June forest visits

Fire encourages flowers in the fields. I notice that our Freeman place has fewer flowers than it did the season after the fire. We have plenty of wildflowers, as you can see in my pictures, but some of the patches are those we planted for pollinators. Left alone, the fields come to be dominated by brambles and sumac. These are fine in themselves, but they form monocultures.

We will burn this winter in Freeman. I hope it will be fun.

I left home at about 4:30am, so I got to Freeman in the early (ish) morning. Lots of birds and I heard bobwhite quail all over the place. I am not managing FOR quail, but I consider quail a marker species for the type of environment I am working to (re) establish, so I am glad to see and hear them.

What I want is a patchwork diversity. We have thick mostly hardwood forest in the stream management zones. We have maybe 40 bald cypress in some of the damp lands and I planted 200 more anyplace my feet got wet. We are making pine savanna over the bulk of the Freeman and Brodnax places.

There is the story of the pond covered by lily pads. It seems to happen overnight. It happens in a month, but nobody notices at all until day 28. This is how exponential factors work, and this is how the Diamond Grove is going. “Suddenly” the canopies are close and the woods are dark.

Diamond Grove is ready to thin this winter. We had canopy close a couple years ago and now it is too dark, as you can see in the picture. This thick monoculture is a legitimate way of forest management, but I am not very fond of it. Diamond Grove features five wildlife/pollinator plots. My friends in the hunt club planted pollinator habitat last year, as you can see in the pictures.

An interesting permutation on Diamond Grove is that the roads are covered with lespedeza. Lespedeza (this variety called Chinese bunch clover) was introduced by government scientists in the 1950s. These days, some people say it is invasive and want to extirpate it. I don’t know about that. Lespedeza grows where other things will not, on the forest road, for example. Quail are fond of lespedeza. It is just right for the baby quail to hide under. Lespedeza is a nitrogen fixer and it does an excellent job of holding soil. I am glad to have it on my road, but I did not plant it. The story is that one of hunt club guys was moving the brush on the road right after he came back from mowing a field of lespedeza. The seems and stems came off and rooted. As I said, I am glad to have it. Nothing else has ever been able to stabilize that road. Not native? Who the heck cares? It fills a proper niche. Given time, it will be “native.”

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“Working” by Robert Caro

Robert Caro has been criticized for writing this book, not for anything in or about the book itself, but rather because critics don’t want him to divert his time and energy from finishing his series on Lyndon Johnson. His final volume is in the works and has been for many years. Caro’s books on Johnson are nothing short of superb. But he is getting older. The Grim Reaper may be unimpressed by the need for a few more years to finish his life’s work. Maybe Caro is thinking along these lines, at least metaphorically. It must be frightening to be so close to finishing something so monumental. There will be no coda.

“Working,” however, is a great book just by itself. Caro talks a lot about how and why he writes and fills in lots of interesting information about Johnson and Robert Moses, the subject of his first great book, “The Power Broker.” Caro says that he found his purpose when studying Moses. His purpose is NOT biography. Biography is the means to the end of understanding power, and in Johnson and Moses he shows how that works.

Power does not always corrupt, according to Caro, but it always reveals. Johnson & Moses were great men in what they achieved. They were also selfish, cruel and ruthless, as well as often petty, although it is sometimes hard to know whether that pettiness was just that or a technique of power.

Johnson, for example, has especially soft chairs installed for guests in his office. The guest would sink way down, and Johnson could enjoy a higher position. It was also awkward to get out of those chairs, which put the guest in embarrassing situations. In his swimming pool at the Johnson Ranch, Johnson would stand just at the deep end. He was a tall man taller than most of his guests. The shorter guests would have to gulp for air or tread water, while Johnson could stand above them in majesty.

A key to Johnson, Caro says, was his inferiority complex. Johnson grew up very poor, the kind of poverty that really does not exist anymore in the USA. As a young man, he had a job on the road crews. Since he was big and strong, he would pull a kind of plow along the dirt roads, the kind of work that could be assigned to horses or mules. He never forgot that. I will not repeat the details that are in Caro’s other books.

Enlightening for me was when Caro discussed his interview style and method of working. Caro advises in-depth work, get to know the people well. He actually moved to the Texas hill country to get to know Johnson’s people and country. He says that you a researcher cannot be afraid to ask the same questions over and over. Answers vary. And it might be useful to get them into different settings. He describes how he got Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, to open up by taking him to the Johnson house and having him sit at the family table. The memories came back, and he was more open.

Caro has no outside pressure to do his work, which is good and bad. He needs to self-discipline, so each day he dresses in a tie and blazer to go to his office for work. He has a quota of words, i.e. he does not wait for inspiration. He still writes much of his work with pencil or pen. Putting on paper, he says, is an adjunct to thought.

This book is sure worth reading, especially if you have read Caro’s other work. I just hope he gets that last volume of the years of Lyndon Johnson done before he himself goes off to glory.

I think this book will be especially interesting to my friends Dennis Neffendorf, Christopher Datta & George Clack, Dennis because of his close proximity to the Johnson Ranch and George & Chris for their interest in writing books.

Check out this great listen on Audible.com. From the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Power Broker and the Years of Lyndon Johnson series: an unprecedented gathering of vivid, candid, deeply revealing recollections about his experiences researching and writing his acclaimed books. For…..

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My strangest year

My craziest year – Story Worth for this week.

My strangest year was the academic year 1978-9. It was a kind of transition zone for me. My longtime girl friend dumped me. I was becoming disenchanted with studying ancient history. I didn’t have much money. My previous verities were just not working for me. Greatest of all weirdness, however, came from a quirk in my housing structure.

Semi homeless

Some five acquaintances and I had a joint lease on a big house on Johnson Street in Madison, Wisconsin. I didn’t have a room there at all. In winter, I slept on the couch. In summer, I slept on the back porch (it as screened in and pleasant). None of us had enough money for the full rent. My portion was $65, as I recall.

Unreliable hippie girls

The problem came when two of our housemates, Jean and Sybil, decided to leave Wisconsin. They were “hippie girls” (yes, Madison still had residual populations of that now extinct species well into the1980s) and they decided – abruptly – that Wisconsin got too cold in the winter, so they lit out for warmer climes. I think they headed for Florida with a couple guys who promised to take care of them, and I suppose they did.

Their quick departure put us in a quandary, since they left w/o paying their current shares of the rent nor making provisions for the future. (Hippie girls were like that – interesting at first but a real pain later.) Our task became finding a couple of new house mates with both the money and will to pay their fair share. This was harder because it was into the school year. Madison was a college town and our housing was oriented to that. Those w/o a place to live after the school year started were trouble or troubled.

There was a reason they had no place and that reason was rarely good.

Deadbeats & weirdos

We went through a series of deadbeats and weirdos. Some stayed just long enough not to pay the rent and then left in a hurry. I got the impression that this kind of cheating is what they did. Today, I suppose, we would call them homeless. I don’t recall all their names. We were naïve in taking on possible borders. It was a learning opportunity, but not pleasant. Let me give the stories of some of those I do recall.

We had Marcus. Marcus did not go to school. He was a waiter at one of the gay clubs in Madison. Evidently popular with the regular patrons, he made big money in tips, sometimes hundreds of dollars. He paid the first month’s rent in cash. Next month, he seemed strapped on any day we asked him. I knew that he worked on Fridays and had lots of cash from his tips, so the next Saturday I got up early and waited. When he came out, I told him that I knew he had the cash and promised unspecified bad things would happen to him if he did not give it to me. He did, but moved out the next Tuesday, citing a hostile home environment. He actually asked for a refund of the unused part of his rent. I had already paid the landlord and told him no. He didn’t push it.

Marcus always looked good, but he lived like a pig. When we went to clean out his room, we saw he had old food around the room and that he didn’t bother with sheets on the mattress and it really stuck. I had to go to class, so I did. My roommate, Tom, said he would clean it up. When I got back from classes, I found Tom and his friends smoking pot. This was not unusual. Tom was a pothead and so were his friends. They criticized my “redneck” ways of not partaking, but on that day, I think I saved their lives.

There was a lot of smoke in the room, but more smoke than even all their pot could create. I inquired, and in true Cheech & Chong fashion Tom replied, “I don’t know, man. It’s been like that for like an hour, man.” I saw that the smoke was coming out of the former Marcus room. When I opened the door, the rush of fresh air caused the mattress to burst into flames. I got some water from the sink and doused the flames. In those pre-Febreze days, Tom wanted to de- stink Marcus’ mattress and put incense on it. It had burned into to mattress and smoldered. I believe that had I not returned when I did, the house would have burned down. Tom and his friends would have done nothing until they died, probably saying something like “Oh wow, man, sure is getting hot.”

We had to get rid of the burned mattress, but fortunately found another, better one that someone had put on the curb for pickup. You just need to cruise for furniture.


We replaced Marcus with Dirk, who was well and truly crazy, later certified so. Dirk used to talk to himself – and answer back. Once I heard him tell a joke, laugh and then tell himself to shut up because that wasn’t funny. When I went to look in on him, nobody was there but him. I had no psychological training, but I thought that was weird.

Dirk was very handsome, evidently attractive to women. They seemed to like his brooding personality/personalities. He used to bring women home with him. Mostly they were okay. The one time not was when he brought “Dirty Helen.” We didn’t know her, but we knew of her. She was not the kind you want around the house, hanging around like a fart in a phone booth, as we said. The next morning, Dirk went somewhere and left Helen. When we tried to kick her out, she claimed that Dirk said she could stay. We got rid of her when one of my housemates took her down to the local bar, the Caribou, bought her a beer and made himself scarce. She never showed up again and when Dirk came home, he did not inquire about her.

Dirk stayed with us until he had an incident in a bar, where he evidently attacked a group of larger & more numerous guys for no reason anybody could figure out. Maybe he thought there were more of him. Anyway, those guys did not beat him up too badly, but his mother came from California to get him. He moved back there. Maybe he fit in better in California. His mother was nice. She paid his rent for the next month, but we still had to find replacements.

We finally ended up with two mostly normal people who stayed with us until the end of the lease. It is funny that I do not recall their names. I am much better with the crazy ones. Come to think on it, the guy was called Alex. Don’t remember the woman’s name. They were not a couple. Both paid their rent and didn’t make trouble, so it was okay.

Biker chick

The woman was a “biker chick,” at least part time. She had a steady job and would go every day well dressed, but evenings and weekends the bikers would come around. Some were scary looking, but they were nice guys when you got to know them. They had their own bar on Williamson Street. It featured an ominous warning telling you not to come in unless you were a member of the CC Riders. I used to go in if I was with her or some of the other guys. Beer was inexpensive, but you had to drink Budweiser, as I recall. I have never been much attracted to that lifestyle, but it is very welcoming if you are in the in-group. I can see why some people like it.

I looked up the place on Internet to check my memory. It is still there under new ownership. Evidently the CC Riders today are all upstanding citizens, sponsoring kids’ charities. I posted a picture.

Knowing lots of people

That year was also remarkable for the vast number of people I knew. I was lonely that year and my “home” was uninviting, so I spent a lot of time out. I am not a naturally gregarious person, but I guess I can be. I just recall that I knew everybody around my place and in the Madison student union. My grades went to hell, nothing like my really bad undergraduate grades, but well off the straight A averages I got in my first years. I just lost the drive to excel.

I started to question whether there was much of a future in the study of classical Greek & Latin. I had a steady part-time job at a bookstore on State Street and I read a lot outside my specialty. I am convinced that job helped me pass the FS test, since I read the back covers of so many books. I knew the summary of the great literature, even if I did not read all, most or even very much of the substance.

By the end of the period, I thought that I needed a new experience, so I saved money and worked a second job to get enough money to go to Germany, where I hitchhiked around for a month, but that is a different story, which I have told elsewhere. When I got back, I had decided to move on from ancient history. I did not have a good plan and that transition is also another story.

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Walkable Cities

Walkable cities are more pleasant even for those who do not walk much. These cities are cleaner, safer and more sustainable than others, since the factors that make it walkable are very often just good.

Why don’t we have these cities more often?

Maybe the biggest reason is that cities are planned in pieces. Traffic engineers want to make the roads convenient and safe for cars, so they develop roads that move cars faster and more efficiently through cities. Pedestrians, houses, trees and stores are things that get in the way of traffic. By making the cities easy for people to get in and out, they are essentially draining the life blood from the city. The car is hard on the life of a city. The traffic engineers do their job well, but their piece is not the only one. Another piece are architects. They like special or beautiful buildings. Beautiful buildings are good, but the life of the city depends on the places between them. This they often ignore.

Density is an important factor for walkability and transit. All transit trips begin and end with a walk. If people cannot walk to and from, they must drive. Density does not always mean very tall buildings. In fact, smaller cities often cannot support high rises. But the density much be closer and maybe average 4-6 stories. A simpler fix is to allow more people in given areas. This might include so-called “tiny houses” and grandma or mother-in-law apartments. These allow homeowners to share living space. What is holding this back are zoning laws.

The author talks about “prospect and refuge”. Our species grew up on the savanna and we have a natural propensity to like those sorts of landscapes. Prospect refers to being able to see far. We want open space so that we can see danger coming or opportunity available. This is the open, grassy prospect. Refuge is that place we can go for safety – trees to climb or rock outcroppings to hide. Most people like a combination of open and closed spaces. We want “defensible space. This is why we dislike large empty squares of long straight highways.

We can make our cities more inviting by keeping this in mind. People like colonnades, porches and overhangs. Cities that have these kinds of things on the edges of the streets attract walking. Defensible space is important too. No matter how wide the sidewalk, we don’t like to be near the fast passing cars. This can be remedied by allowing on street parking or by planting trees.

Trees are the street amenity that all pedestrians like. It is less popular with traffic engineers. For them, a tree is a dangerous hard barrier that might cause injury if a car gets out of control. Of course, it is ironic that they prefer soft pedestrians to hard trees.

Trees are safer than non-tree lined streets. Sure, if you run into a tree it is hard, but the presence of the trees calms traffic. People drive slower in tree-lined places. They change behavior. Drivers respond to wide open spaces and they drive faster. So, if you goal is rapid driving, by all means clear the space. But that is not the usual goal in a pleasant city.

Our cities are shaped by choices, many of them not made consciously in context. The cities we most love are often not the ones we choose to build, as we focus on simple efficiency. The car is the enemy of the pleasant city and its benefactor. We have to decide when and where we want them, not just default to everywhere.

Check out this great listen on Audible.com. Jeff Speck has dedicated his career to determining what makes cities thrive. And he has boiled it down to one key factor: walkability. The very idea of a modern metropolis evokes visions of bustling sidewalks, vital mass transit, and a vibrant, pedestria…..
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Dirt to Soil

Soil is a living community, not just a pile of dirt. The best insight from this book is that plants and fungi are developing in the soils, and it is useful to think of the microbes as livestock. They have to be fed and kept healthy.

Unfortunately, some of the things we do to increase productivity can harm the life of the soil. More on that later, but first a little more on healthy soil.

Healthy soil does everything better. It is more fertile, absorbs and holds water better, erodes less easily and holds more carbon. The last aspect is salient these days. Good soils can be 7-9% carbon. Most of our soils today less than 2%. Soils alone cannot solve the problem of climate change, but there is a lot of capacity for carbon storage in soils. The big positive in this equation is that adding carbon to soil is just plain good for many other reasons.

We can add carbon to soil directly by mixing in biochar and organic materials, but this is not the most interesting part of what the author says. He talks about carbon being released by plants in a symbiotic relationship with soil fungi and mycorrhizae. The discovery of mycorrhizae is relatively recent and not all the relationships are well understood. I don’t know how much he is talking science and how much he is talking about his own experience, so the details might differ, but the general concept is sound and very interesting. The plants are essentially feeding the fungi and the fungi help feed the plants. In the process, they build soils and sequester carbon.

We can disturb these relationships with herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizer. Let me start with the caveat that the author does not oppose the use of all agricultural chemicals but says that we should use less and use them in more targeted ways. It is easy to understand how pesticides and herbicides would have negative impacts, but what about fertilizer? Artificial fertilizers impact the soil community by letting plants “cheat” on growing. They no longer need to draw so much from the mycorrhizal environment, causing the mycorrhizae to decline or die.

The main thrust of his book, however, involves five principles.

Limited disturbance. Limit mechanical, chemical, and physical disturbance of soil. – Tilling disturbs the structure of the soil. It cuts the roots and the mycorrhizae, makes it dry out faster and creates strata, where a hard layer is under the soils that prevents water infiltration.

Armoring the soil is one way to be resilient. The armor is the residue from a previous cover crop and a cash grain crop is growing through the armor. There should be little bare ground. This was one of the causes of the dust bowl. When soil is exposed, it washes or blows away. The author makes an interesting, almost poetic analogy. He says that what plants do is harvest sunshine. When there are no plants, all that is wasted and even becomes negative in drying.

Diversity. Different species of plants and animals occupy different ecological niches. A diverse community can support more total life and that life may be complementary. A diverse community is also more resilient against diseases, pests and stress in general. I drought will affect different communities differently.

Living roots. Keep living roots in soil as long as possible. This is related to the tilling above. Living roots help maintain soil integrity.

Integrated animals. This is a key point. We should probably eat less meat, since that is better for the environment, but eating no meat is bad for the environment. We need livestock to maintain healthy soils. Grassland ecosystems require grazing animals. There are better and worse ways to do this. Over grazing can destroy grasslands, but no grazing also destroys them. Best is “mob grazing” where large numbers of animals are put on the same place for a short time. They eat most of the grass and trample a lot more of it. You would think this is bad, but it puts the carbon into the soil and allows for better regeneration. The author is a fan of Alan Savory. I have written about him before.

Working in any natural system requires constant effort and constant learning. The author is someone like that. I learned a lot from the book and I also enjoyed a lot. I listened to the audio book on my way to and from a conference about clean water in Charlottesville. It was appropriate listening and complemented insights from the conference.

Check out this great listen on Audible.com. Gabe Brown didn’t set out to change the world when he first started working alongside his father-in-law on the family farm in North Dakota. But as a series of weather-related crop disasters put Brown and his wife, Shelly, in desperate financial str…
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Pete Buttigieg

Met Pete Buttigieg today. I read his book and was impressed by his intellect.

I am not impressed when politicians present detailed plans. Everybody should know that the detailed plans will always fail, as the conditions presidents face will be different from those they imagine. What I liked about Buttigieg is that instead of detailed plans, he talks about the intellectual process that we reach goals. It might seems a subtle difference, but it is important. During his brief talk today, he said that the best thing we can do is envision the future we want and then work to figure out how to get there. He didn’t say it, but I think it implied the iterative approach that is best for addressing complex problems.

He didn’t engage in that anger you too often hear on the campaign trail. He was critical of the “current president” but specifically showed respect for those who voted for him. He said that the election was not the cause but the result of frustration. Some people voted for a candidate that they did not love because they wanted change.

Asked about foreign policy, he supported our network of alliances, adding that American values are important in the world and that we had the responsibility to advocate for them in our deeds and our words.

I literally got an elevator speech with Pete. After the talk, there was the usual milling around and I thought I there was nothing more for me to see, so I went to the elevator. Just about the time it arrive, Buttigieg and his entourage showed up. I offered to take the next one, but he invited me in. I told him that I had read his book. He said that he wrote to book to show the kind of guy he was, rather than just a long political advert. I said that I was impressed, but it might be that he is too intellectual to play well with much of the electorate. He responded that problems were nuanced and required nuanced solutions. I agree. He said that he got along alright with the people in Indiana and thought that people could understand the complexity if properly presented.

Seemed a good guy. Let’s see how it does.

My first picture is the standard photo with the candidate. Next is the Capitol. It was very pleasant day. Extraordinarily fresh for middle June. Last is part of the green roof at the building where we met.

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Forests and water in Virginia

I attended the Virginia Forest and Drinking Water Forum in Charlottesville today. Not sure if I learned anything truly new & significant, but it was good to get reminded of this important topic and I got to talk to a few people I know in the environmental community and meet a few new ones. You have to go to things and you often learn things that you think you knew but did not. After you learn something related to the things you knew already, you often fool yourself into thinking you knew it before.

I know that I do this because I have documented it. Sometimes I write what I think I will get out of a conference before going and then before reading what I wrote I write again what I thought I knew. It is enlightening. The easiest person for us to fool is ourselves.

Clean water is a forest product, and forests are the best ways to protect our water supply. One of the most famous examples of “green infrastructure” involved New York City’s water supply. Years ago, NYC bought up forest land upstream and protected it from development. They still benefit. That is why I was surprised when someone brought up a study saying that it was relatively simple to purify water and that it made only a 1-2% difference in cost. As I thought about it, I considered that the study may be true but that it missed the point. You can purify drinking water, but clean water is more than just what you drink after it is processed. I think the study is one of those that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Anyway, I just decided to dismiss it. Lots of studies say lots of things and if they think the only value of a forest is what they can put a price on, they are full of crap.

Among the speaker was a representative from Miller-Coors. They brew that beer in the Shenandoah Valley, near Harrisonburg. He credited the Coors family with a love of quality beer and a love of nature. He quoted the Coors patriarch as saying, “This is the best beer that I have ever made, but not the best that I will ever make.” Miller-Coors has their own waste treatment plant and they support clean water in Virginia and wherever they sell beer.

In Virginia they make Coors Lite, Miller Lite & Blue Moon. The ordinary Coors is made only in Colorado. I don’t like the Lite products. The ordinary Coors is my favorite to drink down on the farms, when I am working in the heat. It is a “lawn mower” beer, not one you drink in the evening.

I had a good discussion with Justin Barnes about land ethics and wilderness, what that means. Both of us are tying to figure this out. He may succeed. I am sure that I won’t. Or let me explain more precisely, I think that I am coming to an understanding of the land ethic, but that I will never be able to put it into words that I can explain to others. The trite but true idea is that it is the journey and not the destination.

Anyway, I enjoy these conferences. I think I learn a few new things and support the things I know already.

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Dauerwald – near natural forests & land ethics

I have been studying various approaches to land ethics more intensely in recent years and have come much more to respect tribal points of view. This is plural points of view – since there is not one but many.

What they tend so share, in my limited experience, is people living in harmony with nature and the land. This is distinct from what I have come to learn about a preservationist ideal, which often seeks to separate humans from nature. Some of our concepts of wilderness exclude human influences, no matter how harmonious. I think this is an error.

One guy I talked to made a profoundly simple statement. He said that we should tread lightly and harmoniously in nature, but that implies that we DO tread and include humans.

There are many traditions for living in and with nature. I doubt we can come to a once-and-for-all ideal. For example, I only recently learned about the German tradition of dauerwald, and I only learned about it because someone said that “my” forest management resembled that. My research found many similarities. I never recalled learning about this specifically, but I did grow up with Aldo Leopold, whose parents were German and who must have been familiar with the concept and in the long game idea, one of the sources I found on the topic was a webinar hosted by Han Schabel. I had not thought of that name for years, but it seemed familiar and it was. He was my forestry professor at UWSP way back in 1973.

Anyway, I signed up for this webinar. I have done others and always been satisfied. The more I think about land ethics and our/my place is a dynamic environment, the more confused I get but also I get more a feeling of connection and joy is the word I would have to use. It is a very deep joy in the world. Maybe the less I know I know, the more I understand. Who knows?

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Summer reading

Some summer reading and maybe finding patterns that do not exist.

I am usually reading a few books over the same period, so I get them confused. This is not helped by the fact that I tend to read related books, since the interest in one leads me to the others. Amazon is complicit in this, with their “people who bought this also bought these” hints.

I finished four books this week. “The World According to Star Wars” by Cass Sunstein, “In Pursuit of Elegance” by Matthew May, “Peak” by Anders Ericsson, and “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly. I highly recommend all of them, and it is not a bad idea to read them around the same time. I found lots of commonalities. Maybe I just imagined them, but they have helped me put things in context.

“Peak” for example, is about getting really good at something through deliberate practice. Anders Ericsson is the source for the “10,000 hours rule” made famous by Malcolm Gladwell. This is the idea that anybody gets to be an expert at something with 10,000 hours of practice. Ericsson says that this formulation is way too simplistic. While you cannot find any real experts in anything who have not put in the time (the idea of spontaneous genius is a myth) just putting in your time is not sufficient. Natural abilities do play a role and there is some question about whether it requires a certain natural ability just to put in the time, i.e. the capacity to practice that much might be an indicator of ability as well as a creator. He also wrote that the skills are not fungible. Playing chess very well does not teach you to be logical in other realms, although a person attracted to chess might have the predilection to be logical. Cause and effect are difficult to sort out, even in simple cases. Deliberate practice works where the process can be understood and there are measurable goals. Reading this made me think of computer or mechanical processes. If you understand all the steps in a process, you can make a machine or program a computer to do it better than a human can. Which fit in well with my next book, “The Inevitable.”

“The Inevitable” is a great book and I will write more about it on its own. In this context, however, I was interested in what the author had to say about cognition being a type of utility. He said that there is really no single type of intelligence and that it would be less useful if there were. This fits well with the idea in “Peak” that skills are no easily fungible. The chess playing program does not also play football. But most parallel was when the author, Kevin Kelly, described how they have made machines that learn to play games. This is different from a chess playing program when the moves are programmed into the software. This newer cognition is where the computer is programming with rules to learn. He described how a computer learned to play Pong (recall that primitive video game). At first, the machine did poorly, but it got better with each try until it could beat any human player AND had devised a strategy to get around the boundaries that no human player had contemplated. This was deliberate practice and an iterative, evolutionary process. The difference is that the machine did not forget as humans might. To repeat what I said above, if you understand all the steps in a process, you can make a machine or program a computer to do it better than a human can. Can and are doing.

Building on that brought me to “The World According to Star Wars.” This is a light-hearted book but it explores serious issues from Sunstein’s earlier work on “choice architecture,” that he explained in “Nudge” and goes into more detail in a book I am reading now called “The Ethics of Influence.” Choice architecture is simply the circumstance, environment of choice. For example, stores put candy near the checkouts. You have a choice to buy or not, but the architecture encourages a particular outcome. When we “add cognition” as Kevin Kelly says, we must choose a particular choice architecture and that will greatly affect outcomes. Kelly devotes a whole chapter to filtering. We have so much going on and so many choices available that we must use filters to get through the day. Filters are useful, but dangerous. We increasingly live in a peculiar and idiosyncratic world created by filters which we may or may not have set up or even be aware about.

Which led me inexorably to my fourth book, “In Pursuit of Elegance.” I rarely have read a book that is so much like what I think. Elegance consists of doing the right things and doing them smoothly. Instead of thinking about what can be added to a process, a wise person looks for things that can be subtracted. There is the old joke that it takes a lot of planning to be spontaneous and it takes a lot of understanding of complexity to be simple. The choice architecture should be simple based on a deep enough appreciation of the complexity so that we know what to leave out, what to leave alone and what to leave to others.

Returning to “The Inevitable,” Kelly does not lament that machines may be “smarter” than humans. Of course they are. A calculator is much smarter, but only in the calculations. Humans can delegate to the machines those parts of cognition most appropriate for them. The machines will be tools, cognitive tools that increase our intelligent advantage much as a physical tool increases our muscle power. Humans integrate well with their devices. When I ride my bike, it feels like I am doing the movements and I am. The same goes for cognition. Humans will have the capacity for elegance working with machine cognition.

I am not sure my books were really very closely related, but I think I did find a path among them useful to be and that is why I bought the books and took the time to absorb them, so it worked.

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A perfect day

The perfect day was a day much like many others, but unexpected and stolen from the drudgery of work.

My story started (as I am noticing about many of my stories) with beer drinking. Drinking too much beer. My friends and I were at my friend Jerry Roark’s sister’s house. She was a “cool” older sister. She made her home and her yard available to us to drink. It was not illegal, BTW since we were all older the then drinking age (18) in Wisconsin, although not much. We needed a place to be.

It was Sunday. We were all supposed to go to jobs we disliked on Monday morning. It was one of those great times among friends, a warm long evening in June, talking about nothing, laughing and just enjoying the company. We planned just to have the proverbial couple of beers together, but there were more than a couple beers available, and we kept on going. We were having too much fun to leave. I am not sure how many beers we ended up drinking, but it was more than we should have done.

At about 4 am the next morning, my father woke me up to go to work at the Cement Factory. We both worked there. My father liked to drink beer even more than I did, but he was better at it. He never missed a day’s work because of beer. He never missed a day’s work for any other reason that I can recall, as a matter of fact. He was unsympathetic when I told him that I was too sick to go to work and castigated me both for the bad judgement of having consumed too much before a workday and for being so weak that I could not handle it. After we sat across the kitchen table looking at each other for a little while, however, he told me that I looked too bad to go to work. I should go back to bed. He would tell the boss that I was too sick to work, adding that he would let everyone around the plant know the real reason so that they could ridicule me the next day.

I went back to bed and I think I fell asleep even before it got there. I was used to waking up at 4 am, so I was sleeping really late when I finally crawled out of bed at around 10am. To my surprise, I felt remarkably good. I slept off the effects of the alcohol but still had the energy provided by all those carbohydrates from the liquid bread.

The weather was perfect. Milwaukee weather can be perfect when you get a hot summer day with a breeze from the east. The cold water of Lake Michigan freshens and cools the air as it blows in, while the warm summer sun gives you the feel of liquid sunshine on your shoulders. So, I thought I would go down to the Lake to enjoy it close up. I went to South Shore Park. To my surprise, I ran into my friends. We had independently arrived at the same decisions. We all had been too “sick” to go to work. We all had recovered by midmorning, and we all had been drawn to Lake Michigan. We continued our enjoyable talking and laughing at a picknick table overlooking Lake Michigan. Only Jerry Roark was tough enough to go to work that Monday. He got to brag about his power, but he missed the day’s pleasure.

This is not the kind of day you can plan. You could plan to go to the Lake. You could wait for great weather. You could plan a great day. I had been to that spot many times before and would go back other times later. What made this day special was spontaneity, surprise and serendipity. We traded this delightful day at Lake Michigan for a dreary day of work. None of us had jobs anybody could love. I hated mine with no small passion. We had stolen back some of our time, taken it back w/o needing to form the intention to do it, so it was both gift and plunder. A gift that has kept giving for more than 40 years.

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