Has an unexpected health problem changed your life?

My Story Worth for this week.

Has an unexpected health problem changed your life?

Twice this happened. I turned out very positive when I broke my leg when I was 11 years old, as I have written before. No good has come from the second one, when I got aneurysms behind my right and then my left knee. The first one happened on February 6, 2012. I still have not made a full recovery.

I was running along Paranoá Lake & suddenly came up lame. Pain is nothing extraordinary for runners, but this hurt much more than usual. In fact, I had to get a stick to help me walk the couple miles home. But it was a strange pain. It didn’t hurt so much as create extreme fatigue. If I rested for about 30 seconds, it got better, only to get bad again when I walked again. I could walk only around 100 yards before the pain would get too big. February 6, 2012 was the last time I ran on trails.

Running had been a big part of my life for nearly 40 years. I started off on the trails along Lake Mendota in Madison. At first it was mostly for exercise, but it quickly evolved into something almost spiritual. I loved to run. I loved to listen to the sound of the gravel under foot and feel the rhythm of my heart with the pace of my feet, all the while drinking in the nature around me. I felt a relationship with the trees, the topography and even the dust rising from the ground. I understand that it was just my delusion, but it was a beautiful delusion – meditation in motion. I ran everywhere I went, and I went lots of places. I found all sorts of natural areas. Even in Iraq I found the joy of running. Then it was finished.
I probably should have had it checked out, but I just figured it was a really bad tendon pull. I could still ride a bike. The pain was not great when I rode the bike. I could not walk normally, but gradually I could walk farther and farther. It got better after a couple years, but not like before. Then it happened again in the other leg. I was driving down to Georgia for a Longleaf Alliance meeting. I though maybe it was just a leg cramp from driving, but it didn’t get better.

This time I went to the doctor. The first doctor told me that it was peripheral artery disease. Scary. I had none of the indicators. The doctors told me that I should walk more. They did not believe me when I told them that I commonly walked 3-5 miles on a typical day and rode a bike for many more. I had two options: I could have surgery or try to walk it off. Naturally, I chose the latter.

They also prescribed some blood thinners. It worked to a large extent. I walked as far as I could and then let my leg rest. Then I walked again. It took more than a year to get reasonably better. I remember this because I remember when we did our first burning on our longleaf. The DoF guys let me start part of the fire. I remember that my leg hurt not very much, but I was a little worried that I could not sprint away if the fire started to get over hand.

Today, I can walk for a few miles w/o too much trouble. My feet sometimes hurt, but I figure that is normal for a guy my age, any age. I run on the ellipse machine at Gold’s Gym, but I still have not tried to run on trails. When I have tried, my legs have hurt. I am not sure how I should handle this. Should I push through? I feel that I may have become too timid. This was not one of my characteristics and should not be. I can run on the machines. I can ride my bike and I can walk long distances. I think I can run again and as I write this I am resolved to do it again. I sure cannot hurt to try.

Anyway, this health problem made an impression on me. I guess before that malady I felt invincible, that I could just use will power to overcome anything. I was mistaken.

My first picture shows my the burning I was talking about above. Others are from the Mall. I worked a couple hours at State Department this morning and then walked along the Mall, stopping at Natural History Museum. First you see the bald cypress outside the museum. They have been there a long time, evidently able to overcome the constant traffic. Next is the museum itself. Picture #4 is a dinosaur exhibit, a tyrannosaurus rex skeleton eating a triceratops skeleton – nature red in tooth and claw.

Last is McDonald’s at SW. A couple of speculative observations. First shows people using the automatic ordering. Some people order on those machines; others go to the counter. I wonder if there is a demographic difference. I use the auto order.

This McDonald’s used to be a Roy Rogers. I used to eat there when USIA was in that building. When McDonald’s opened, they hired mostly local people. They were not very well prepared for work. Many tried hard, but it was sloppy. Shortly the local were replaced by immigrants from Ethiopia and Somalia. Today, most of the help seems to be from Central America. There is a kind of ecological succession of worker groups. It might be interesting to study, but I am not sure what use the information would be.

Some pictures on various themes.

Some pictures on various themes.

Chrissy and me at Uno
Chrissy and me at Uno Pizza. I like the place better than she does, but indulged me there.

Too much beer

Next is me with Willy Morgan. I took the opportunity to buy him a couple beers to celebrate his imminent retirement. Funny thing, I drank three beers. That’s all. That is more than my usual one or two, but not that much. But I stumbled home. Lucky I took the Metro and did not drive. Maybe the alcohol content was higher. One problem with craft beer is that the alcohol content varies, so you cannot just count.

State Department’s birthday
State Department celebrated its 230th birthday yesterday. I went to part of the festivities. Mike Pompeo made an excellent speech talking about public service at State.

Makes you proud to be part of this tradition.

Henry Kissinger did a live interview with Niall Ferguson. His advice was to take the steps you can and do not demand more than can be done at the time. 

State key principles and do not deal in absolutes. And don’t make anything zero-sum, win or lose.

Both Pompeo and Kissinger emphasized that U.S. diplomacy was and is generally a force for good and that U.S. principles have made the world a better place. That I also believe.

Greatest American diplomats
An interesting tidbit – He was asked about the greatest American diplomats. Kissinger said that through the first part of our history, diplomacy in the European sense was not necessary, since we lived with the protection of the oceans. After WWII, visionaries like Dean Acheson developed the system that still works today.

He singled our Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt as key diplomatic presidents, praising TR’s handling of the Russo-Japanese war and speculated that had TR been president in 1914, he may have helped avoid World War I, or at least mitigate it. He did not go into detail and I don’t know if it was a developed idea, but it is interesting to think of the counter factual.
The pictures from the event are Pompeo and Kissinger cutting the birthday cake and the cupcake that all the participants got.

Kissinger is 96 years old. His looks clearly show his age, but his mind sharp. We should all wish for that productive old age.

Forest work July 2019

Devil’s walking stick
I never much liked the devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa) because of the thorns that can rip your clothes and grab your skin. It hurts. I suppose that is how it got the name. They are common on the Freeman place, although not present on the others. But I have a new respect for the thorny little tree because it is evidently beloved by     pollinators. I saw swarms of bees & butterflies (all different sorts of them) wherever the devil’s walking stick was flowering. See the picture below. In fact, in honor of the new respect, I am going to start calling it by its other common name – Hercules club. Sounds better.

Cutting lanes
I was down on the farms to cut lanes for the prescribed fires we plan in late fall. It is nearly impossible to push through the briars, brambles, sumac and devil’s walking stick … sorry Hercules club, and that really interferes with fire starting.

The idea is to make short fires, so that the flame length does not get too high and kill the good trees. The longer the fire can run, the stronger it gets, hence the advantage of being able to move fast enough to set backfires.

I spent about eight hours just doing that. My cutting tool now fixed, so I could use the power. It was pretty hot today, not as hot as it was last week, but it still got to 90. My system was to work until the cutter ran out of gas, and then rest in the shade and drink Coke or water.

Reedy Creek Hunt Club
On my way out, I stopped at the Reedy Creek hunt club, since I saw some of the guys setting up. They were going to have a fish fry.I could not stay for the because I had still to do some things on the Brodnax unit, but Mike Raney offered a beer. Never turn down beer. Miller light is not one of my favorite beers, but it sure tasted good today. As you can see from my picture, I was still a little flushed from the day’s work.

Picture notes
The other picture of me is an inadvertent selfie. I was trying to take a picture of the butterflies and bees on the Hercules club that you see in the fourth picture. You have to dress like that when you use the cutter. It is very loud, but with those ear muffs, you can listen to an audio book with ear buds inside. Usually I do no more than 5 pictures, but I have a couple extra today. Notice all the bees on the Hercules club. The pollinators also like the rattlesnake master.

It does not have showy flowers, but I guess it tastes good to the bees and butterflies. I also included a picture of my cutting tool and the pines growing out of the brambles, and last is blue sky and the brim of my hat. My excuse is that it is hard to use the camera when you have the wacker hanging from you making noise.

Fire in oak forests – day 3

I wonder if I have less to write each day of the conference because I am finding less or maybe just getting tired.

Did I get tired, or did I just get lazy?

Understory dynamics
Todd Hutchinson talked about understory dynamics in eastern oak ecosystems, and the seed banks. Seed and plants can persist for many years. Sometimes you can bring them back to life by opening the canopy. Fire alone is not usually sufficient, and neither is thinning alone. Together they do a better job. Disturbance is important. There is not much longitudinal research available on seed banks, but there is a comparison from Wisconsin a study done in 1950 and again in 2004 of an undisturbed oak forest. There was a 23% decline in species present. The seeds and plants persist, but they do need a periodic disturbance to grow and reproduce.

Barking up the tree
Heather Alexander talked about the differences in bark. Oaks have thick and rough bark. Maples, beech and poplar have smoother bark. Why does this matter? The thicker, rougher bark not only resists fire better, but it also absorbs water, making it less likely to burn. Another consideration that I did not consider was that rainwater runs down the trunks of trees. It runs down more easily on the smooth bark, making the ground and leaf litter wetter. All this means that the maples et al are less resistant to fire but also their characteristics make fire less likely.

All leaves are not the same
Marcus Lashley from MSU talked about the variables in how leaves burn. Oak leaves burn fast. Maple and beech tend to get wet and burn less well. They also decompose faster. What you have is differences in fire ecology.

History matters
I was thinking as they were talking about American chestnuts. They were once the most common tree in the eastern forests and then they were all gone. The extirpation of such a key species must have made a difference. It happened within the lifetimes of many of the oaks currently alive. Maybe that was the big change. We need to know the history of the land. This is history. Marcus Lashley’s study indicated that chestnut leaves are very flammable. What is the contribution of the loss? I asked three of the experts about this, hoping somebody will do research.

Chris Moorman from NC State talked about how fire can create diversity. Generally speaking, really hot and cool fires do not increase diversity. It is the middle sort that do a good job. Of course, sometimes we need a very hot fire to set things back.

Finally we had Carrie Allison from Fish and Wildlife talking about bats. Bats are a challenge for burning and forestry. Some are endangered and you cannot hurt even one. The dilemma is that bats usually thrive with fire. It is good for their foraging and they are attracted to recently burned areas, but while fire is good for bats as a group, it is very likely to harm some individual bats. It is a like missing the forest of trees.

I skipped out after lunch. Afternoon lectures were about extending the burn window. This is not a big issue for me. The weather in southern Virginia is okay for burning lots of days.

Small roads in PA
My pictures are from Orrstown, PA. I took that back way home and noticed the statue of James Buchanan. I guess he was born nearby. He was maybe our worst president, but I suppose a little statue makes sense. Rural Pennsylvania looks like Wisconsin.

Fire in oak forests – field trip – day 2

Fire in oak forests – field trip – day 2  

The ecology of any place is contingent on its history and the oak pitch-pine barrens near State College, PA has an interesting ecological history. And every ecological history includes its human history.  

The history of the land matters  

We are not sure what the place was like before humans were here, since humans were here since the end of the last ice age. Native Americans used the land and fire was their main tool to change the landscape. Unfortunately, we can only speculate about the various regimes over the past 10,000 years. In the time just before European settlement, Native Americans did not occupy most of this area, although they clearly hunted and burned here. Scientists believe that it was mostly open, widely spaced pitch-pine and oaks, with an understory of scrub oak.  

European settlers cleared and farmed most of the land in the valleys. On the hills and the ridges, they cut timber and grazed animals. Most of the woods was cut off by the end of the 19th Century. Some was used for timber, but most was used for fuel, charcoal for steel smelting. We would be appalled if we saw the landscape at that time. The land was denuded and full of ditches used in iron mining.  

Bad human behavior past produces good ecological results now  

“Bad” human behavior is not always bad for the environment. The barrens is full of amphibians, some rare or threatened, because there are lots of vernal ponds where they can breed. The presence of these vernal ponds does not make sense, since the soil is sandy and drains rapidly – hence the barrens. The reason the ponds do not drain is because people exploiting iron deposits used the pits, which became lined with clays and sediment that hold the water. Ironically, had the environment been better protected in 1900, it would be less productive to the biotic communities today.   1900 was a transition period. It was when people stopped cutting on the barrens and the land began to recover. This ecological history still has great effect on the landscape. Most of the forests are even-aged. They all started to grow up about the same time and the trees are 80-100 years old. There are not many younger trees and no older ones. This produced a beautiful oak forest, but one that was very vulnerable to change.  

Being adaptive is more important to being adapted  

We visited a site of a beautiful oak forest with trees around 100 years old. The SITE of the forest, since the forest is gone. Gypsy moths in 2008-9 and a drought year killed nearly 100% of the oaks. Because of the even-aged nature of the forest and the deep shade the trees had produced, there was no successor generation. With the big trees dead and the no little trees ready to go, oak trees were almost extirpated from this site. The successors are red maples.   Oaks could come back, but not for a long time, since there are no seed sources nearby and acorns do not travel far. Even if they were present, the oaks would have trouble competing with the red maples. This is where fire plays a role. Oaks are relatively better adapted to fire regimes. Of course, if no oaks are present, none can come up, no matter if they are adapted or not to fire.  

My own particular plans  

One of the very good things about this field trip was that I had the opportunity to talk with Daniel Dey, who literally wrote the book on oak regeneration. I told him about my white oak regen plans. I am happy to say that he thinks it will work. He suggested that I protect my nascent oaks from the coming fire at first, maybe burn in anticipation so that they are not hit by hotter fire. He explained that oaks can sprout from roots for many years, even decades. The existing roots allow the stems to grow very rapidly if the stems are cut of top killed. On the Brodnax place, we can harvest the loblolly in maybe five years, burn and then allow the oaks to regeneration. They are there already. I will need to cut back the gum and poplar to allow the oaks to get to a “competitive stage”. That is a term I learned today. These are oaks that have passed the seedling stage and are above much of the soft competition. My current plan is to allow this regen on the Brodnax place on the first 1/3 of the thinned pines.  

My pictures. First is our group at the barrens. Next shows sprouting oak after the burn. Daniel Dey said this is what I should strive for with my oak regen. Picture #3 is s fern thicket. Ferns look nice and they seem pliable, but they can effectively smother and prevent growth of trees. I asked one of the researchers how long this could persist. She told me that absent disturbance, ferns could hold the ground for a very long time. Ecology is contingent. Next picture shows what in Wisconsin we would call oak openings. I love this landscape. Last is a pitch-pine savanna. I would not have recognized the pitch-pine. I just don’t know what they look like. In Virginia, they might be replaced by shortleaf. They looked like shortleaf to me.

Fire in Eastern Oak Forests Conference – Day 1

Blame Bambi
Blame Bambi. The cute talking animals – a deer, a rabbit and a skunk – were agents of propaganda deployed against hunting and even humans in nature at all. But as John Stowe, one of the keynote speakers at our 6th Fire in Eastern Oak Forests Conference, pointed out, the propaganda was also deployed against fire in the woods. In fairness, this was during a time of war when our country’s leaders feared enemy sabotage in destroying forests. The Japanese did indeed send incendiary balloons toward America, in hopes of setting the woods on fire. It didn’t work, but the aversion to fire stuck.

Born to fight fire
It was part of a general campaign against forest fires, which included Smokey Bear. Again, let’s consider the times and the experience. The US Forests Service was born in 1905 and made its early name fighting terrible fires including the Big Burn in 1910. The science of ecology was not well developed, and it made perfect sense to try to exclude fire. I have no doubt I would have been on the side of the exclusionists, given what was known at the time. But we know more now and fire exclusion is no longer something we can do or should even strive for.

Blame southerners
Stowe talked about other targets of the anti-fire campaign. The only people who wanted to set fires in the forests were arsonists, Indians and southerners, none of whose ideas were respected the respectable scientists. There were even the Dixie Crusaders, who went around the South preaching the gospel of fire exclusion, with disparaging portraits of the “hillbillies” who just liked to set the woods on fire. It was nearly impossible to deny the fire exclusion dogma. Smokey big footed dissent. The great conservationist Herbert Stoddard has his observations in favor of burning ignored or suppressed. Since a picture is worth 1000 words, and I do not want to write 1001 words about this, please refer to the picture I have included. The cover of Harpers 1958. This is how the burners were portrayed. It was not until the 1960s that experience started to overtake the theory and even then, even today, it is hard to advocate for fire. It is much easier to see the flaming failure than the steady benefit.

Get science on the ground
Ben Jones, president of the ruffed grouse federation, was the other keynote speaker. He talked about the importance of getting science on the ground and rejoiced that so many of the 260+ participants at the conference were practitioners. We need knowledge in the mind to be actuated by boots on the ground.

Jones commented that fire is like an animal – maybe a keystone predator (my words) – and lamented that fire in upland oak forests is essentially extinct. Its extirpation is a blow to forest ecology and bringing it back will be useful.

To understand the situation, he recommended “The fire—oak literature of eastern North America: synthesis and guidelines” available as a free PDF from the US Forest Service. I will put the citation in the comments.

Jones emphasized the importance of engaging all stakeholders but mentioned in particular hunters. Even after all these years, some hunters still think that fire harms wildlife. The science is very clear that properly applied fire is the biggest boost we can give to wildlife, but not everybody has got the word.

Some new concepts and new words (who knew?)
Charles Ruffner from Southern Illinois University complained good naturedly that the earlier speakers had used up much of what he wanted to say, but he was correct. He added some details to the history and showed some charts and maps about pre-Columbian fire patterns. He mentioned that lack of fire contributes to acidification of water and soil, since fire produces acid neutralizing ash. He also referred to two reports – a 1992 Bioscience on fire in the oaks and a 1993 GTR about oak regeneration.  Ruffner also mentioned that they are using fire now at Gettysburg, on the round tops, among other places. I will have to inquire.

He also introduced me to two new words. I was familiar with the noun forms, but had not heard them used as adjectives. The first is “mesification” – this is when shrubs shade out grass and forbs and trees shade out the shrubs. This is the deep and dark woods – wonderful in their place, but their place is not everywhere. They are not very productive for wildlife. The other word was “Clementian” succession. I think this is a made-up word. It comes from Frederic Clements, the American ecologist who came up with the linear view of ecological succession that many of us old guys learned in school. It has since been superseded.

I know this is getting way too long, but I need to “memory dump” before it all goes into the “memory hole.”

Next speaker was Ellen Schutzabarger from Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry. She was more interested in organizational and social mismatches. For example, she pointed out the forestry departments were set up to fight fire. It is hard to transition to use fires. She mentioned other challenges, such as lack of capacity, scale problems, built landscapes and that timber, recreation and ecological benefits may not always be in harmony.
Interesting point. She said that public support for fire is broader than we might suppose, but it is not very deep. Among the chief benefits perceived by the public is that they think fire kills ticks. Everybody hates ticks, but there is some doubt that fire is effective against them. Sure, it kills all the ticks it reaches, but they quickly repopulate.

Working with others
Tom Dooley talked about need for partnerships. He sounded a lot like we used to in public diplomacy, emphasizing that we need to find shared aspirations and look to what we can do together instead of the differences we might have.
What we really need is more boots on the ground and how we can get them is through working with others.

Adaptive management
John Wakefield from Pennsylvania Game Commission talked about the need for adaptive management. Conditions will not be what we anticipate, and they will change, often because of our efforts.

He said we need general goals and then try to reach them in adaptive ways. For example, research indicates that pre-settlement forests were about 12% new forests (almost clear) 7% early succession, 10% early closed, 57% late closed and only 14% dense. Today, the dense forests predominate. He talked about how burning can change (restore) some but how it does not work out as they thought. A light fire, for example, does almost nothing to change the dense forest. They need to adapt.

Well that is about all I can recall for now. I know I learn more from conferences that I attend in person than from those I just watch online, but there is a lot to take in. We have a field trip tomorrow.

Presentations – http://www.appalachianfire.org/past-workshops-and-webinars/2019/8/26/presentations-from-the-2019-fire-in-eastern-oak-forests-conference?fbclid=IwAR2M57gjfYcwu9vWrcuTywEui7HcdLKopDH_lrFyx-nbCylCBM1NkS2vcNE

This View of Life – emergence

This book is about evolution and emergence. The author points out that nothing in biology makes sense except in the context of evolution and extrapolates that variation, selection and environmental pressures can explain much of how developments in human societies happen. He makes clear that he is not talking about “social Darwinism” or any of the deterministic ideas so often badly used a few generations ago, but societies are indeed subject to evolutionary principles. Science tells us what is, but not what ought to be. Einstein said that your theory decides what you can observe, determines what is even within the decision universe. When things do not make sense in our theory, our model, we often do not perceive them at all.

Theories and mental models determine what we can see
Our dominant model of society has been physics, machine like. Evolutionary interactions are not important in this model. But the physics model is only a sub-set of complex human societies, which do indeed evolve. Our mistaken assumption is often that we assume direction and planning, when this is not necessary in emergence. Evolutionary pressures give direction and incentive, but they are not planning.

You can often do before you understand
He points out that you can have competence in doing something w/o comprehension of how or why it works. This is a very simple but very profound idea. And very often competence precedes comprehension. A big mistake of the “new math” I learned as a kid is that they tried to make us understand before we used math. As I learned math later, you just practice until it makes sense. It does not make sense first, except maybe for those few prodigies among us.

Some things are designed, others develop and some just happen
The author makes a distinction among things that are designed, those that are developed and those that are just created by conditions or randomness. He tells a story about hiking in the woods. If you hear a crash and look up to see a bolder rolling towards you, appropriate action is to get out of its way. This is a physical and not an adaptive force. Now consider the same crash. You look up and instead of seeing a rolling bolder, you see a charging grizzly bear. Your appropriate response is surely not the same. Your response to the bear is developed, interactive. Your response to the bolder is mechanical. Now consider a snowflake. It seems designed, but it is merely the result of conditions. A snowflake is not designed or developed to do anything. It just is.

No harmony
In a prescientific world, people believe that everything has meaning, that everything happens for a reason, because they believe they live in a designed world. This is a comforting view even, especially, in life’s hardships. This idea is the basis of our believe in the balance of nature. It is comforting to think that there is some sort of default condition, something nature would return to if we “let nature take its course.” It also allows us to criticize the “sin” of others against nature.

Nature, however, is not and never in harmony. It is always out of balance, disturbance dependent and always becoming. Traits exist because of historical processes: contingencies and random events. Outcomes are influenced by environmental factors and constrained by many of them, but the outcomes we observe are not destiny.

Adaptive better than adapted
An organism that is perfectly adapted to its environment is fragile because environments inevitably change. Being adaptive is better than being adapted. This goes for human and “natural” environments. I put natural in quotes, since what we call human and natural are just subsets of the total. They are not distinct except in our formulations.

As I was listening to this part of the audio book, I was spraying some of my pine trees to fight an outbreak of turpentine beetles. I was changing environmental conditions in hopes of frustrating the breeding and population expansive of these little nasties. My own land ethic informed me that it was the right thing to do; it also constrained how much I put on. I wanted to do the minimum. The decision was informed by science that told me that the chemicals I used would produce an outcome I desired. Had I not observed the affected trees, or reacted in the way I did, the forests would be different in a small way. If the beetles could think it through, they would call me a contingency, maybe a constraint.

How can altruism emerge?
The author explained how altruism could emerge from organisms in competition with each other. Individual organisms would have incentive to benefit at the expense of others. But the unit of evolution is not always only the individual. In isolation, selfish individuals will enjoy advantages over their more generous competitors. This does not happen in group settings. Selfish individual beats generous individual, but cooperative groups beat selfish ones. Cooperation can develop because it helps the group. The danger is cheaters and free riders and human groups and all social species, have developed systems to catch cheaters and freeloaders. I often say that reciprocity, not generosity, is the basis of civilization. This is evidence.

Humans are very cooperative
Humans are extraordinarily cooperative compared with any species besides social insects. It is amazing that we can (usually) walk safely among strangers and get the things we need from them w/o the need for coercion or deception.

A big problem for all sharing and social societies is the “tragedy of the commons,” whereby each individual has incentive and even pressure to take as much as he/she can from commonly held assets, even when everybody can see that the resource is being depleted or destroyed. This is illustrated in common pastures and fisheries. There are examples of successfully overcoming the commons problem. The most common effective method is to create stable property rights, but the author also gives examples of groups that were able to figure out how to share. These are usually bottom up affairs that emerge rather than are imposed. They allocate the resource in ways that member consider fair and they have mechanisms to detect and punish freeloaders and cheaters. One size does not fit all, and they need to adapt to change. This can be hard, and some do not make it.

Intelligent design
Evolutionary process need not be random. We humans can “intelligently design” the process, if not manage all the parts. The key is the goal. We do not specify, cannot know all the steps. Think of the process like a toolbox. When the plumber or carpenter shows up at your house to fix a problem, he has a box of tools with different ones appropriate to different tasks. He does not specify which tools before assessing the problem, but he is reasonably confident that his abilities and tools will be sufficient for the task.

Mega societies
The book finishes with a discussion of mega-societies and super organisms. An individual body is made up of “cooperating” cells. They work for the common good. Those that do not are problems, cancerous. Similarly, social insects form super society. The author thinks that humanity could be moving in this direction and thinks it would be a good thing.

I was with him for much of the book. The ideas make sense and I believe that emergence is the most powerful factor at work in our world. I do not share his enthusiasm for humanity becoming a super organism. As we said about, science can inform us about what is and what could be, but our values determine what ought to be. I just don’t see an ant hill or a beehive as a laudable goal for humanity. I prefer a little more disorder and even suffering if that is the price of freedom

But that is my main caveat. I found the book very informative. There are lots of things I did not write about, such as his discussion of epigenetics or cultural learning process. Those are worth topics too, but I did not want to write a whole outline. Read the book. It is worth the effort.

Peace of mind

My Story Worth for this week. “What gives you peace of mind?”

The glib reply is that beer gives me peace of mind. That answer is not wrong, but it is incomplete and not an explanation w/o the deeper dig of asking why and what else is similar?

Having a beer is a joy when & because it helps you be in the moment. It certainly does not happen each time when past, present & future merge. The ambiance is more important than the beverage, so let’s explore that.

I will recall three episodes of absolute peace of mind. Two don’t involve beer. Let me share them, since the illustration may be easier than the explanation.

Finding peace in trees and nature.
A few months ago, in January, I was planting longleaf. I was by myself with 400 seedlings that I wanted to get them into the ground before sunset. The day was seasonally warm, but with enough of a cold tinge in the air to remind you it was winter. When I was mostly done, I looked back at my little pine trees and felt a profound connection with everything. The events of this day, however, were not sufficient to explain the peaceful feeling. The kids had recently come down to plant trees. That connection with their work and my hopes for future on the land was a strong contributing factor.

Even in Iraq (in Iraq there is no beer)
Iraq was not a place where you would expect to find peaceful thoughts, but there was a couple of occasions when they forced themselves in. Once as during a short walk from my office to a recently completed the bathroom complex. I was grateful for the luxury of a bathroom, but what really set off the peaceful feeling was a cool wind. It was October, the first cool wind I felt since I landed. Summers in Iraq are furnace hot and the winds of summer bring no relief. Sometimes they pick up hot sand and give you a hot sand blasting. This one was different, a harbinger of cooler and maybe better times. And it got get better. Winter in the western desert is pleasant, with cool nights and sometimes cool days warmed by the sun usually unobscured by clouds. I found peace in the warm sun, waiting for helicopters, taking time between transports or just taking a few minutes break.
I had the feeling yesterday, BTW, in Boise. I took the opportunity of the early morning to walk along the Boise River. It was simply wonderful. Wonder is simple.

And finally with the beer
Let me close with the beer. It is more than just drinking the golden liquid or the good feeling it brings. I almost never enjoy beer when I am alone. I would likely stop drinking it if I always had to drink by myself. It is the fellowship that counts. There were good times drinking beer with lifelong friends in Wisconsin and a couple with short time acquaintances all around the world. It is the ritual that brings back the feelings and the memories. Those of you who know my Facebook page haves seen scores of pictures of Chrissy & me. People we know seem to enjoy seeing them, and I like sharing. If we are considering a feeling of peace that I can have, I can have it almost any time. With Chrissy I get that feeling of pat present and future, that peaceful feeling.

This is the wonderful thing about life for all of us, or at least most of us, have nearly instant access to that peaceful feeling. There are many roads. It is found simply in nature, if you know how to look. It is easily found in the moment if you take time to appreciate it. But I think the way easiest for most people in to look for it in other people. It is all around us all the time, as easy to find as the air we breathe. Too often, however, we just refuse to take the deep breath.

My pictures are from my time in Iraq. It was not an easy place to find that peaceful easy feeling, but it was there.

The Volunteer

It is not a pleasant book. There is a lot of moral ambiguity and in the end the hero does not win, the good guys do not triumph. There is no deliverance, at least not in the lifetimes of the main characters. The only consolation is that the truth came out a generation later.
Witold Pilecki was a truly brave man who did all kinds of heroic things. He volunteered to allow himself to be arrested and sent to Auschwitz. His mission was to lead an uprising from there and a break-out. He succeeded in getting sent there and suffered mightily. He reported on conditions in the camp and would have made the world aware. He witnessed truly horrible things and reported them, but his reports did not change the situation, because of a mixture disbelief and cynical interests.

The book talks about Pilecki’s bravery and his suffering, as well as those of his colleagues. He lost his family and friends. He did his duty and then some. It was unrequited, however. He did manage to escape the camp but could not bring relief to his comrades. He fought in the Warsaw uprising and was captured by the Nazis. This time he was sent to a prisoner of war camp and freed by U.S. troops. He chose to go back to Poland. He had not fought the Nazis just to have the communists take over Poland. Unfortunately, they had. He was arrested, tried in a communist show trial and executed. The communist deleted him and rewrote the history. His story was submerged until after the fall of communism. His journals and writings did not come out until then.

His journal went into detail about the horrors of the Nazis and their casual use of violence. They would execute scores of random Polish citizens for minor infractions. In the camps they made a special effort to target educated and intelligent Poles. Of course, it is well known what they did to Jews. They developed systems that could kill 3500 people in two hours. Of course, they murdered millions.

I was a site officer for the Auschwitz camp five separate times. I recall a pond, full of frogs. It was very fertile because it contained the ashes of hundreds of thousands of victims. Of course, these were the big ones. Sometimes statistics with such large numbers do not convey as much. As Stalin said, the death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is just a statistic.

The book recounts a situation where the SS rounded up some Polish peasants. They killed the adults right away. For some reason (the author doesn’t know) they separated the children. He counted 36 the first night. Some of the older kids figured out they were going to die and started to cry. The slave laborers tried to comfort them, until the SS killed them with injections of phenol to the heart. They next time, they had 80 children. The Polish officer did not observe after that, but likely these were not the last.

We live in interesting times. We are so far from the industrial murder of the Nazis & communists that we confuse the nasty rhetoric of politicians with mass murder. It is useful to relearn the history.

Louis Brandeis

The trite phrase applies – this is a tapestry of the time of Louis Brandeis. It is well worth the time both for the insights it delivers and for the historical perspective. I was familiar with Brandeis in a supporting role in reading I did on Oliver Wendell Holmes, for his quotation that the states are the laboratories of democracy and for his role in the sick chicken (Schechter) case that put the brakes on some of the more radical new deal overreaches. There is a lot more. I have broken these notes into sections of things I learned.

Jewish in America a century ago
Brandeis was the son of Jewish-German immigrants. He was very aware of being Jewish, but his culture was also heavily German, and he was proudly an assimilated Jew. The events of the Holocaust have forever changed how we view history, but we should probably consider history as it was seen at the time. The German-American Jews were not always enthusiastic about the arrival of Russian Jews, who were culturally different. During WWI, before the USA got into the conflict, American Jews were generally in favor of the Central Powers. The German origin Jews shared cultural affinity with Germany. The Russian origin Jews considered the Russian Czar the bigger enemy.

Of course, there was also no Israel in those days and no Palestine. Brandeis became an active Zionist, and evidently just did not see it as a challenge is Jews moved to Palestine. He seemed to think that the local Arabs would welcome the new settlers, as they would improve the local economy. Recall that there had never been an independent Palestine. Before WWI, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire and it became a British mandate. Zionist intended that the Jewish homeland be part of the Ottoman Empire and later as part of the British mandate.

The book goes into some detail about Zionism.

Scientific management
The early 20th Century was a time of great confidence in science and engineering, even in places where it did not really apply. Scientific management was developed by practice and theory at that time. The most famous proponent of scientific management was Fredrick Taylor. Historians and business students still learn about scientific management (sometimes called Taylorism and even Fordism, after Henry Ford). The idea was to apply engineering principle to production, and it was effective as far as it went, but it did not account for humanity. It treated people like machines or parts or machines and was a machine age ideology. Today we tend to associate it with the unpleasant conformity.
Brandeis embraced scientific management and applied it in his law practice and his work as a judge. He figured out, for example, the firms like railroads could run more efficiently and so pay workers more or cut fares. He really did not understand the business, but it seemed logical and science. This sort of arrogance was characteristic of progressive ideas on management of the economy. It is easy to criticize them now, but at the time it seemed to make sense. This was, after all, a machine age and so much seemed to be made better by scientific analysis. It is like the adolescent who discovers some of the rules of life and thinks they can be applied universally. Assembly lines worked. They just were not pleasant places to work and just expanding them to society was not sustainable.

Conservation and the environment
The early 20th Century was an origin time, a kind of heroic age of conservation, with heroes like Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. As in the earlier theme, it was also still part of the machine age and most people thought in terms of production. The science of ecology was not well developed, and the dominant ideas were of a top-down management or exclusion. Brandeis was not much into this debate, but he did get involved in a major conservation case – Pinchot v Ballinger. I was unaware of this. Brandeis was not much interesting in the conservation aspect, but it was subsequently seen as a conflict between use and conservation aspect of the movement.

Free speech
Back in Brandeis’ day, progressives were the ones fighting for free speech. Most of the cases in those days were against leftist and/or related to censorship during World War I. Brandeis and Holmes went with the “clear and present danger” criteria, i.e. speech should be free unless it met that criteria, narrowly defined. It was later to be modified to make speech even less restrictive. It is only recently that progressives have turned on the concept. Holmes and Brandeis believed that even “wrong” speech should be protected, since it helped find the right.

Personal life
There was fair amount about Brandeis’ personality. He was evidently very detail oriented, always checking the facts and the background. He complemented well his friend and colleague Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes was interested in the broader context and had little desire for the details. Holmes was a superb writer and could well put his idea out. That is one reason we remember him better. Holmes also drew on a wide variety of sources. He sometimes quoted poetry in his decisions and read Greek classics in the original.
Brandeis was rich, but he always lived simply. He explained that it didn’t matter how much you earned but how much you spent and went on that when he was young and relatively poorer, he decided to live simply. He just kept it up as he got richer. He bought expensive suits, because they lasted longer, but he did not buy many. And when he replaced them, he just got the new version of the same one he had.

The Brandeis often entertained at home and these were stunning intellectual affairs. Brandeis would talk about anything except cases he might decide. The attraction was the thought, not the food. People commented that they went away hungry. The food was good quality but there was not much.

Life & times
This is a good life and times book about a man who lived a long life in interesting times.1