Enlightenment Now

Just finished “Enlightenment Now.” I have been reading Pinker’s work since “Blank Slate,” and went to lectures a few times. He is the quintessential reasonable man and a true liberal in the real sense.

The Economist does a better job than I would in reviewing the book. I would emphasize a few points that I think key.

First is the Pinker is a near absolutist on defending free speech. I agree 100%. Free speech is the basis of all our all of our science and most of our liberty. He laments that fact that the defense of free speech has become more identified with the right than with the left these days. Second is that a reasonable person does not demand perfection because he knows that perfection is not possible and even defining what perfection means is not possible over the whole system. Pluralism is better, since that allows for improvement.
In fact, demand for perfection is the hallmark of totalitarians.

Pinker did not say this exactly, but I thought about it from what he did say. Progress in human affairs and evolution in nature depends on variation and selection. There is nothing fated to happen. History is contingent and can go in many directions. Some things happen by coincidence and there is no meaning beyond that. So the best system is not one that produces the one true result, but rather one that throws up lots of possible options, so far so good.

Some people like to say that there are no stupid ideas, but they are mistaken. However, the stupid ideas may be useful in that they might stimulate or reveal better ones. The problem comes in the selection phase. We praise creativity, but sometimes dislike the pruning process.

Steven Pinker’s case for optimism “Enlightenment Now” explains why the doom-mongers are wrong economist.com  

National Academy of Science – Forest Genome

This is from a recent meeting at the National Academies of Science in Washington. I am trying to participate in public discussions I think important and deploying the tools of biotechnology to help our forest ecosystems adapt to climate change, invasive pests and rapid change in general is important. The good news is that they let you talk. I think I did okay, although I saw lots of things to work on. Unfortunately, I doubt I will improve too much. Hard to break the habit of a lifetime. I had intended to talk about the general benefits of biotechnology in forestry and even wrote short notes. I thought better of that after listening to all those scientists who knew thousands of times more than I could say. So I went with my own experience, less elegant but more from the heart. What the proceedings lacked was actual forest landowners, so I tried to share that viewpoint.

My talk starts about 2:30 into the video.

Richmond 1

I always assumed that we would sometime move to Arizona. Chrissy’s sisters live there and it seems like a good place to retire.

But in the last few years I have become very much more attached to Virginia. It is where my forests are and it is where I have developed a network of people interested in forestry and improving the environment.

I am not saying that I could not leave Virginia, but it has become MY place more than I ever thought possible. This is not something I expected.

So looking for a retirement home, We are more interested in the Old Dominion. But it is expensive to live in Northern Virginia. Real estate taxes are high and property values are too.

Our friend and neighbor Steve Barch suggested that we might like the Fan District in Richmond, so we are down here to look around. Richmond also is one of the top brewery cities in the world. This means something.

We came down today and will look around tomorrow. There is no urgency in the decision, but good to think about it in advance.

Chrissy & I went to the Champion Brewery. We had a flight of beers. CJ kept the little one, but I got a regular sized St. Vitus Dance. It was really good.

We had supper at the Third Street Diner. Penultimate picture is Grace Street in Richmond and last is my usual Love’s photo.

Richmond Fan District

Looked around Richmond today. The Fan District reminds us of Mariza’s area of Baltimore or maybe some parts of Madison when we were going to school there. Seems to have lots of young people – students or recent graduates. We would have loved the place some decades ago, but maybe not now.

Monument Boulevard features statues of old rebels like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson & JEB Stuart. The houses along the road look pretty expensive. Nice place to visit, but I would not want to live there.

The part that would likely best fit our needs would be the Bellevue, but it is still a long ways off before we get very seriously. We maybe will look around down near Williamsburg. Lots of nice places around.

We are also thinking about a peripatetic existence. Neither of us much likes the idea of traveling in an RV, but it would be possible to drive around & stay at hotels part of the year, following the good weather in various places. There is so much of America to see. We would still want a home, but it would not need to be for all things or all seasons. Who knows?

I have come to believe that there is not THE place for us. We have contradictory desires. We both grew up in very stable circumstance. Chrissy’s family occupied that farm since 1859. My parents bought their house in 1946. Both of us came into an established place and stayed there. On the other hand, in the FS we moved to whole different countries every few years. On the third hand, we bought the house we still own in 1997 and kept it when we left. We got used to having change on top of permanence. On the fourth hand, I have become very attached to Virginia. I have plans for my tree farms that go until 2045. I want to be near my trees, at least part of the time. Maybe the most important thing is unknown and unknowable. Where will the kids end up living? We want to be near them, but will that even be possible if they choose to live in different places. Confused and unlikely to become less so and will need to live with the ambiguity.

My pictures are from around Richmond. We have J.E.B. Stuart & Robert E. Lee. We had lunch at Starlite Cafe in the second picture. The only one that requires explanation is that last one. Look closely. There are big statues of the M&M characters, as well as Mr and Mrs Potato Head. It is kind of a traditional area. I wonder how the neighbors feel about that place.

Washington Winter Shades & Sun

Sunlight is special this time of year, especially near the end of the day when the shadows are long and the sunlight hits the sides instead of the tops of the buildings.

The pictures are from my walk to the Metro today. American elm trees are common around the Mall. They are their bare branches are particularly interesting this time of year.

Gentleman of Leisure & the WAE

My Gentleman of Leisure job description included episodic work as WAE (I will include my GoL plan in the comments.) Unfortunately, by the time I got up to speed, the President froze hiring.

Now I have the opportunity as part of the “FOIA Surge,” State Department’s attempt to get through a backlog of FOIA requests, some going back years. My top secret clearance is still good for another year, so I thought I should make hay while the sun is still shining.

FOIA adjudication is one of the least favorite things I would do. On the plus side, hours are very flexible and it is not very hard. It is sort of like paying dues. I have a year long appointment. I wanted to get “on the roster.” What I really want to do is go overseas on TDY, ideally someplace where I can use my Portuguese. The thing I liked about the Foreign Service was the foreign part.

The first thing you need do to achieve any goal is to get over the wall. Once inside, you can take advantage of inside opportunities.

I also have a couple very prosaic considerations. I like to have the State ID so that I can get in to use the shower and locker room in SA 5 and get into lectures at Wilson Center w/o having to pass through the usual security. And I like to be in Washington. When it gets a little warmer, I can ride my bike. In the meantime, I walk from HST to the Metro at Federal Center SW. It is a nice walk. My pictures are from that.

The Potential for Biotechnology to Address Forest Health

Reference page on biotechnology and forest health
Went down to the National Academies of Science today for a public meeting on biotechnology and forest health. A committee is working on a report assessing how biotechnology may address problems associated with invasive pests and climate change.

Biotechnology is not a panacea. It is only one tools we might use to address the challenges from the rapid changes unleashed invasive species, rapid climate change and habitat destruction, but I believe that w/o this tool success in dealing with these factors will be difficult or impossible.

Nature is robust and resilient, but natural selection acts over centuries or millennia. Humans have accelerated the rate of change to decades or even years. Humans created this situation. We do not have the zero option anymore of doing nothing.

Many people are uncomfortable with novel genotypes. I would prefer to avoid them if I thought there were other options. But we already have novel ecosystems that require new adaptations.

Risk and uncertainty exist. Yesterday’s solutions are often today’s problems and I don’t doubt that some of today’s solutions will be problems tomorrow. This seems a grim prognosis, but is the way of all life. It is the nature of adaptation. We are in this game whether we play or not

One of the insights of the conference was that we probably cannot expect biotechnology to be effective against particular pathogens in real time. We will always be behind the curve. But biotech might help with general health and adaptation to conditions of the non-living environments. Trees and forests suffering less stress can better fend off whatever pests attack.

My pictures are from Washington today. It was a wonderful clear day, but a little cold. Last picture is Charles Darwin. He has the prominent place in the Science Academies

Washington (mild) winter day

Went down to Washington today. We got lots of cold rain yesterday, but today was gloriously sunny, if a little cold.

My first photo is the Washington Monument looking good in the winter sun. Next is a pond cypress. The “knees” look like little animals trying to climb up. Last is a big oak tree near Dept of Agriculture. It looks stark w/o the leaves, but you can more easily see the beauty of the old wood.

Last Day in Albuquerque

We finished our tree farm national leadership council and will be home soon. Chrissy and I did a last lunch and beer in Albuquerque. Wonderful weather. We had some drinks at La Hacienda in old down and visited the Natural History Museum.

BTW – the beer I am drinking is not really Bud Light. Who would drink that? The beer is Santa Fe IPA, a local brew.

New Mexico has a unique and diverse environment. It is rich in natural communities and geology. A docent at the museum told us that New Mexico is still a volcanic zone, although they don’t expect eruptions anytime soon. The geology is conductive to finding fossils. This is the kind of place Alex Matel would have loved. I thought of him as I posed next to the dinosaur.

“Breaking Bad,” one of CJ’s favorite TV shows, was set around Albuquerque. They take advantage of that moment of fame, as you can see in the second last picture. Last is about the largest mass extinction. All life on earth was nearly extinguished.

La Jornada

You don’t have to go into the Albuquerque Art Museum to enjoy its holdings. A sculpture garden surrounds the building. Most interesting for me was La Jornada.

It depicts the journey of Spanish pioneers coming to New Mexico in 1598. It is very reminiscent of American pioneers moving west with a few big differences. The most obvious was the time. 1598 – that was nine years before Jamestown and twenty-two years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Another difference was the organization of the colonization. The Spanish effort was centrally directed, although financed mostly privately, and it seemed to be well-equipped. American pioneers were usually people just moving on their own, sometimes in defiance of the central authorities.

You can see what the statues look like in the photos. It is big. In addition are plaques containing the names of the colonists and origins of the colonists. Most came directly from Spain or Portugal, but others came from Mexico. Many of their descendants still live in New Mexico.

I was broadly aware of this interesting history, but visiting New Mexico has given me a lot better appreciation for the extent of the settlement.

My first two picture show the sculpture. Next is the story of the jornada. The last two are unrelated. Number 4 is St Francis and the last one is Geoffrey and Rothco. I think Rothco is the dog, but the plaque did not specify.