanac” and I felt a lot of nostalgia for Wisconsin.   For those who don’t know it, “A Sand County Almanac” is one of the classics of conservation, written in 1948 by forester Aldo Leopold mostly about his farm in southern Wisconsin.  

The part that drew my attention was an essay on bur oaks and oak openings.  These are the places in the Wisconsin prairies where thick barked oaks content with grass in what Leopold characterizes as the front lines in the battle between grasslands and forests.   The equilibrium was broken when settlers moved in and stopped the periodic burning that had favored grass.  Many of the forest covered hills in southern Wisconsin were grasslands 200 years ago.  The forests date from the 1850s when this part of Wisconsin was settled.

I have loved bur oaks since as long as I can recall.  There are some really big ones in Humboldt Park near the lagoon that I remember from childhood.  They were giants when I was young.  They seemed about the same size when I last saw them and I expect they will be there still when I am composted.   I miss the woods of home.

America will be back

Even a casual student of history finds that in almost every period of our history contemporaries decried the dissention in the Senate or the House. (In recently read biographies of Lincoln, Coolidge and Lyndon Johnson – 50, 90 & 150 years ago seem very much like today.) But the strength of America comes from the bottom, not the top and most of the innovation comes from outside the Beltway.

The president and congress might sometimes suck, but they are not all there is to America. The “Economist” has a survey of the America that works – the states and the American people. Articles start at this link. States are the laboratories of democracy and their ability to experiment has been one of the open secrets of America’s success for more than 200 years.

Others are indeed catching up, and this is good. It is about time those freeloaders started to pull their own weight, but biggest research nation in the world. We account for a full 31% of all the research done in the world. This is down from an astonishing 38% in 1999 and the absolute dollar amount of research dropped a little in the last five years, but we still are clearly #1 in research.

Research shows the effectiveness of the U.S. mixed system. Government supplies around 31% of research dollars. But the private-public interface is important. For example, one of the greatest innovations of recent decades is fracking for gas. This is a mixture of government-funded basic research, made practical business. The Department of Energy since the 1970s, it only started to work in the 1990s when the private sector made it work.

Shale gas is another big plus for America. The Marcellus already supports over 100,000 jobs in Pennsylvania and this expected to reach to over 220,000 in 2020. Shale gas gave the local economy a $14 billion boost in 2012. Economists at Citibank estimate that shale gas by itself will add a half percentage point to the U.S. GDP EACH year for the next couple of years. Unconventional oil and gas accounted for $238 billion in economic activity, 1.7m jobs and $62 billion in taxes in 2012. Now that is a true stimulus. link

We don’t give up on the federal government, but we need to understand that it will usually be more the consumer than the creator of innovation or wealth. And the Feds can get in the way. The “Economist” has a way of making fun of things in very clever ways. I like this one:

“Proliferating red tape is causing tangles everywhere, from the 400 subsidiary regulations of the Dodd-Frank law on the financial sector to the 140,000 codes the federal government requires hospitals to use for the ailments they treat, including one for injuries from being hit by a turtle.”

Good to know there is a protocol for man-turtle encounters, but imagine the time that went into writing and promulgating those regulations.

But America will go ahead. I have confidence that America will outlast the current hard times. We will be back … again.

Returned students love the USA

We are traveling around Brazil to talk to students who returned from SwB scholarships.  Our first group was in Sao Paulo at USP.

The group was positive overall. The first young woman to speak was eager to let us know how satisfied she was. People were so nice to her, she said, from the time she applied, through the special visa day until she got back to Brazil. The woman next to her also voiced her approval, but added that in her case it was particularly important that the program reached into the interior, where she was studying. One of the goals of the Science w/o Borders program is to reach into previously under-served populations. The geographical part seems to be working.

Both the ease of the program and the reach became themes. U.S. universities are uniquely suited to welcome students from around the world. We have experience in our own vast country of people coming to university from far away. Our universities have dorms, which is not a common characteristic worldwide, and we have teams in place to help students adjust. A couple students spoke up about the quality of the dorms. Like hotels, they said. They were impressed by the luxury of college campuses, with their gyms, theaters and swimming pools. Perhaps these kids should talk to our kids to let them know what a great thing we have going. Some kids who had gone to the University of Nebraska actually expressed their gratitude for not having much choice of where they would go. They were unfamiliar with Nebraska and would never have chosen it, give a wide choice. But they thought the program was excellent and they loved Nebraska because of its friendly and welcoming people.

One thing that struck several students was the big difference between the feeling on American campuses.  In Brazil they have lots of class time and less homework. In the U.S. they have less time in class but expect to study more.  They come to conclusions themselves and praised the open atmosphere. Our surveys indicate that SwB kids did well in U.S. universities and that among many their grades improved. A few kids explained from their own experience in the U.S. that classes were more challenging and more rewarding. They got better grades because they became more committed. Study was their choice and they reveled in it. It may also be that they do better because the trip to the U.S. represented a clean break with the past. They were free from many of the old strictures. The improvements in performance were most noticeable among the students who did less well in Brazil. Again, this is subject to interpretation. It could just be that they had more upside potential, but it obviously didn’t hurt that motivation improved. They didn’t know whether to characterize American punctuality and attention to deadlines as a positive or not.   It was harder.  One young man commented that you get your assignment and everybody is expected to have it done on time.  Excuses are ignored for the most part. The same young man mentioned the downside that pot-smoking was more common on campus in the U.S. He didn’t really say that he opposed it, but he did say that he was afraid to do it since the stakes were high for him and Brazil is he was caught messing up.

This led to a discussion of quality of students. Our first group of Brazilians was high quality, but there was some discussion of the future. The bigger challenge, they thought, was not academics but maturity and temperament. A SwB visit is often the first time a Brazilian young person will have been away from home. Some will be sorely tempted by the vices mentioned above, or maybe they will just cut class.  Or maybe they will suffer from melancholy and homesickness. Maybe all of these things in some measure. There were few negatives in these shouts of hallelujah. Most recognized the program was started only a short time ago and rolled out quickly. Paradoxically, there were complaints of too much and too little communication. I guess the general idea was that there was some confusion. Much of this is now cleared up.  Another complaint was in the nature of internships. It is hard for some people to get them. I don’t think this is a completely solvable problem. It is hard to get internships for Americans too. There is a lot of competition sometimes. There is little that we could and even less that we should do to help Brazilians out compete Americans and others.  Schools are making information available and the Brazilian authorities are working with firms. This is as good as it will get.

Many in the group were happy to learn that they could apply to the program again in graduate school.  This is also what many American schools want.

The first round of SwB was a success. We have seen a mutual enchantment. The Brazilians love the American schools and the American schools love to have them. So far, so good.

I have to caution that focus groups are not a statically valid way to measure opinions. They are good for generating ideas and making impressions, but we need to be careful that we don’t fall victim to availability bias, i.e. crediting information more because it is easy to get. But in this case, the ideas from the focus group tracked with survey data, so I feel confident in my impressions. 

My picture up top is my front yard.  I have not mowed the lawn since May of last year. Instead, I have been gathering seeds from flower beds I passed and tossing them around. This is what I have. I like it better than the manicured lawn.

Usually you just get one

Like cats, we must have nine lives because Brazil keeps giving us “once in a lifetime” opportunities. The latest came at lunch yesterday with education leaders in São Paulo. To my growing amazement & delight, a representative of the state education laid out his aspirations to create a network of community colleges inspired by American models. He asked how we could help. What he wants is exactly what we are eager to give him: connections with appropriate Americans and the chance for institutional linkages. I would not have aspired to this in my more grandiose imaginings. 

The Brazilian side has the determination, the resources and the desire to work with us. Having all those things at one time and in one place is rare. All we need do is say yes and I will not let this pass.

This is the opportunity to develop in São Paulo the kind of phenomenally successful working relationship that we have with CAPES and MEC in in Brasília. We have the opportunity to be present at the creation, when the institutions are forming that will influence the lives of millions of Brazilians and – again – create and enhance relationship among Americans and Brazilians that will affect our relations for a generation.  Louis Brandeis famously said that the states are the laboratories of democracy. Brazilian states are not exactly like ours, but the laboratory of democracy can work here too. A success in São Paulo can be adapted and emulated by others. São Paulo has the resources to be the leader. We will help.

There is the old saying about limited vision, that a person cannot see the forest because of all the trees. This is so big that we almost cannot see it for what it is. It requires that we deploy our “new” paradigm of leveraging our influence by imaginatively helping our Brazilian friends. It is a win all around. We join in their dreams. They achieve their aspiration while satisfying those of Americans eager to get more involved in Brazil’s growing opportunities. I have no doubt that we will find lots of Americans and American institutions who want to work with this.  

I wonder how many more “opportunities of a lifetime” Brazil will give me before I am done here. Usually you just get one. It is scary. I always say that it is better to be lucky than smart. But how long can luck hold?

Time enough

I think people work more hours than they need to, but you have to recognize that time on task is an important part of success. There is a perpetual discussion about time. Which is better, quality time or the quantity of time? The answer is a clear yes. Quality of the time you spend certainly is important, but the distinction is false.  It might be true that 20 hours of quality time is worth more than 40 hours of lesser time, but when you get into the big leagues everybody is bringing quality time. If you are putting your twenty hours or quality time against somebody bringing forty hours of the same, who wins?

When I was in the senior seminar a few years ago, I noticed that most of us successful people had in common that we had taken fewer than average days off either in sick days or vacation time.  Correlation is not causality.   It is possible that we were successful because we loved our jobs so much that we chose to take fewer days off and the time on task was an effect and not a cause of success. I suspect that feedback loop is at work.  Those who like their jobs spend more time on task, which makes them more successful and makes them like their jobs more … But the bottom line is that time on task matters. 

You may not succeed completely at everything you do, but sure cannot succeed if you don’t show up.

As I said up top, I think that many people work more than they need to. Time on task ONLY is not sufficient. There comes a point of diminishing and then negative returns on the time you spend on the job.  You need time to renew your energies, “sharpen the saw” as Stephen Covey says. This helps you bring that quality time to your job. You need time to renew your skills.  Here I am not talking about specific job training, which presumably is part of your ordinary work.  I read a lot about things tangential to my work.  This is where vision comes from. This vision thing may be more obviously important to higher-level leaders, but it is important to everybody, since everybody is leader of their own enterprise, which is the person him/herself. In the last couple weeks I read four books: “The Generals,” “Insurgents,” Conscious Capitalism” & the latest biography of Calvin Coolidge.  None of them were directly related to my work and none of them immediately changed my life, but all of them gave me ideas that gave me ideas that will change how I plan and behave at work.  

So I am firmly on both sides of this issue. You need to apply an appropriate amount of quality time to the things you consider important.

Duct tape is good for everything

I got a flat tire on my way to work a couple days ago.  These are less common now that I got tires lined with Kevlar, but I still get them sometimes.  I started to use duct tape to fix the flats.  It works as well as the patches, better because it is so easy to use.  You can put a fairly big square of the stuff over the hole and it holds at least as well as the patches.  I guess duct tape really is good for everything.

The picture up top shows where I got the flat. 

New environmental solutions

It is amazing how fast America is switching over to natural gas.  I read today that railroads are considering changing from diesel to natural gas, which is cheaper and cleaner. Power plants are quickly substituting natural gas for coal.  All this is helping the U.S. reduce its carbon emissions while becoming less and less dependent on imported oil.  U.S. carbon emissions have been reduced by 13% in the last five years and we are down to 1994 levels.  If this goes on much longer, the U.S. will reach its Kyoto goals w/o having ratified the treaty thanks mostly to natural gas.

I have written about this natural gas boom many times before.   It is as close to a gift from God as it is possible to get in the energy world.  Natural gas is clean, abundant and American.  Better yet, it is widely distributed in the U.S., so the prosperity will be widely shared.

Another interesting permutation is genetically modified food.  They are also reducing CO2 emissions by improving land use.  And now investors are looking for ways to adapt to global warming and many environmentalists are embracing nuclear power as a sure way of delaying global warming.

I think it is very interesting that the solutions of many of our environmental problems come from sources that many of the traditionalists neither expect nor even much like.   CO2 emissions are reduced by the use of a fossil fuel extracted in a new and more efficient way.  Land use is improved by the use of genetically modified crops, the nemesis of many ostensibly green consumers.  Nuclear power may save the world and the free enterprise system will help us adapt to changes.