National Arboretum

Went over to National Arboretum. Well worth it. They had an exhibition on lawns and were testing various sorts of grass. That is my first picture. Next is an example of field and trees, also at the Arboretum. The last two photos are from the Botanical Gardens. There are lots of nice places to sit and read, listen to audio-books or just listen in general.

Washington has an extraordinary number of things you can do for free. On the one hand, I am happy that I can find such solitude in public places. On the other hand, it is sad that so few people take advantage of what is so freely and easily available.

You really do not need your own back yard when you can use your Uncle Sam’s.

Book review: Nova's Fire Wars

NOVA: Fire WarsI got  Nova’s “Fire Wars” video as part of my study of fire science.  It is a great complement to the many books and magazine article.  To actually see the flames and the firefighters at work, and hearing them speak adds greatly to understanding.   If a picture is worth a thousand words, the video and explanation is worth even more.  Seeing an example of the fire-ball that comes from a fire blow-up is much more impressive than reading about it.  The video also includes computer graphics that shows in detail how the winds and topography interact.   I read the classic “Young Men and Fire” about the fire in Mann Gulch that killed thirteen smoke jumpers in 1949, but could not picture and really understand the event until I saw the actual topography and the graphics that showed the fire’s progress.
Nova does an excellent job of explaining the dynamics of firefighting and how wildfire has become an increasingly urgent issue.  This program was made in 2002.  If anything, the problem has become even more urgent.  Knowing that adds to the tension you feel watching the fires.
The video does an adequate job of explaining how we got into this situation.  A lot of it came as a result of the Big Burn in 1910.  This was disastrous fire that burned thousands of acres in three states and killed 78 firefighters.  The Forest Service reacted to this by making fire the enemy, treating fighting fire as the equivalent of war and bringing in air and ground forces similar to an army at war.   They won … sort of.  For a half century the Forest Service excluded fire.
Yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems, especially when they are based on wrong information.  Fire is a necessary part of many ecologies.   Many biotic communities are not only adapted to fire; they require it.  Foresters first noticed the problem in the among the sequoias in California.  Fire exclusion allowed the growth of a lot of brush and for many decades there were no baby sequoias.   Fire was reintroduced and things improved.  But it is not that easy.
In the half century plus when there the Forest Service quickly extinguished fire, the woods have grown thick with trees.   In the ponderosa pine ecosystem in the Rocky Mountains, for example, there used to be only about forty trees per acre.   Today there are more than 700 in some places.  None of these trees gets enough water and nutrients.   Many die.  In the old days, fires came frequently but they were small.  In the new regime, they come rarely but they are big, big enough to kill the big old trees and hot enough to burn the soils, turning them into a hard type of pottery that cannot even take the seeds.  But reintroducing fire is a problem given all the extra trees.   We will have to do some mechanical thinning and harvesting and then introduce fire.  But these procedures are controversial among some environmentalists, who fear and/or oppose profitable forestry activities such as thinning.
Most of the video, however, was the story of fire crews and their challenges.  Methods are described in detail as are lessons learned in this always hard and sometimes dangerous work.   The video goes into some depth describing the fatal fires at Mann’s Gulch (thirteen killed) and Storm King Mountain (fourteen killed).   (At the time the video was made, the 1913 Yarnell fire in Arizona that killed nineteen, was still in the future.)
I recommend this video very highly.   For someone (like me) who is studying the subject by reading books, this video makes it easier to visualize a fire in the woods.  For those just more casually interesting in the subject, this video is interesting and informative.

Book review: Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley

Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley

Hardcover – June 28, 2016

The author describes himself as a disenchanted idealist who turned cynical. I suggest that it takes a smart person to be cynical and a wise one not to be
This author is clearly very smart, competitive, aggressive and often nasty. His book is a projection of his personality onto the larger world. That is not to say that he is always wrong or that we cannot learn from his experience and perspective, and I will talk about lessons below, but let’s put it in perspective with an illustration from early in the book.
Mr. Martinez describes a situation where he was driving drunk, just over the limit, and was pulled over for an illegal U-turn. He sets up his story by describing the cop as “Bull Connor” and further explains that this type of character is often a villain in video games. So, he begins by categorizing the guy in a derogatory stereotype based on appearance. After failing the breath test, he asks the cop to go easy on him, which the cop does. The cop stipulates that Mr. Martinez cannot drive his car (reasonable) and they agree that he can take a cab home. No ticket, no arrest, the result is as happy as any law-breakers can expect. Yet after this, he still characterizes the cop as Bull Connor and “thick neck” and describes his experience as a “triumph over the rule of law.” What he should have done here is question his stereotypes and be grateful to the officer who was flexible and kind when he did not need to be.
So, I don’t like the guy, and I expect that he despises people like me, but I extended the benefit of the doubt in that he may have chosen this style to spice up the book and set a wise-ass tone for to sell books. I finished his book and took few lessons that I am not sure that the author actually intended or that you would need to get from this book. One is that the tech world is run by aggressive people and that a lot depends on random chance and social networks. In a society as fast-changing as tech, they are also new people: very smart, but often inexperienced in ways beyond their tech ambitions. The winners tend to think they know more than they do about things in general because they know so much about the particular thing that made them winners. By the time they get experience, they are often pushed out and their ideas superseded by the next big things. It would probably be better for everybody involved, even the winning individuals, if people like this did not earn so much money but it seems to be the price we pay for this innovation. The winner-take-all approach that dominates motivates very well and ensures that some people get too much money. I recall the old saying, “some people have too much money, but nobody has enough.”
The book is written in the style of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” (great book, BTW) with frequent digressions and definitions. But “Hitchhiker’s Guide” is funny science fiction. This book purports to describe reality and is not funny, unless you just like hearing a sarcastic guy disrespect those around him and know that he would disrespect you too.
So what do we learn in the end? We learn that people with attitudes like Martinez can be successful in these competitive places and that they can earn lots of money doing it, but that they can lose it just as quickly. We suspect that this is not a good thing, but we cannot figure out ways to throw out the bad w/o crippling the innovation that comes from this protean and competitive environment. So I do not think I wasted my time reading this book. I suspect the author is not as bad as he seems to want us to think. Maybe I just think that because I am not so cynical that I do not believe in redemption. In the coda of his book, he describes what became of his colleagues and himself. He evidently plans to sail around the world. This will give him the gift of time and if he uses it properly, he may be able to move beyond being just smart and cynical. He will still know that people are often crass, materialistic, selfish and shallow, but that there are other traits that can coexist with these that are admirable and beautiful. And I hope he finds this in himself and others and writes a book about that spiritual journey.

Book Review: Young Men and Fire: A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire

Young Men and Fire: A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire
September 1, 1992

by Norman Maclean 

This is a multidimensional story.  It is the story of the sixteen-man crew that in 1949 fought a wildfire at Mann Gulch, Montana and of the thirteen who died there.   It is also the story of an on-the-spot innovation, subsequently made famous by studies of quick thinking, when crew leader Wag Dodge saved himself from the fire by lighting another, burning the fuel and then sheltering in the burned out area.  We have the problem of organizational behavior and small-unit cohesion among a group and a leader unaccustomed to working with each other.  There is the story of fire-science that was greatly stimulated by the tragic events at Mann Gulch.  We could talk about the investigation of incident and court cases resulting or about the investigation, much of it never-to-be-resolved, finished as much as it ever will be by the author almost forty years after the event, with the final report cut short by the death of the author himself.
So, I recommend this book for if you are interested in any of the above subjects, or if you just want an exciting tale or are attracted by the forces of nature.  Since I cannot cover all the details, I will go after those most related to my interest and experience.  I bought this book as part of my study of the ecological use of fire and “Young Men and Fire” is a classic for fire science.  But I first became aware of the book when studying innovation and organizational behavior, so I will talk about those things.
My study has concerned mostly prescribed burning in Southeastern pine forests, but I have also looked into fire in ponderosa pine in the West and in tallgrass prairie ecosystems.  The ecology in Mann Gulch included grassland, brush along with ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.  This was no prescribed or controlled fire.
Maclean sets the stage very well.  He describes the young smoke jumpers, their attributes and attitudes.  These were fit young men whose mission was to parachute ahead of fires and put them out before they got too big.  Consider that in 1949, not long after World War II, the parachute was still a relatively new technology.  Paratroopers had been heroes of the War and this was no doubt not lost on the young smoke jumpers, who saw themselves in military terms, fighting fires as they would any other enemy.  They knew that their task was dangerous, but they had the confidence of fit young men who had not seen failure.  An important flaw in this organization, and one that may have been fatal, was that smoke jumping crews were assembled from a list of volunteers at each need. They were not a team used to working together.   And their leader, Wag Dodge, through experienced in the woods and with fire fighting, did not know them well.  Humans are not interchangeable parts.  When the crisis breaks and they need to rely on quick thinking or training, it is important that the team think like a time.  The men in Mann Gulch did not.
It is also to think back to the mindset of the Forest Service at that time.   This was before the science of ecology had developed, before fire behavior science had developed and before the idea the fire could be a natural and necessary part of the environment was even seriously considered.   The Forest Service treated fire in the woods as you would a fire in your living room.  Put it out, they hoped before 10am.  Lurking in the minds of all the rangers was the memory of the Big Burn fire of 1910, which had burned more than three million acres and killed at least 78 fire fighters.  (You can get a good background on that from “The Big Burn” on the “American Experience.)
The Mann Gulch fire behaved in particularly nasty ways for a variety of reasons.  The topography was important.  The walls of the gulch channeled the wind and the rock faces created eddies, sort of mini-tornadoes of flame. Beyond that was the combination of timber and grass. A timber fire can get very hot but does not move very quickly.   A grass fire is very rapid but not as hot, as the grass burns quickly and then goes out.  Often only top of the grass burns.  The Mann Gulch fire combined the dangerous attributes of both, with the rapidly moving grass fire supported behind by the intense heat of the timber fire.  It was hot enough to kill the firefighters and fast enough to outrun them.
The Mann Gulch became a blow up fire, which is a sudden increase in fire intensity or rate of spread accompanied by violent convection.  The smoke jumpers just were not expecting this.  The smoke jumper ethos was based on the idea that they would be able to put out small fires before they became big ones.  Their tools were simple.  They used shovels and simple tools to bury fire and beat it to death.  These tools and methods are unsuited to a big fire, which Mann Gulch became evidently in a matter of minutes.   The firefighters have to stop fighting and get out of the way of what they cannot stop.  This was the problem; they could not get out the way fast enough.
The fire was coming fast because of the wind blowing up the gulch and from the wind created by the fire itself.  A large fire creates its own wind.  You can see that in a campfire or a fire in a fireplace.  The fire draws in cool air, heats it and pushes it out.  The hot exhaust and gasses are what often kills.  It burns lungs and suffocates.  According to Maclean, it is ironically similar to drowning.
The fire also moved faster because it was going up hill.  Fire burns up faster than it burns down.  On the other hand, humans are slower running up hill. The young man did not have much of a chance to outrun the fire and this is were Wag Dodge has his idea.   He no doubt understood the idea of a back-fire, i.e. a fire set in front of an oncoming head fire designed to burn combustible material in advance of the big fire. Deprive it of fuel and it goes out.  (This is one of the principles of conducting prescribed fires.  Burners set a backfire to end the progress of the head fire.)  But nobody had used that principle to create an escape fire.
Dodge set a fire that burned the grass in front of the oncoming big fire and then laid on the ground in the ashes and let the fire burn over him.  He tried to get his fellow firefighters to join him, but they evidently (we can never know) did not understand or thought the idea was insane.  Dodge survived and the principle of an escape fire entered the training manuals for fire fighters.  BTW, the escape fire works in grass but not in timber fires.  A timber fire burns slower but much hotter and longer.
I recommend the book, as I wrote above, but I do need to point out that the book is inconsistent through not fault of the author.  Maclean died before the book was finished.  His editors tried to do what they thought he would have done and they usually succeed, but there is a little too much step-by-step description of Maclean’s last visit to Mann Gulch.  I suspect that these were first drafts or notes that Maclean would have tightened up.
“Young Men and Fire” has become classic in diverse fields of fire science, forestry and organizational behavior.  It is also generally fun to read.   One advantage of a “classic” is that it has been in print a long time.  You can get this book for one penny (plus shipping) on Amazon.
P.S.   This fire and the crew involved has been studied in great detail.  The story of Wag Dodge has become an example of innovation, while the problems of coordination have been studied by organizational theorists.  There is a good online exploration of the ground Mann Gulch at this link.
P.S.S. –  An added aspect of this tragedy is that it need not have happened at all.  Researchers have talked about the tactical problems of leaders, organization, geography, weather and bad luck.  All these thing indeed came together in a kind of perfect storm.  But there is a mega-issue.  This fire did not need to be fought at all. Fire is natural part of this ecosystem and there was nothing that needed to be saved in Mann Gulch.  If you look at the photos of Mann Gulch today you are seeing the natural landscape.  The fire was severe and deadly.  It killed thirteen brave young men.  But it did not destroy or even harm the long-term natural environment of the gulch.  In fact, the natural environment today would have been worse had they succeeded in controlling that fire by 10am, as we the Forest Service standard of the time.

Book Review: Investing in Nature: Case Studies of Land Conservation in Collaboration with Business

Investing in Nature: Case Studies of Land Conservation in Collaboration with Business
Dec 22, 2005

by William Ginn

“Investing in Nature” was published in 2005, i.e. more than ten years ago. It is useful to remember that, since some of the ideas in it are now more mainstream than they were back then and we need to appreciate it in its time.   Books like “Nature’s Fortune” (2013) have since laid out the case that we can and should integrate profitable human activities with nature and well-made documentaries such as PBS’s “Earth: a New Wild” or BBC’s “Earth: Human Planet” have made popular, at least among those who consider such subjects, the of long-term sustainable human activity complimenting nature, not opposing it.  On the other side, E.O. Wilson in his  latest book, “Half Earth”  rejected the idea calling it the “new conservation” and evidently considering that a pejorative term.
In “Investing in Nature,” William J. Ginn embraces the fact the humans will be involved in conservation.  He recognizes that communities are arranged around economic systems and we cannot defeat human nature.   The way to conserve nature, therefore, is the use the human systems.   Commerce, with the proper incentives, is the best was to secure a sustainable environment.   You can see why this sort of thinking might be considered apostasy by the hand-off or deep green environmental movements that usually considers humans generally and human commerce in particular to be the enemies of the environment.  Let me reveal my own bias.  I am firmly on the side of Mr. Ginn.
Mr. Ginn illustrates his point with his own experience.  Years ago, he was a leader int the movement to reduce solid waste in the State of Maine by imposing deposit fees on bottles and cans.  Maine enacted a deposit law and millions of bottles and cans were diverted from landfills.  Very good.  A few year Mr. Ginn was trying to grow plants and grasss on  piece of land with very acidic (sour) soil.  He knew that ash could be used to “sweeten: the soil but needed a supply and found a source at a local mill.  Things grew better.  The ash was a waste product and it cost the mill around $5 million to get rid of it each year.  Ginn formed a company to take this “bioash” and instead of being a solid waste product to be dumped turned it into a product to be sold. His firm eventually had $8.5 million in revenues and recycled over a million yards of waste each year.   This was twenty-five times the volume of waste removed by the bottle bill and a much more elegant, sustainable and profitable solution to an environmental challenge.  Stuff you have too much of is both a problem AND an opportunity.
The book features other examples of working with human systems to conserve nature and improve sustainability.  By working with businesses, landowners and investors, conservationists can leverage much greater resources than they could if they tried to use their own or the government’s money.  Maybe more importantly, they bring others in as enthusiastic partners, using their intelligence and imaginations to think up innovative ways to improve sustainability rather than deploying those same talents to finding ways to avoid regulation.  It is a win all around.
He quotes Will Rogers from the Trust for Public Land who said, “We need to realize that the work is not about conserving places.  It is about conserving people and our fellow species in the web of life.  It is about helping people find a different way of life.”
The book covers various methods of leveraging resources to conserve nature, things like debt for nature swaps, tax incentives and grants and various ways to make a working natural landscape profitable enough that it can stay in a sustainable natural state.   An interesting one is the “grass bank” that provides places for ranchers to graze their cattle while parts of their land are being restored and/or allowing ranchers to use grass banks at below market rates on the condition that the money saved go into ongoing conservation efforts.   Again, if you provide positive incentives, people figure out ways to make them work.  If you threaten or harass, people figure out ways to get out from under the coercion.  It works better when all are created.
I was interested in the chapter on “partnering with big timber” and Mr. Ginn’s explanation of how timber land ownership changed in recent decades.  I bought my first tree farm in 2005, and so was/am part of this.  Until the 1980s, pulp and paper companies owned vast tracts of timberland that they managed to supply fiber to their mills.  But they began to figure out that they did not need to own the timber in order to get the timber.  It was part of the general corporate divestment trend in the 1980s and they started to sell off timber land.
It also had favorable tax treatment for investors.   Besides owning land outright, investors could buy into Timber Investment & Management Organizations (TIMOs)  TIMOs own the forest land and manage it for fiber.  The tax advantage is that the TIMO passes income directly to investors and they pay the taxes.  If the pulp and paper firm owns the land directly, its profits are subject to corporate tax and then stockholders pay tax on their dividend, double taxation of the same money.   The TIMO has an advange over actually owning land in that investors have somebody else manage the land. They do not need to put big money up front and can buy and sell shares as they would a mutual fund.
The TIMO and small landowner model has significant environmental benefits and risks.  On the plus side, TIMOs and landowners are more likely to be innovative in their approach to the land.  (In the South we have seen this applied to tree genetics.  The big firms were interested in this, but the tended to have a kind of monopolistic slow pace.  There are more players now and things are accelerating).  On the other hand, there is increased danger of forest fragmentation, as small parcels are divided. On the third hand (yes three) conservation organizations can more easily approach landowners of ecologically important parcel and persuade them to be better stewards of the land and/or buy land themselves to manage.  This latter is exactly what organizations like Nature Conservancy have done.  They own timberland and manage it sustainably, but still carry out harvest and earn revenue that can support more conservation.
Anyway, I recommend this book.  It is still current after more than ten years and you can get it for a penny (yes one cent) plus shipping from Amazon.

Book Review: Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy

Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy

Apr 19, 2016

by Robert H. Frank

Read enough of these sorts of books and the ideas start to mash together.   In fact, they often use some of the same anecdotes and reference each other.   Into this general category, “success and luck”  I put books like “Drunkard’s Walk,” “The Success Equation,” “Fooled by Randomness,” “Signal and the Noise” and even “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.”  I keep on coming back to these sorts of books because I like to consider the interplay between effort, randomness and uncertainty in our lives and in the greater scheme of things.
There is no such a thing as destiny.  History is contingent and so are our lives – contingent on our environment, on what came before, on our earlier choices and very much on random chance.  We have an illusion of control, well illusion of too much control.  It seems counter intuitive but we have more control over the things that matter to us if we properly recognize the role of randomness and let things happen.  This is not merely “going with the flow.”   If you find yourself in a strong current, you cannot successfully fight against it, but you can have a lot more choices if you determine its direction and use it to your advantage.  It is the old story of constrained free will that the Stoics used to talk about and about which thinkers like Saint Augustine wrote.  But let me finally get to “Success and Luck” book itself.
I started off not liking it.  The author seemed kind of preachy and seemed to have the agenda of telling his readers that their accomplishments were mostly the result of luck and so they should be happy to pay more in taxes.   It was a variation on the “you didn’t build that” idea that I loathe.  But as I got farther along, I saw the book really was more on the order of something like the “Success Equation.”  In fact, he specifically refers to that book and quotes some its examples.
He comes up with a reasonable assessment of the interplay between luck and effort in achieving success.   All of us, for example, are lucky to be living in 21st Century America.  Because of the luck of out birth or immigration status, we have opportunities well beyond those of most people in the world and well beyond even those most fortunate of centuries past.   We are almost all of us absolutely better off than most of humanity today and way better off than almost all of humanity in historical terms.  But, Mr. Frank says, it is not our absolute positions that concern most of us, but our positions relative to others around us, our reference group.   If you are the richest guy in a poor place, you feel fortunate and empowered.  If you are the poorest in your gang of millionaires, you feel put upon and deprived.  This, he asserts, is hard wired into us by evolution, since your relative standing in your group determined what you got and your reproductive success, very important from a Darwinian perspective.  This idea becomes central to his policy prescriptions, which I will get to later.
Frank explains more about the role of luck.  He stipulates that most successful people work very hard and are intelligent and talented.  But intelligence and talent are necessary but not sufficient to achieve the greatest success.   Referring to the “paradox of skill” w/o actually calling it by that specific name, Frank explains that as the general level of expertise becomes very high, luck plays an increasingly important role.  Maybe 1000 people COULD do the job.   The high level of competence is a threshold requirement, a ticket in.  You cannot even begin to compete w/o it, but since all participants have it, the only differences will come from luck.   (Taking an example from a different book, “The Success Equation,” no baseball player will ever again achieve Ted Williams’ record.  It is not that modern players cannot achieve his level of absolute skill, but rather that the general level of skill has become so high that nobody can stand as far out anymore on skill alone.)
This brings Frank to a talk about the winner takes all society (the title of one of his earlier books.)  Small differences get magnified so that the winner may not be very much better than the second place finisher, but he gets the whole prize.  This is a big driver of inequality.  The winners small edge is enough to get it all and, according to Franks, sometimes, often, this small edge is due to luck.   He explains that every outcome depends on a combination of skill and luck.  In simulations where subjects are assigned skill levels and then given random luck scores, the most skillful subjects rarely actually win the top place and you can see why.   If you have a skill level ten and I have only five and we throw the dice with me getting twelve and you two, I win.  Skill indeed increases your odds, but in a situation with significant random chance it is not the determining factor.   Beyond that, future outcomes are influenced by past ones.  Take our example above.   When we started, your skill level was twice mine and your odds better.   But after the first roll of the dice, I am now at seventeen (5 skill +s 12 chance) and you start out at only twelve (10 skill + 2 chance). Since the dice have no memory, you may never catch up.   And in the real world it might be even more pronounced, since my greater opportunity would let me develop more expertise.
Frank’s prescription to address this problem is higher taxes, specifically a progressive consumption tax.  He feels this would have little or no effect on actual work, since it would maintain the relative position of all participants (as above, he thinks relative position is key) but would raise the big bucks needed to improve infrastructure on which all depend.   Even the rich would be better off, he says, since they would have better quality public goods (it is no fun to drive a great private car on a dilapidated public road) and since their relative positions would be unchanged, they would have similar incentive to work.
I don’t think his idea is a terrible way to raise revenue. In fact, it has advantages over income taxes. But it is an inelegant solution to the problem of luck and success.   The “problem” of randomness, IMO, is best addressed by more randomness, or more correctly a better recognition of random chance in our lives.   We spend way too much time and energy trying to be precise about things that cannot be measured with precision, finding exactly the best job candidate or student applicant.  It is likely that there is no “best” candidate, since future conditions will differ from past ones in significant but unpredictable ways.   Enter randomness.  Determine a pool of qualified candidates and then do a lottery.  This would have the advantage of partially negating the effects of autocorrelation, making the system much simpler and countering the myth that you have to pay so much more for just the exactly right talent.
I recommend “Luck and Success.”   I predict that mostly conservative readers will dislike the book at first, but come to appreciate it farther along, while mostly liberal readers will think he starts off right and then come off the tracks later.  I suppose that shows it is mostly balanced.   I would say, however, that better books on almost the same topic are “The Success Equation,” or “the Drunkard’s Walk.”

Nature at Manassas

More from Manassas – Civil War battlefields are almost always located on places with interesting ecology. Makes sense. They are places that were farms, fields or forests in the 1860s and they still are today. We know more of the history of the land than we otherwise would because of the action there and because of attempts to maintain it as it was.
The area around Manassas was given over to general farming in those days, a variety of crops and dairy. The land had been cleared of forests for more than a century by then. There were fewer trees in 1860 than there are today. The big reason was the need to feed horses needed for farm work and transportation. It takes more than an acre of grass to maintain a horse, so most of the land had to be kept clear of trees. We forget that it was mechanization of agriculture that allowed the return of forest in eastern North America.

The Manassas battlefield park is now managed to keep it looking like it did during the Civil War but also to support wildlife. The Park Service does not maintain livestock, which makes the land significantly different than it would have been back then. Grazing animals alter the land in many ways. Instead of grazing, the Park Service mows the fields. If they did not, forest would quickly take over the open fields.

My first picture shows the Virginia landscape. We have a beautiful state. Next two pictures show early succession. As I wrote, if they stop grazing or mowing, the trees quickly move in. They seem to have stopping mowing in the section shown in the photos. The next picture shows dead ash trees. Showing the ash apocalypse is sad, but the emerald ash borer is doing a job on ash trees all over America, as I have written elsewhere.

The last picture shows a gravel path through the woods. There is something very attractive about a gravel path through the woods. It beckons you on. It has visual auditory and tactile aspect. The visual is portrayed in the photo. The auditory is the rhythmic sound of your own footsteps. You feel progress. The tactile feel of the stones underfoot is satisfying. Something about a gravel path through the woods that is attractive.


I was supposed to pick up Alex in Woodstock at 630, which would have meant leaving home into rush hour traffic, so I got out a little early and stopped off at Manassas battlefield on the way. The Yankees tended to name battlefields after natural features. The Confederates preferred nearby towns. This one is named after the town of Manassas and since it took place in Virginia, that is what the Park Service calls it too. In the North it is the Battle of Bull Run, after the nearby creek. Similarly, Antietam is named according to the Union name because it is in the Union state of Maryland. Southerners called Sharpsburg, after the town.

There were two big battles on this ground. Both were confused affairs and in the end the South won both. Manassas 1 was the first major battle of the Civil War. The hero, at least from the Southern point of view, was Thomas Jackson, afterwards called Stonewall Jackson. The Rebs were retreating when they were rallied by General Bernard Bee, who said something like, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!” There is a very muscular statue of Jackson on the spot.

Nobody really knew what to do in this battle. Many of the Confederates were still wearing their Union uniforms. A Wisconsin regiment was fired on by Union troops because Wisconsin troops were dressed in previously perfectly acceptable military gray. On the other hand, troops from Louisiana approached much closer to Union lines before coming under fire because they were dressed in blue. Beyond that, the Confederate stars and bars looked a lot like Old Glory. That is why they adopted the better known crossed bars battle flag.

1st Manassas showed the importance of railroad and the idea that you could move troops rapidly and decisively. The battle was going poorly for the Confederates when Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston arrived from the Shenandoah Valley by railroad and the new troops turned the tide.

A couple of things to remember about this or any other historical site – the people involved didn’t know what we know. At Manassas, both sides thought of this as kind of an easy affair. The war would be over quickly, they thought. The fact that there was really a civil war on was hard to accept. Another thing to recall is all that old stuff was new at the time. Many of the houses were built within the last decades. They were newer for them than my house is for me.

Feel some sympathy for the unfortunates living on the land. This was not a battlefield to them. It was just their farms and homes, when suddenly a large number of armed men showed up and starting shooting at each other.

The most memorable resident is one Wilbur McLean, a local wholesale grocer with a house near Manassas on what became the battlefield. After the unpleasantness, he decided the neighborhood was a little too active. He decide to move to quieter part of the state. He chose the quiet little town of Appomattox. Generals Lee and Grant signed the surrender documents in the parlor of his new house.

My first picture shows the Stonewall monument. Next is a row of cannons. All these battlefields are full of canons. Must have had a lot fo them. The wooden fence is interesting because it is the kind common at the time. It indicates how plentiful wood was at the time. Finally, is a picture of one of the markers that shows the various types of uniforms and the Confederate battle flag.

Alex back from Qatar

Alex is back from his deployment in Qatar and I went to pick him up in Woodstock. It was not a very big event, but it very moving to see all the families waiting for their soldier to come home. There were lots of little kid probably too young to remember their fathers (a year is along time in a young life) and some so young that they were meeting the old man for the first time.

I am proud that Alex chose to join the Virginia National Guard and then volunteer for deployment overseas. The citizen solider is a key factor in a functioning democracy and one of the duties of citizenship in America is the willingness to serve if needed. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people are involved with this today.

Beyond the patriotic responsibility, the Guard is a good deal. Alex gets his insurance through the Guard and the Guard gives him TSP to save for retirement. Because of his deployment, he earned help with tuition and job search, and he gets veteran preference in Federal jobs. I think the experience has been good for his character. Responsibility and discipline are useful traits for any young person.

The basis of civilization is not generosity; it is reciprocity. It is better if both sides give something and get something. The military is good way to do this with government benefits.

When we consider the prosperity in America after World War II, we often miss the elephant in the room. Because of the war, millions of Americans had experience with the military, where they learned skills and discipline and where they made a variety of contacts that helped them build the businesses that built America.

I am proud that Alex did the right thing. I am glad that his deployment was uneventful. He seems to have used the “gift of time” well. He read lots of books and took some useful online courses. He was a good man before; he is even a better one now.

Book Review – Who Gets What and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design

Markets everywhere, July 17, 2016
This review is from: Who Gets What _ and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design (Paperback)
Everybody who thinks about it clearly knows that markets are the best way to allocate stuff people want but cannot have in limitless amounts. It is attractive to believe that markets will just happen and be good, if only you just let them do their own things. It is a kind of “let nature decide” point of view. Markets do seem to spring up no anyplace you get more than a few people exchanging anything. But a functioning market requires rules and constraints. Markets need rule of law and they need some general guarantee of trust among participants, as well as balancing mechanisms so that the strong just cannot take what they want making the weak grant what they must. Many of us learned this lesson after communism collapsed in Eastern Europe. Just being free was not enough. Former communist countries needed to build rule of law and institutions to create functioning markets. Where they failed to do this, the well-connected, the quick or just the crooked grabbed what they could and closed the doors behind them.
Governments cannot create prosperity; only markets can do that. But markets cannot create the stability and trust needed to make possible exchange that will create prosperity. The challenge is to create enough regulation but not too much, to respect natural and organic developments but to put some guide posts around the ostensibly spontaneous order or markets.
I found significant insight into the above in “Who Gets What & Why.” These were often concepts that seemed so obvious that many of us would think we knew them already, but most of us did not, or not in explained the way in the book. After all, the author Alvin Roth won a Nobel Prize for his work. He probably knows something most of us don’t.
When we think about markets, most of us think of the commodity type market, where buyers and selling just exchange based on prices some are willing to pay and others willing to accept. Roth explains markets are broader than that. They are just match making and we can talk about markets in various things w/o money. Roth talks about markets for spouses, admissions into schools and distribution of kidneys, among other things.
Markets are human creations (God created wheat, but the Chicago Commodities exchange defines what it means and what quality) that require rules and procedure and these to a large extent will determine who gets what. In good markets rules are consistent and not intrusive. In bad ones they are capricious and heavy handed, but there are always rules. Markets must be “thick” in that there need be sufficient numbers of buyers and sellers. This is addressed by opening and closing rules. When you go to the farmers’ market, sellers are generally not allowed to open until a certain time and they close at a certain time. This ensures that sufficient buyers per hour will be around to make selling reasonable.
Roth does not talk very much about the market most of us recognize where all you need is money to buy and sell. He is more interested in those where you choose but also must be chosen. This includes things like employment, marriage and college admissions. Harvard and Stanford could choose a freshman class just by raising the price until it left only those willing to pay, but they don’t.
The marriage market is a good example of an imperfect system. There is insufficient information available about the people involved and penalties for making choices in the absence of information. Act too quick and you might end up with someone you don’t like. Move to slowly and the quicker guy steals her away. Roth describes a way we could give everybody an optimal choice. Read about it in the book. Suffice to say that it just works down the lists until all have a place. This system also works for school assignments and has been deployed in New York, Boston and New Orleans.
A money market for kidneys is illegal. You cannot buy or sell a kidney. Each year there are about a hundred thousand people who need kidneys but cannot get them. They have to go through unpleasant dialysis and some dies waiting for a kidney for a compatible deceased donor. A heathy person has two kidneys and could donate one to a loved one in need, but not all kidneys are compatible with everybody. Ironically, a mother is LESS likely to be able to donate to her child, since kids develop some antibodies to their mother’s tissues from their nine-month intimate residency. So what to do? Roth helped develop a type of exchange where you can donate your kidney to a stranger who has a relative who can donate to your loved one. This exchange can involve lots of individuals. So far the largest have include about seventy people
It is worth reading the book just for the parts about matching students to schools, husbands to wives and kidney donors to recipients.
Anyway, I think a take-away from this book is that markets are good and necessary and we have to let them work, but that we live in a market economy not a market society. Government, society and tradition will impose rules and constraints on markets. We need to be careful how we regulate and rule, but we also need to be willing to step in if the market, no matter how efficient, is producing outcomes we don’t like.