Rio Negro meeting Rio Solimões

The meeting of the waters is the place where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões meet to form the Amazon. The rivers are very different. The Rio Negro is mostly black with a pH of black coffee. The Solimões is like coffee with cream and full of silt. The two meet just past Manaus and the two waters run side by side, visibly different for a few miles.

It is de rigueur to visit the meeting of the waters if you go to Manaus and we did. IMO, it is one of those things that is worth seeing but not worth going to see. It looks like some muddy water mixing in with some less muddy water. The river trip was long, but interesting.

We went up the Solimões. The river is very much alive, lots of fish and plants. We stopped off at a riverside restaurant. The food was unremarkable. It probably was not alone worth the trip. But I did enjoy the lilies and river. I am very fond of these kinds of swamp landscapes. The trees were full of monkeys. You could hear the howler monkeys howling. It was an interesting experience.

Along the river are shacks made most of tin and scraps. The guide told us that government had recently furnished them with electricity and other amenities. I don’t think this is a good thing. It is nice to give people things to make them more comfortable, but perhaps eking a living from the river like this is not something to be encouraged. It is not environmentally friendly to live on these margins either.

Above is a floating gas station.  Lots of things on the rivers.  Below is another future problem.  There are places where you should not build houses.

On the river

It is maybe wiser to avoid the forest floor, but the river is another story.  I understand that there are also piranha, caiman and snakes in the water, but it seems peaceful and if you stay in the boat it is mostly safe.  The rivers are the highways of the Amazon.

Alex and I took a canoe out for a while.  We are not good at canoe paddling.  Alex has become very strong, much stronger than I am so we are always drifting in the direction his paddle takes us.  It was, however, peaceful and quiet.

The rivers are very wide and the forests are flooded this time of the year, so you really do not see a shoreline, just the tops of trees and bushes.

Walking in the Amazon jungle

The jungle walk was familiar enough to make me long for the forests of home and different enough that I knew I was not at home anymore.

The forest here is wet, literally dripping with dew and humidity all the time. The ground vegetation is thick, although that may be because this was cut-over. I understand that in the true triple canopy forest, which I don’t think I have ever really seen, it is so dark on the forest floor that not much grows. The forest soil here is not fertile and it there is little organic material. It is all quickly recycled into growing plants. It is a different sort of forest from those I know. I feel connected with the forests back home. Here I am clearly alien. I recognize that this is a wonderful, complex and diverse ecosystem. Maybe that just overwhelms me.

Maybe it is because it is a dangerous place. There are snakes and bugs around that can poison you. If you get stuck in the jungle at night, never sleep on the group. That is why local Indians always use hammocks. If you lay down on the ground for the night, you are likely to still be lying there the next morning, just no longer alive.

We didn’t see any big animals or really animals at all. Many of the animals are nocturnal and all the animals are good at not being seen. Life is dangerous and short for the forest animals here. Beyond that, the soil is not very fertile, so there are not rich supplies of food. This poverty is especially acute on the Rio Negro, since (as mentioned) the river does not have many insects, which form the base of the food pyramid. The nearby Rio Solimões is coffee brown, full of silt and nutrients, and so full of bugs and fish. Tourists like it less because of the bugs and the mud, but it is a more living river.

Francisco, the guide, said that there were jaguars around but not very many. This is good, since jaguars are dangerous. They will attack and kill people and you don’t see them coming. He wears a jaguar tooth around his neck and he showed it around to emphasize his point. Jaguars are stealth hunters. They hide or sneak up and then jump on their prey from behind. They go for the jugular. When they get a hold, they just hold on until the animal, or human, passes out from loss of blood. They are beautiful creatures, but nasty. I recall seeing them at the jaguar sanctuary safely behind a fence. I am glad that we didn’t run into any w/o a fence.

That long brown thing in the picture is an ant nest. Maybe it would be more appropriate to call it an ant hive. The outside was crawling with ants. Francisco squashed a few and rubbed them on his hands. He told us that the native Indians would do that and rub it all over their bodies to mask their scent when hunting. The local Indians are also stealth hunters. They hide or sneak up on their prey and then dispatch them with an arrow or poison dart. Neither has much range in the woods, so they need to get close, close enough to smell the animal and be smelled. The ant juice makes hunting like this practical.

We didn’t see any Indians in the wild. They are not very numerous and those that still live traditionally are protected and contact with them limited. Meeting “wild” Indians is potentially hazardous to all involved. While I was there, I read an article about three people killed by semi-wild Indians. Evidently one of them worked for the electric company and made himself unpopular by trying to collect bills. He was marked for death, but he caught a ride with a couple other people, thereby dooming them too. Those are situations I cannot predict so prefer to avoid.

BTW – walking is not the way you usually get around in the jungle.  It is difficult to walk most places.  With all the water, boat is the best way to go.  Alex and I paddled a little.  I will show pictures in the next post.

Monkeys are inherently funny

Although they make a big deal about presenting the operation as a scientific endeavor, the monkeys are not really wild and they essentially perform for tourists. When they put out the fruit, the monkeys come. It is interesting to see them all swing on over. They look pretty buff. New World moneys have prehensile tails, i.e. they can grab onto branches with their tails.  Old World monkeys cannot. The red faced monkey above is called locally an “English” monkey, with reference to the red skin which the locals think resembles a fair-skinned Englishman with a sunburn.

The monkeys are not dangerous, but we were told that they might try to grab jewels or cameras. They did not.  They paid no attention to us at all. You can see Espen with the monkeys in the picture below. Espen is the one wearing the shirt.

Rio Negro in Amazon basin

The boys and I spent the last week in the Amazon forest. It was a good time & probably the last time any of us will be in this place. We stayed at the EcoPark, about an hour and a half outside Manaus on a branch of the Rio Negro (Black River).

The Rio Negro is black, as it name implies and it is a better place to be than many places in the Amazon basin, since there are fewer bugs. The Rio Negro flows through some swamps, where the water drops its silt and acquires an acid character. It is a mild acid, about as strong as black coffee, which it kind of resembles. This is enough to make life more difficult for insects. I was surprised at how few mosquitoes were around. I guess that is why.

A bus from Manaus takes you to a dock on the Rio Negro and the EcoPark picks you up in a small boat. There is a drier and a wetter season in this part of the Amazon basin and the river is high this time of year. This means that forests are flooded, sometimes several meters deep. This is a regular event and a good time for fish, since they can go into the erstwhile forests to find food and try to avoid becoming food for others by hiding in the trees.

The rivers are variable. They get very wide and then narrow out depending on the rain.  The flood is part of the life of the river.  The Mississippi used to be like this before we built all the levies and channels, although the Amazon is even bigger.  On the downside, for us at least, the wet season allows the fish and animals to spread out where we can’t see them as easily.  We went fishing for piranha.  The boys and I didn’t get any.  The guides told us that they were out there but more in the flooded forest.  Evidently they are not as numerous or aggressive as they seem to be in movies.

Let’s not meet about it

I have failed in my admittedly quixotic quest to limit meetings and protect time. My goal was to limit time spent in meetings, eliminate many meetings altogether and just say no to just being there.

I have learned (confirmed) to my sadness that in government, maybe any large organization, many people define their “work” by the number and duration of the meetings they attend.

We talk about saving time and say time is our most valuable resource. I listened to a podcast re (see link,) which actually provoked this post.

In truth, I have not been completely unsuccessful. I have learned to say “no” to lots of meetings. I think I have paid some cost, but what do I care at this stage of my career.
I ridicule most suggestions of “brainstorming” for example, especially when “brainstorm” is used as a verb, i.e. “let’s brainstorm it.” Brainstorming is a colossal waste of time. People substitute brainstorming for thinking things through. I can think of a few cases where brainstorming sessions produced some value, but I cannot think of very many. And I am sorry but there are some stupid ideas and it is not much use to “get them out there” except maybe to get them out into the open where they can be eliminated more easily.
But my ridiculing of brainstorming upsets brainstorm advocates. Some don’t tell me, but they are.

Returning to the main meeting topic, I had a very interesting case with one of my staff members, who was holding too many meetings. When I asked him to stop, he told me that “his bosses” expected of him. I pointed out that I was his boss and I didn’t want it. He stopped – I thought. I later learned that he had not stopped at all; he just stopped reporting back to me. What for, if the ostensible recipient of the results doesn’t want them? My belief is that it was just a way to seem to be busy, like doing a rain dance.

But I have learned a simple technique. I noticed that when somebody closes a meeting, it is customary to ask if anybody else has anything else to say. This question is often followed by a “are you sure?” and/or by additional comments. I have noticed that when the last person speaks, the best thing to say is “okay, let’s get back to work.” If someone really has something important to add, they will say so. Otherwise, head for the door while the opportunity is there. I have a variation if I am not leading the meeting. When the leader says “okay, let’s” I get up and make to leave. This often finishes the meeting w/o the request for additional comments.

In the link I included, the author talks about making it harder to set up meetings. Outlook makes it too easy. All you need do is send out those notices. I used to think it was rude not to respond at all, but now I just ignore most of them, since few of them really need me. They have no business asking me and I figure if they really care they will follow up.
IMO, many if not most meetings result from inability to make decisions. How often are you talking with a few people and somebody says, “let’s have a meeting to resolve this.” The correct answer is almost always “no”.

If you need more information, ask whoever is likely to have it. If a decision is within your portfolio, just make it. The cost of coming to the “right” decision with meetings and research often exceeds the cost of making the wrong decision and some things just don’t matter very much.

Anyway, I lost that long war against meetings, although I did manage to clear an areas that was, if not meeting free, was at least meeting scarce. This gave everybody more time to do real work and I think it was effective. I would discuss this with anyone who asks, but let’s not meet about it.

PS – I am not really against wasting time. Some wasted time is unavoidable. But I can waste time all by myself. I don’t need to call a meeting of a lot of other people to help.

From Facebook: Hagia Sophia

This is especially for John Jasik, given his interest in Turkey. It was a church for nearly 1000 years and then became a mosque. I don’t really care who controls it, but they should take better care of it. I visited twice. Istanbul is one of my favorite places. Re Hagia Sophia – I am sure those giant round things hanging from the ceiling have some significance, but they detract from the beauty. It is always a challenge for “restoration.” What period do you restore? IMO, the idea that it can alternate between being a mosque and being a church makes good sense. Christianity is the “indigenous” religion, but Islam conquered the place 1452 so they have some claim too.
Church to mosque…and back?

Role Models

I read a story today about a smart kid, son of African immigrants, who got accepted to all the Ivy League schools.  I wonder why he applied to all, but no matter, this is a great story.
The media is all over it when a university snags some guy who has great aptitude in tossing a ball through a small hoop or catching an oblong object while running down a grassy field. It makes no difference. There will be exactly the same ratio of winners to losers whether sports stars play well or poorly.

The smart kid, on the other hand, has a good chance making the world better by building knowledge and contributing to the development of better techniques. I dislike the emphasis on sports in university. This is not because I resent the fact that coaches are often the highest paid public employee in the state or that so much money is poured into these programs that could go to academics, although I do. What I object to in sports recruiting as tournament aspect with few winners and lots of losers. Consider Lebron James. He was born with talent, which he developed in an admirable way and now he makes millions of dollars doing something he loves. Great. But what about the millions of others with similar but not quite as good talent? They work hard to develop sports skills and get very good. They get their shot at the big time and fail. What are they left with? An excellent but not outstanding basketball player is no better off than a weekend player. He gets bupkis. On the other hand, kids that study hard and don’t quite make it into the academic firmament are still going to be able to use their talents and skills to improve their own prospects and the world. In other words, a good but not great mathematician can do more than show off to friends on the weekends. If you are looking for role models, do you want a role model doing something that you can never achieve or one that can help you succeed even if you fall short of the sublime excellence of the very best? This is also the classic American story of the children of immigrants who succeed in America through hard work and intellectual talent. You can still make it if you work hard. This is the kind of story that good parents should teach their children.