Spring walk

Wonderful spring day. I went for a long walk and listened to audio books, a good combination. I also got to observe changing nature and took some pictures.

I have been thinking about lawns. We have too many “perfect” lawns around here. They are maintained by chemicals and are more like green deserts than living communities. I took pictures of three sorts of lawns. The first is not really a lawn in the traditional sense.
It is Japanese stilt grass a beautiful, but destructive invasive species. It produces a wonderful green “lawn” that prevents the reproduction of forest trees. Normally, a hardwood forest floor like this would not be so green and it certainly would not be such a complete cover.

Next two pictures are the two sort of lawns. One is the chemically maintained one. It looks like a carpet and that is not only a superficial one. The roots do not go down far. There is nothing for pollinators and little for anything else. I hate these lawns. Next is a still neat but less controlled lawn. It features at lot of clover and other low growing “weeds.” Some people do not like clover, since it is non-native. I like clover and so do bees. Its roots go deeper than the turf grass and it does not require the use of any chemicals to maintain it.
Next photos show different sorts of trees common in Northern Virginia. The first is a southern red oak. I started to pay attention to southern red oaks only a few years ago. I thought of it as a variation of the northern red oak. It is, in fact, a significantly different tree. It seems to grow faster than northern red oak, and produces a longer trunk. After that is a white oak. There are lots of big trees in the Virginia suburbs. The last tree is a catalpa. These are fairly common in Virginia, but are not from around here. They are native only to a small area of southern centered on southern Illinois.

Hate the president if you want, but do not underestimate America

Winston Churchill supposedly quipped that Americans always do the right thing … after they have tried everything else. I do not see that as an insult, and I am do not think Churchill did either.

America has always relied on a decentralized system with distributed decision-making. Much of what other countries do with central authority is done in the USA by state or local authorities, or by the people themselves individually or in voluntary cooperation. It is an emergent system, and emergent systems are hard to understand, so they are often dismissed.

It is not true that in emergent systems nobody is in charge and it certainly is not true that people are not working together. In fact, emergent social systems are often more tightly coordinated than hierarchical ones. They are just harder to diagram. It is also not true that nobody is in charge, but rather that authority is fluid.

Historians, like I was, we hate emergent systems because we cannot put them into our narratives. The narrative is that the king or the leader make a plan and then others carry it out. We often name whole ages after a particular leader. Leadership is important, but the leader is part of the emergent system too. The plan is important, but the it really works only as part of an emergent system.

The USA has been better than most in recognizing & harnessing emergence, but even we feel uneasy about it.

Let me bring all this to current events. Many of you reading this hate Trump with significant passion. You should get over that, but if you cannot at least recognize what is happening during this current COVID-19 crisis.

Everybody is feeling confused and nobody knows exactly what to do because that is at this point unknowable. I know that our central planners hate this idea even more than they hate Trump, but it is true. The fact that we do not have one central plan does not mean that we have no plan.

We have a wonderful plan and an even better process. Lot of people are making decisions about things they know about and this distributed decision-making has been producing an emergent and adaptive plan.

Despite all the gnashing of teeth and screaming, the USA is doing well in addressing this crisis. You need not credit Trump. In fact you should NOT credit him. The American nation is greater than the American government and the American government is greater than the current occupant of the WH, whoever that is.

What we have is bench strength and institutional resilience. Lots of people are thinking about the problem and coming up with lots of solutions. None of these will work to solve the problem, but together they can adapt one. This solution will not be perfect because we can always imagine something better than anybody can achieve, but it will very likely be better than any alternative.

It is tempting to demand THE plan, but better to have many options and make choices from that. None of us really knows much of anything, but all of us together know quite a lot.
When a treatment is found for COVID-19, American science will be a big part of that. The same goes for a vaccine. Everybody kind of knows this, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.

Hate the president if you want, but do not underestimate America.

Driving back from Georgia

Last post of today. I drove from Georgia to Virginia yesterday. It was a pleasant drive along I-95, not too much traffic. I could use cruise control most of the time. Gas is cheaper in South Carolina. North Carolina is about twenty cents higher than Virginia.

You can make it all the way across North Carolina on a half tank of gas. A good strategy is to fill up in Virginia on the way down and in South Carolina on the way back.

My photo is the gas station I used in South Carolina. I actually stopped off at Pilot, but there were lines at all the pumps. A hundred yards father was TA with no lines and the same price for gas. I drove those extra few yards.

Cheap gas at Loves

We drove down to the farms, as I mentioned in an earlier post. I always stop at the Loves station at exit 104 on I95. Gas prices south of the Rappahannock are much lower than in Northern Virginia.


End of Spock

I watched Star Trek back in 1967, when it was new. Spock was my favorite character, but my thinking about Spock evolved with changes in tech. I wrote this back in 2008 –
“I remember in the old Star Trek when Spock would say something like “impact in 10.5 seconds.” How stupid is that? That is why I prefer Picard. By the time he says 10.5, the number has changed. It is unjustified precision, but it is easy to fall into the Spock trap. It is attractive and makes you seem intelligent. BTW – my own experience in using deceptive numbers is that you are much better off using precise odd numbers. For instance, 97 is a more credible number than 100 or 90.  Remember that Ivory Soap was 99 and 44/100ths percent pure, not 100 %.”

Therefore, I love Spock out of nostalgia. However, he is an ideal from the 1960s, as suited to our world as other things from the 1960s. We used to think of intelligence in terms of ability to remember a lot of facts and do quick calculations. These things machines now do for us most of the time. For humans we now treasure the kind of intelligence that can make intuitive and creative leaps. Technology removes a limiting factor and makes the next step possible. Spock is as out-of-date as those Nehru jackets.

It might seem silly to argue about the attributes of fictional character, but it is from mass-media fiction like this that many of us get most of our philosophy. Beyond that, it gives us a point of common culture. Most people my age and younger know Spock. I doubt there is any literary or historical character with better name recognition.

Spock is great subordinate but a poor leader. He knows the parts but cannot see the whole. I see this personally. I consciously used Spock as a role model back when I was 12-13 years old. I can see find traces even in my speech patterns, overusing using the word “indeed,” for example, or on the sarcastic side, saying “explain, Spock” when somebody comes up with a dumb idea. Nevertheless, as I wrote above, Spock was an ideal from the 1960s. Times changed; I evolved.

Needing less

Sometimes we need less. In fact, there is some advantage to single people living in very small spaces, since it encourages them to get out of the apartment. The limited space also discourage accumulation of lots of stuff. But you know what will come next. Activists will discover the “injustice” of the small space and demand a “livable” standard.
Fairfield Inn where I stay in South Hill has a kind of mini-suite with a bedroom separated by a half wall from a kind of sitting room. The King Suite, which is 375 sq Feet, would be sufficient for an individual or a couple w/o kids. They would have to be organized and frugal, i.e. not have too much stuff, but it could be pleasant enough. That would be a nice design for an apartment building.

Role Models

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

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

A life among books

Sometime I will read books on a Kindle or tablet, but not today.  I still prefer the paper versions.  I like the feel of the paper, the sound of turning the pages and the character an individual book can achieve, i.e. the place you spilled the coffee or the scribbled note in the margin in maybe describing an idea you may no longer understand in handwriting you cannot decipher, even though you know that it is your own.

So it was great to visit the library of Guita & José Mindlin at USP in São Paulo.  The Mindlins collected books for eighty years.  José described his approach as undisciplined.   He bought what he liked.  But over those eighty years certain patterns became apparent.   He liked books about Brazil, travel books especially that described Brazil in the past.

The Mindlins began their library in their home in the Brooklin neighborhood of São Paulo.  They always  believed in sharing their books and scholars could come to visit.  When they died, they willed most of their books to the University of São Paulo (USP) on condition that the public be invited in.  They built a whole building just for the library and the collection is being digitized so that it is available to a much wider public. 

With digitalization, I guess I am back to my first paragraph.  Digitalization is a great thing.  It will preserve knowledge by making sure it is duplicated and distributed.  A single library may be destroyed; books may decay.   Of course, will digitalization go on forever?  After all, lots of the digital media of earlier years is inaccessible.  I still like the paper books, leather binding is nice.

Interesting article related from “The Economist” here.

Wimpification, bureaucratization and time wasting

You can see it just by walking around. You don’t even have to walk around; you can see it by looking around the house and seeing all the signs warning you about things that aren’t very dangerous or admonishing you not to do things that no reasonable person would contemplate. 

I noticed a few funny signs as I walked around the neighborhood. But they are not really funny when you think about it. Each of these signs was erected to solve a problem that didn’t really exist. They needlessly make people – at least some people – anxious about harmless things like a rise so gentle that it wouldn’t stop a fast rolling tennis ball, as you see in the top picture above.

But consider the cost. I know from experience with our home owners’ association’s experiences (they managed to spend something like $90,000 to cut down medium sized existing trees and replace them with similar smaller ones)  that nothing like this can be done inexpensively. Dozens of people need to be involved in the decision process. They will almost certainly need an expert to figure out the exact placement of the sign and just to be safe will get a legal opinion from a lawyer.  That is before you bring in three or four workers, equipped with expensive specialized digging and construction equipment to erect the sign. After that it will require periodic maintenance. That silly sign about the little grade must have cost thousands of dollars to install and maintain.

I have always been a kind of a minimalist.  I think you should always have “do nothing” as the default option.  Those advocating any kind of action should have the responsibility of proving its worth. Lots of activity does nothing but cost money and many actually do harm.   We are fooled into believing the activity is effective by things just returning to normal.  There was an interesting article in WSJ about knee surgery.  It usually doesn’t work better than nothing and since it costs money and can create complications, it is worse than nothing.  But people who go to doctors expect something and they usually get it. I recall an old episode from the “Beverly Hillbillies” where Granny discovered a cure for the common cold.  You took the medicine, and in a week or ten days you were better.

It is a bias in the human condition to attribute causality to activity. In Granny’s case, it is clear what is at work, but it is not always so clear. Politicians make all sorts of promises and regulations.  Sometimes things do get better, but it may or may not be the result of their actions. 

There is an interesting example from behavioral economics that illustrates. David Kahneman, one of the fathers of behavior economics, had a dilemma while working with pilot trainers.  He understood that positive reinforcement worked better than negative, but the data seemed to be against him.  Trainers were right when they told him that yelling at someone who did worse than usual almost always made them do a better job the next time, while praising a good performance almost always resulted in a poorer result next time out.  The data was right but misinterpreted.   What was really happening was a simple regression to the mean.   Someone who does worse than usual will almost certainly return to normal next time.  The same will be the case for someone who does unusually well.

This is comforting to me, but also disturbing. It is a hard lesson to learn that lots of what you do really makes no difference. Many people make a living out of doing things that have no lasting effect but doing it with style and conviction.

I recently watched an episode of “Big Bang Theory” where Sheldon gets his girlfriend Amy to watch “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  She is unimpressed and points out that had Indiana Jones done nothing at all, the outcome would have been the same.  The Nazis would have found the Ark, a little sooner. They would have opened it, as they did anyway. The spirits would have come out and killed them all, just as happened. Perhaps the only outcome Indiana Jones influenced was the deposition of the Ark in the giant warehouse where it is again lost at the end of the film.

Let me return to my prosaic sign watching.  I am guessing that the sign making the “dangerous” knoll was put up because some fool tripped over the grade and maybe hurt himself. You can make a reasonable assumption that since that time nobody else has suffered a similar fate. The sign makers might take credit for the increase in human safety and happiness. At least Indiana Jones dressed well while he was cavorting around uselessly spending energy.

GMOs and Organic farming

There must be a term for it, when you fear and reject a new solution because of imagined risk and keep to an older solution that you are certain is not safe. GMOs are a good way to produce more food, while reducing inputs such as pesticides. They also will help us adapt to climate change or other quick changes.  There are no confirmed cases of anybody getting sick from eating GMO foods, yet they are widely opposed.  Organically grown foods, however, kill hundreds of people each year and yet are presumed innocent even in the face of evidence.  This is one of those cases where our fear of new science leads us down a more familiar but less healthy path.  

Let’s talk a little about organic foods.  The line between “organic” and conventional is not bright.  Most food we eat is grown primarily in organic ways.   Farming is now and has always been mostly an organic enterprise.  It makes sense to rely on natural processes when possible.  It saves effort and money.  However, most soils are deficient in key nutrients and a plague of insects or fungus can attack even healthy crops.   In that case, it is smart to apply inorganic fertilizers or chemicals to kill the bugs.  The key is to deploy the appropriate tools in the appropriate amount at the appropriate time.  Reasonable people can differ about such things.   But it is foolish to limit the tools you can safely apply.  As we learn more about soils, water and ecological relationships, we have become better at applying both organic and inorganic methods in complementary ways.

The recent outbreak of hepatitis in certified organic berries is only the latest.  A few years ago in Germany forty-five people died and almost 4000 got sick from eating organically certified bean sprouts.   Neither inorganic nor organic foods are automatically healthy or unhealthy.   But it is clearly true that if we applied the same scrutiny to organic foods as we do to GMOs, we would effectively shut down the organic food industry.  

Supporting organic farms and eating locally are lifestyle choices that we can indulge in the U.S. because we are a rich country, but we could not support the current world population using organic methods alone, even if we cut down the forests and invade the natural regions as the less efficient organic production methods would require.  

I favor of organic farming methods.  There is sufficient demand for organic products, as some consumers are willing to pay higher prices.   I like the idea of smaller farms with lots of people close to the land.  We should, however, be practical.  And we need to be vigilant with our food supply.  Just because something is certified as 100% organic does not mean that it is healthy.

In pre-industrial times, all crops were grown organically.  At those times, food-borne diseases and parasites were so common as to be ubiquitous.   We have learned a lot since the middle ages, but the even more ancient statement “nothing too much” still applies.   A smart course is a moderate one.  Eating only organic food will not make you healthier nor would it be good for the environment if everyone did that.   On the other hand we have to be circumspect in our use of chemicals and GMOs.  But we should welcome their use when they improve health or environment.