Slack key Guitar and Keola Beamer

Slack string guitar playing was brought to Hawaii by Spanish cowboys.  Well, they brought the guitars, but they didn’t teach the local people how to tune them.  The result is a kind of echoing play, very subtle. 

We had a performance at our Binational Center by a Hawaiian slack string musician Keola Beamer.  Follow the link to learn more about him and his music.   I really suggest you DO follow the link.  It is worth it.  It was enchanting music, smooth and peaceful.  And Keola was such a nice guy, explaining the stories and making the evening just great.  Sometimes he sings in Hawaiian.  Like all Polynesian languages, Hawaiian is heavy in vowels, so it sound musical even when it is not sung.

Biking challenges

I like to commute on bike and have been doing it my entire adult life.  It is harder in Brasília than in any other place I have lived.  It shouldn’t be.  I am only four miles from the Embassy and there is lots of open space.  But the city is poorly designed for bikes or people and not even very good for cars.  But I persist in riding.

It is pretty good in Lago Sul.  Lago Sul is more like an ordinary city.  The trouble starts when you get to the lake.  You can see the picture of the bridge above.  The pedestrian part of the bridge is around three feet above the road and only about three feet wide.  It is constructed of concrete panels.  I was afraid to ride on it at first, since falling in either direction would be very bad.  On the one side you would fall into traffic, on the other into the lake.  But I got used to it, avoiding the big cracks.  Recently, however, one of the panels fell in, as you see in the picture.  I have to get off the bike and walk carefully at that part.

Brasilia has a lot of potential and could easily be retrofitted to make it much more user friendly.  There are some nice roads for biking, but they often don’t connect to anything or connect into big roads that as designed only for cars.     

Until we reach that bright happy situation where hardships don’t prevail, however, I would be content if they fixed the bridge.

Universities in Minas

Minas Gerais is full of good universities.  We visited three: PUC-Minas, UNA and UFMG.

PUC-Minas is the largest PUC in the world with more than 56,000 students.  The campus is beautiful as you can see from the pictures.  We visited with some of the university leadership and then did a talk about the U.S. education system.   I was surprised by the crowd.  It filled the lecture hall and they said that they had to move to a bigger room.  This turned out to be the general rule in Belo Horizonte.  I think it is because they don’t see diplomats as often as people in Rio or São Paulo. We are always delivering our talks in Portuguese, which I also think is important.

UNA is a private for profit university.  It has ten campuses around Minas.  There was real professionalism around the place and they are obviously prospering.  For-profit institutions present a bit of a dilemma for us.  Of course, we can cooperate with them, but making grants etc. is a problem.  Some of these schools, like UNA, are very well run and they attract ambitious, upwardly mobile people and they can be very flexible and innovative. 
We did a lecture there too, to another very full room.  I was particularly impressed that they got this big crowd at 8pm on a Friday night.  I had underestimated the ambition of the students.  Some came to see us, but it was not uncommon for them to be at school at night.  In fact, after our hour-long talk, many of them went on to even later classes.  You have to respect their discipline.

Finally, we went to the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), another great university.  This visit was the ostensible reason for coming to Belo Horizonte.  We were meeting returned Science w/o Borders students.   We did a focus group with about sixteen of them.  Their experience in the U.S. was good.  Like others we have met, they talked about the greater flexibility and hands-on approach in the U.S.  They were impressed with simple things, such as professors being on time and keeping office hours.  Their principle problems related to coming back home.  Some said they were having trouble getting their credits properly recognized. 

Our focus groups are very useful not only because we learn a few things but also because it is good general contact work.  Students are pleased that we come out to talk to them.  I am really interested in their impressions.  As I wrote in other places, focus groups are not statistically valid, but as I am getting more and more of similar comments I am getting more confident that the picture is accurate.  SwB is working and it is benefiting both our countries.

Farming and youth in Minas Gerais

We had to get up early to go to the experimental farm at the FUCAM project in Esmeraldas. We left at 7am but got stuck in traffic.  There was evidently an accident on the main highway, so we had to take the back roads.

The farm is a place for poor kids from rural Minas.  There are classes on singing and art, but also and most importantly on agriculture.  We had a great coffee break, with the snack foods of Minas, including pao de queijo and queijo de Minas.  Pao de queijo is a type of cheese bread, sometimes in little balls and sometimes in slices.   It is very good.  Queijo de Minas is a white cheese, sort of a firm version of cottage cheese.

The farm grows its own vegetables and has some left over for market.  Everything is organic.  Part of the education process is their environmental responsibility. Notice the dirt is brown/black. Most of the dirt around here is red or orange. This shows how much organic matter is in this farm soil. The pond below catches the runoff. There are talapia in it.  Talapia is one of the quickest ways to grow usable protein.  They can thrive in dirty water, in fact they prefer it.

On the way out they told us that there was one more demonstration.   We went to a small barnyard with various animals.  I thought maybe they would show us some tricks.   Instead, they showed us how they castrate a bull.  I got to stand very close.  I am glad that they didn’t hand me the knife.  They tie a string around the sack first and then cut.  There is not much blood, but I don’t think it is pleasant for the bull to become a steer.  This is the first time I saw this close up. I had a closer up picture, but it really was less interesting than you might suppose.  Google if you want to see it.  I did take a picture of the unfortunate animal before the procedure.  See below.

Busy week

It has been a busy week.  I got back from the U.S. on the overnight flight at around 6:30am on Tuesday and went right to work, since we had a visit from UN Ambassador Susan Rice.  The visit went well.  I didn’t have very much to do with it.  My main contribution was to do a short briefing in a special country team meeting.  But I did have to attend a reception at the Ambassador’s house.  I had a good time there and met lots of interesting people, but it did keep me out late.

The next day was work as usual, but with another evening event, this one for the 50th Anniversary of Case Thomas Jefferson.  I had a good time there too.  The people at the Casa are some of our best friends and I got to meet leaders from BNCs all over Brazil.  But it was another late night, made later by the taxi situation.  The event was held at the JK Memorial, which is evidently far from any taxi stands.  I didn’t get home until midnight.

Ironically, I need the “time off” to work. I am writing EERs and I really need to write notes about all the important things that we are doing.  W/o notes, I will forget to follow up and much of this work will be lost. I am sitting in the Belo airport now.I like airports.I always get to the airport way early so I never miss a flight but I have lots of time.It is very valuable time, time to stop and think.I have written before about the gift of boredom.I sometimes cannot stop myself so it is good to be stopped by events.
Social events are important in Brazil, maybe more so than in some other places.   This is where we meet people, firm up relationships and get the ideas.  Being there is essential but it is the follow up that is key to happiness in our work.  If you push forward too fast and furious, you outrun your intellectual and organizational supply lines.   This next week I want to devote to the infrastructure of my job.  I need to write to write those EERs, prepare for the inspection and in general order my priorities.

I remember imperfectly something from the Book of the Tao – “Movement overcomes cold but stillness counters heat” and the other one, “Muddy waters left still will clear.”  I need some stillness to prepare for the next jump.

My pictures are from the CTJ 50th Anniversary celebration.  I took them with my mobile phone so they are a little blurry. 

The forestry secret of happiness

As an investor, I got into tree farming backwards; I love forests and I wanted to own land, but I had to convince myself that tree farming could be a good investment.  I made what I considered generous estimates and jumped in.  No matter the rationale, it looks like tree farming really is a good investment.  Mills opening in and near

Virginia, a possible housing revival, a thriving relatively new market in wood pellets, many of which are going to places like Germany to support their renewable fuel mandate programs, and things like Dominion Power’s decision to convert some coal fired plants to Virginia grown biomass is making me happy that we decided to get into forestry.   But good investment potential is just the factor that enables me to be engaged in forestry; itself it is not the reason I do it.   I think most forest “investors” are like this. I take great satisfaction and pleasure watching my trees grow and planning for the future, knowing that the future will be just a little better because I am helping conserve and improve the quality of the soils, the purity of the water, the beauty of the land and its capacity to support wildlife, all the while sustainably growing timber and forest products that our country needs.  This is a long sentence because it encompasses a lot.  This is why I do it. This is why we do it.

My sons often come with me to work on our land and meet forestry folks.  The other day, my older son asked me, “Why are the people we meet always so happy?”  As I thought about the question, I realized that he was right in his observation.  People involved in forestry are an unusually happy bunch. Coming up with a definitive answer as to why might require research beyond my abilities but I have a few ideas.  Mostly they related to the things I wrote above.

People are happy when they are doing things they love and when they know that what they are doing has value and meaning.  It helps if what they are doing is sustainable both for them and the larger community.  Good people want to do good things. Forestry includes all this.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like the money I can make and I am delighted that a forestry investment pays off.  Profit is the price of survival.  I could not do forestry if it didn’t pay off; few of us could. But I don’t know anybody in forestry who does it only or even mostly for the money.  People in forestry love forests and we love them in all their glorious complexity.  We love to look at them, walk in them, plan for the future and remember the past.  For me, and I believe for many others, the forest is a place of sweet contentment, where yesterday, today and tomorrow flow together. In times of stress, I find my mind wandering back to my woods.  The problems of a day matter little compared with the perpetuity of the forest.

There is a corny saying, “If you are lucky enough to be in the woods, you are lucky enough.” But it is true.  We should all work to continue the tradition of forestry through organizations like Tree Farm. We grow the trees and we grow happiness for ourselves and others at the same time.

PLUG in Belo Horizonte

Belo Horizonte is a very pleasant city. The airport is way out of town, so you get a good look at the Minas Gerais countryside during the hour of so you are coming into the city. It is hilly and green. 

The city itself is developed and prosperous.  “The Economist” ran articles this week about Minas Gerais. You can read them here and here. There are great universities and an ambitious population.  It seems a nice place to live.

My first appointment was at PLUG Minas. This is a kind of training center and after school program for what I suppose we might call at-risk youth.  The youth seemed pretty happy and they were very polite.  They have music and arts programs, financed by the state government plus an English language program, which is what interests me the most.

Demand is high.  They have only sixty places and they get forty-four applicants for each place.  Classes are big, with thirty students in each, but they get good results.   The teachers told me that this is surprising to them and goes against much of what they thought about class size.  We speculated about why this might be.  Perhaps the technology is helping.  Lots of computer and online programs are available.   These can take the place of drilling that used to require the active participation of teachers. But I also think it is partly due to the selection process. 

When you have lots of applicants for a few positions, you can get the people who are smart and motivated.  It also helps that they know about the selectivity.  It makes them value the experience more and creates confidence.   We few, we happy few – it is encouraging to be part of a select group.  Of course, it does highlight the trade-offs that we have to make between excellence and inclusion and makes me wonder about scalability.

I have seen some very successful programs and some with retention rates so low that they are not worth supporting.   Our English Access program is a good example of something that works and so is what they have at PLUG. There are lots of factors, but to paraphrase Tolstoy, every good program is the same but every bad one is bad in its own way.  What is true about every good program is that the participants want to be there and they have the appropriate skills to do the work.  This is perhaps not sufficient for success but it is necessary. This is a simple truth, but unpleasant.  It sets limits.  If you spread any program far enough to include too many of the less motivated and the less apt, you fail. 

My pictures are from around Belo.  You can see it is a green and nice place. 

New forestry developments in SE Virginia

We went down to the farms.  The boys came with on Saturday. I stayed an extra day to talk to our local friends. Trees look good. They have only just started to grow for this season, so I look forward to seeing them again next month.

Lots of things are happening in this part of Virginia. An old International Paper Mill was repurposed for fluff pulp in 2012.  Two new wood pellet plants by Enviva are opening this year. Some of this is sold to the EU as part of their renewable requirements. And Dominion Power is converting some of its plants to biomass from coal. This will create demand for wood chips. 

If the housing industry picks up a little, we should be in high cotton (or high pine) by the next time we harvest some of the trees.

The top picture shows the boys plus their friend Colin at a stream crossing on the new farm. Below they are near ten year old trees at CP and the bottom is Espen in the truck.

Good forestry or politicized environmentalism

My forest is certified by the American Tree Farm system, the world’s oldest forest certification plan. It is affiliated with the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI). Nobody can care for his forest more than I do. Yet the wood I grow sustainably on land that has been growing sustainable forests for generations is not edible to be used in LEEDs buildings because of they only accept wood certified by the politically better connected Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC). Silly and harmful to America.

MOST American certified forests are SFI certified. Three quarters of our continent’s wood is not FSC certified. That means that when you build a LEED building – supposedly “green” – you pay more for the wood AND there is a good chance that the wood will come from someplace outside the United States. It will be shipped to the U.S. on trucks and ships burning fossil fuel, so you end up paying more to create more pollution.

So let’s sum this up. You want to build a “green” building, so you look to LEEDs standards. But the standard themselves force you to use wood that is less environmentally friendly, costs more and employs fewer Americans because you are locked into FCS wood. I looked into these certification schemes. The differences on the ground between SFI and FSC are impossible to find. The Society of American Foresters says “FSC or better is neither logical nor scientific, especially when it continues to reinforce misconceptions about third-party forest certification and responsible forest practices.” I chose American Tree Farm System for my land because it was well established with a long and good history in the U.S. I know for sure it works.

FSC is more politically active. They have lots of allies among urban greens. People like my neighbors spend more time working their land than thinking about PC and PR. So FSC manages to intimidate and trick people into thinking that they have a monopoly on sustainable forestry. They don’t. They are just more political and less American.

I know that few people reading this know or care much about this. You probably have seen FSC or SFI logos on your wood or paper products w/o paying attention. Certification for timber in North America is not an issue. There is little illegal logging in the U.S. Most landowners certify their land as a way of affirming their commitment to the land ethic and their neighbors. IMO, FSC and SFI provide nearly identical “protection” for the forests, but if you want American wood, you may want to go with SFI.

In any case, don’t be impressed by the LEED standards. And if you or your government is tied into using only FSC wood, you are probably paying too much and costing jobs in American forests.


… and the others don’t matter

A successful public affairs program depends much more on understanding of the environment and having the capacity for flexibility than it does on any kind of actual step-by-step planning.  There is a process but not a plan.  I know that my colleagues and I can find and use opportunities and I am sure the opportunities will be out there, but I cannot tell you what they will be.  If I did, I would have to aim very low indeed and I would miss the big chances.

Hunting analogies are a little UN-PC, but humankind grew up as hunters-gatherers. It is what we are good at doing.  We work naturally well in small teams when the teams are empowered to choose tactics toward a bigger goal. So let me take a hunting analogy. We are out hunting rabbits when we find a moose.  Do we continue chasing that rabbit and would we be considered failures for bringing back a moose instead of a rabbit?  What if we don’t see any game animals at all but find a hive full of honey?  The reason we should be flexible is because the goal is not hunting rabbits or hunting at all.  The goal is to find food to allow our community to survive, thrive and prosper.

Our industrial society achieved great success but changing this paradigm.  In our machine age paradigm we did indeed insist on the industrial equivalents of rabbits, but we were so productive and so adapt at controlling the environment that it made sense in many situations.  To take my analogy maybe too far, the rabbit factory was not equipped to process a moose.  The unexpected opportunity was worse than useless; it actually caused trouble for the machines.  I had an interesting education about this in forestry. The mills are set up to take particular size trees, in Virginia it is often about the size of a 30-40 years old loblolly pine.  A bigger tree is of little significantly less value, since it just doesn’t fit in the machines. Much of our human organizations are still machine-like.  This is sometimes stated as an indictment of modern society, but it should not be.  There is nothing more efficient than a machine bureaucracy in a controlled and predictable environment. My hypothetical rabbit processing operation will produce a lot more usable protein than one that is flexible enough to take a wider variety of inputs, providing you can assure the preferred inputs and you want to product.

Some parts of our public affairs operations can still effectively be treated as a machine bureaucracy.  These are the core functions. Processing visitors is a good example, as is producing editorials or fact sheets.  The visitors and facts are very different, but the process is very similar.

The part of public affairs that remains in the hunter-gatherer paradigm is mine.  Public affairs officers and their colleagues have the unstructured job of scanning the environment for opportunities and threats. The moose or the mammoth is still more important than the rabbits or the chickens in our world. But like our ancestors, we cannot guarantee finding them.  Our world is even more uncertain than the hunter’s.  The hunter knew the moose was good eating and understood some of the risks and rewards of taking it on.  The hunter also had no way of creating more moose and the moose was unlikely to cooperate with the hunters to achieve some kind of win-win outcome.

We don’t face the zero-sum relationship the hunters did.  Knowledge of the environment and the capacity to make friends and cooperate with allies means that smart decisions can vastly multiply our results.  We can sometimes achieve exponential results, where 2+2= 100 or more. 

But we still face the environmental constraints.  We need to take the opportunities when they are available.  This means we need to allow ourselves to become seriously “unbalanced” when the opportunities are there.  We must “neglect” important parts of our programs and sacrifice some good things in the pursuit of better things.  We must also be willing to cut and kill programs that are not working, recognizing that those programs on the chopping block may well have been our beloved stars of the recent past.

This is hard to do.  It requires judgment and the decision maker will always be second-guessed.  It is a curse of human perception that we really cannot see how things might have been.  A bold decision will create lots of change.  A great decision will create mostly positive results but there will always be some losses. Choosing one path involves not taking others. Those other paths have potential gains too.  After the decision is made and the one path taken, other will look down the paths not taken and often assume all the good things would have happened with none of the failures.  Imagination can always produce better results than reality.

Putting up with this kind of second-guessing is the price of making decisions. If you expect to be praised by everybody when you do things right, you are seriously mistaken and probably unsuited to leadership. I take some pride in annoying some people. If I think they are wrong, I hope that they dislike what I do.  Make sure the good people are with you and don’t worry about the ankle biters. I am approaching my second year in Brazil and we have achieved great things.  But none of the biggest things, the things I think will do sustainable good, were part of my plans when I arrived in Brazil in June 2011.   My slow moving dreams were overtaken by much bigger, better and faster aspirations of our Brazilian friends. Our choice was to stick with our plans and be able to take full credit for small success or join with others and deploy our small powers to leverage a much larger one.  With our friends we can take down that wholly mammoth.  By ourselves, we can knock a rabbit on the head, maybe corner a chipmunk.

Looking back at my last two years in Brazil, I achieved almost none of my plans.  But WE did much better. Good people understand and the others don’t matter.