Getting the forestry message out

Getting the message out

John Matel

John Matel

President Virginia Tree Farm Foundation

69 articles

Link to LinkedIn of this post


I am writing a presentation that I will deliver at one of the breakout sessions at the Tree Farm National Leadership Conference, in Albuquerque, New Mexico – January 31-February 2. The topic is “Using more wood for the love of forests: getting the message out.”  This is background for the “getting the message out” part. I am overdoing it a bit.

Don’t worry; this is not the text for the talk.

For anybody who plans to attend the session, don’t worry. I am NOT planning to deliver this in the talk and I will talk more about forestry. All this exercise is to build the background for a couple of slides and all this will be reduced to a few sentences. BUT … I will be ready for any questions and I wanted to put this up as reference so anybody interested in more background can read it.

My method for talk preparation is odd. I write all this kind of stuff and read a lot. Then on the day before or even the day of the event I write what I am going to say – long hand – in my pocket notebook. That makes it flow, since I leave out details. I often change the talk even as I am giving it, depending on audience reaction. This was a problem for me in State Department, since my text “as prepared” was often significantly different than my talk as delivered.

My PowerPoint Presentation

The slides are included at this link. They will change before the presentation. It is heavy with pictures, since I don’t think PowerPoint should be text heavy. But that might make it download slower.

Everything is always becoming something else

We always have always and always will live in a dynamic environment. Our efforts to understand and act within it change it, so that we never really face the same challenges twice. There is no finish line; there is no stable end goal. Success means sustainable change.

Portfolio or Toolbox Strategy (for an uncertain world)

No technique or media tool will work in all situations. That is why we need to deploy the whole panoply of tools and techniques and know which combinations are best. This is more art than science.  The key is flexibility. Don’t get too enamored with any one thing or develop strategies around one platform. We don’t want a Twitter strategy. We want a strategy that may use Twitter as one of many tools. Carpenters don’t have “hammer strategies.”  They have building strategies that may involve hammers as one of the many tools in the box.

The human equation: bridging the last three feet

When I worked in public diplomacy, our patron saint was Edward R. Murrow, the famous journalist & the greatest director of the United States Information Agency. He observed that our communication technologies could span the globe, but the real persuasion took place in the last three feet – human contact. He lived in the days before Internet. IMO, internet can (although less easily than people think) create or at least sustain the kinds of engaged relationships Murrow was talking about, but we still must build those relationships. There is a cognitive limit to human engagement. We can only keep in real contact with a couple hundred people, although new technologies may expand that number, it does not reach into the millions or even the tens of thousands. That is why we must set priorities. We just cannot love everyone equally and any strategy designed to reach everybody will satisfy nobody.

There is no garden w/o a gardener  

We cannot outsource or compartmentalize our brains or our engagement. The person the communicating must be involved in decisions involving it. There just is no way around this. If we don’t get involved, we cannot make good decisions. Too often, we just try to hire consultants.  Many consultants are good and are worth the money we pay them, but others are like the guy who borrows your watch and then charges to tell we what time it is. If we outsource our decisions, we essentially outsource our intelligence. Then THEY know what we need to know. It is a lot like hiring a guy to look after your spouse. Even if it seems to make her happier, maybe you are not doing playing your part.

BTW – be very wary of pseudo-experts who claim to “speak for” large groups of people or have some kind of inside knowledge that cannot be replicated or properly explained.  If they cannot explain it to we even in broad strokes, they probably don’t understand it themselves and often they are just hucksters protecting their phony baloney jobs.  We have too many such people hanging around us not to trip over them occasionally.

Leverage existing systems and products

Speaking of gardens, we can have a great garden w/o the walls. There are existing communities where we can participate and after we have participated maybe invite others into our own system to participate with us.  Remember that there are always more smart people outside our group – any group – than within it.

I make an effort to write comments on articles about forestry or fire. I am not usually very original or profound. I can usually use the same things over and over. It may seem banal to me, but for most of the readers it is the first time they saw it.

Give up some control

This goes with the above about using and sharing platforms. If you want to influence others, you have to be prepared to be influenced by them. My way or the highway works only in rare instances and if you demand what you think is perfection; you may soon find that you have that perfection all to yourself, since everybody else has wandered away from you.

Be platform flexible

Again speaking of platform sharing, your message is important, not the medium it is delivered on. You have to be flexible enough to choose the appropriate delivery mechanisms and not fall in love with any one of them. They pass quickly. Just ask Jeeves.  

Try lots of things and know that most of what you try will fail, usually publicly, sometimes spectacularly

Revel in it. Embrace it. It is impossible to predict outcomes in the new media. Even if you had perfect knowledge of the current situation, it will change in unexpected and unknowable ways. The best strategy is a statistical one of spreading your bets and then responding to changes as they happen, rather than try to set out with certainty in advance. Those who try nothing, get nothing and it is small consolation that they are never wrong.

So, let me sum up before I move on. Technologies are new; human relations are old. Our “new” methods return to an earlier age when communication was engaged, individualized, personal, two-way and interactive. And the lessons of anthropology (people) trump technology (machines.)

How can we make this work?

Forget about mass marketing & advertising analogies. We are not selling something as simple as a can of soda (soda-pop, pop or Coke depending on your part of the country) and we do not have the resources to engage mass markets.

What I am talking about a mass networking proposition, where we build key relationships with opinion leaders and use leverage to allow/encourage others to reach out, who in turn reach out … We cannot reach THE common man (because he doesn’t exist) and we should be careful not to mistake A common man for THE common man.

There are thousands of books and experts who will point to the example of the obscure person who did something great. They are right; but it is easy to pick Bill Gates out of the crowd AFTER he has been wildly successful.  Then it is easy to explain why he succeeded. Of course, millions of others did similar things and did not become the richest man in the world.

They call this survivor bias. In many ways it is like a lottery. We can be sure that SOMEBODY will win the lottery, but we cannot tell who before the drawing. So, we have to play the odds and we cannot treat everybody who buys a lottery ticket like a potential millionaire.

Humans are social creatures who make decisions in contexts of their culture & relationships

We make a big mistake if we treat people as members of undifferentiated masses. Human societies are lumpy. There are relationships that matter more and some that matter less. And they are in a constant state of flux. People make most of their important decisions in social contexts & in consultation with people they trust. Later they might go to some media sources for confirmation or details. Probably the biggest decision we have ever made was buying a home. Did we just read some literature and make an offer? Or did we ask around and talk to people we trusted? How about our cars?  We like to explain our behavior rationally, but looking relationally will provide more reliable assessments.

Information is almost free, and a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention

We now must find or create social context for our message to get attention.  I always laugh (at least to myself) when I hear someone say that “we got the message out” or “We reached a million people”. I am going to start calling this the barking dog strategy, because like the dogs, we just shout “I’m here; I’m here; I’m here. It doesn’t matter what we say; it is what they hear that counts.  If our message does not say the right things, if it doesn’t fit into their cultural and socials contexts and if it is not delivered in an appropriate way, it doesn’t get through.

“Men do not think that they know a thing until they have grasped the ‘why’ of it.” – Aristotle 

Understand – Everything has rules and patterns

I mentioned Aristotle. Let’s go a bit farther east and think of Lao Tzu. He talked about the need to understand the “Tao”, the patterns and logic in all things. Understanding these things could make the most difficult tasks fluid and easy. There are usually easier and harder ways to do things. Sometimes we CREATE more resistance and make less progress by pushing too hard. We should try to understand before we try to persuade. If people have been doing things for a long time, there is a reason. Figure out what that is and persuasion becomes much easier. And always look for the links and relationships. People may not be aware of what drives their own behavior, but it is often linked to social acceptance, and a person’s outlook often changes more based on the perceived future than on the present reality. Aspirations often motivate more than current reality. Find common aspirations.

Let me digress with a fish story from my time in Iraq.  During the late unpleasantness, Coalition forces had to ban fishing on the Euphrates River to prevent insurgents from using the water as a highway. But fishermen didn’t return after the ban was lifted, even though the fish were plentiful and bigger given the no-fishing respite. We thought of helping them buy new boats, nets, sonar etc. But the reason that they weren’t fishing was much simpler – no ice. The ice factory had shut down and in this hot climate if we cannot put the fish on ice, we cannot move them very far or sell them. We helped the ice house back into operation and the fishing started again.

ENGAGE – influencing our community but also being part of it and willing to be influenced 

This story shows the importance of engagement. We also have to get out – physically – and meet people where they are.

Inform & Interpret – turn information into useful knowledge

Engaging is fun and essential, but if we are not doing what we set out to do if we don’t inform and persuade. Since information is almost free, what do I mean by inform? This means turning raw information into useful knowledge and narratives. Even simple facts must be put into contexts. What if we didn’t have any dresser drawers or hangers in our closet? What if we didn’t have any bookshelves or cabinets and all we stuff was just lying on the floor. It would be hard to find things and many things would not be useful.

Turning information into knowledge is like putting things in some order. This usually means framing and narratives.  People understand stories and until they have a story that makes sense, information just sits there, useless as the shirt we cannot find under the pile of dirty clothes. Analytical history, BTW, as opposed to antiquarianism or chronicles is depends almost entirely on framing. The historian must choose what to put in and what to leave out and that makes the story.

So, if we are talking about actual persuasion, it probably won’t help just to make information available. Providing information was a key to success in the past because accurate information was in very short supply. Today what matters is how that information is put together – the contexts, relationships and the narratives.

As persuaders we need to acknowledge what we know, what salesmen and marketers have long understood and what theories of behavioral economics are now explaining. We are not in the information business. Information and facts are part of our raw material, but our business involves persuasion that is less like a library and more like a negotiation paradigm and rational decision making is not enough to achieve success.

I mentioned framing, but I should say a little more. The frame is how we characterize information or events.  If we want to be pejorative, we can sometimes call it spin, but there is no way we can understand complex reality w/o some kind of frame. Most of our frames are unconscious, but that doesn’t mean they are not powerful or pervasive. Think of the ubiquitous sports frame. Describing something like American football, (i.e. centrally planned, stop and start with specialized plays and players) versus football other places (i.e. fluid, fast breaking with the players less specialized) makes a big difference to how it will be perceived. Or think of how we try to frame our presidents. We want our candidate to be in the frame with Lincoln and Washington, Warren G. Harding and Rutherford B Hayes, not so much.

Build a community & be part of a community

Figure out what we can contribute and do it. Remember people make decisions in the contexts of their relationships. Also make sure that we get something back.

The basis of almost all human relationships is reciprocity. All human societies believe in reciprocity. It has survival value. We want to be able to give to our fellow human and expect that he will do the same when we are in need. When that breaks down, so does civil society. It is probably a good idea to be SEEN to get something in return anyway, since if we don’t others will impute an ulterior motive anyway.

I know that this sounds crassly materialistic, but the reciprocity need not be material. We might help a person in the “pay it forward” mode, assuming that when he gets the opportunity he will help somebody else. The reciprocity might just be gratitude. But when a recipient is left w/o some way to reciprocate, a good person feels disrespected. At first, they are happy to get something for nothings, but they soon learn to despise their benefactor. And maybe they should, since his “generosity” is taking their human dignity.

A simple rule in persuasion is that it is often better to receive than to give. Let the other parties feel that they have discharged their social obligations, maybe even that THEY are the generous ones. We notice that the most popular individuals are rarely those who need or want nothing from others, even if they are very generous. And one of the most valuable gifts we can receive is advice and knowledge. Let others share their culture and experience.

Just a few more short points …

Inclusive & Exclusive 

Communities are inclusive for members and exclusive for others. We attract nobody if we appeal to everybody. We must earn membership in any community worth joining.

Personal – or at least personalized

Editors and marketers have tried for years to homogenize for the mass market. That’s how we got soft white Wonder bread and Budweiser beer. Niche markets – and social media is a series of niche markets – require personality.


Success is continuous learning – an iterative  process- not a plan – and a never-ending journey. As I wrote up top, we never get to the end. We must learn from our failures and our successes and move on. The best we can do is make our own ending worth of the start.

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Book Note: The Infidel & the Professor

 5.0 out of 5 stars A New Introduction to a Couple of Guys I Should Have Known Better

on January 14, 2018
David Hume and Adam Smith seem like a couple of decent guys. It would be interesting to talk with them, both for the profoundness of their ideas and for their easy-going personalities. Ben Franklin was part of their intellectual set, as was Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson, although Johnson was not fond of Hume. That was rare. Evidently almost everybody liked Hume, even if a majority disliked many of his iconoclastic ideas.

Hume was not an atheist. He called himself a skeptic, just not concerned with metaphysics, since he said that there is nothing in this world from which we can infer anything beyond. When faced with the argument for God that the world was made with such perfection, he pointed out the that given the nature of how things work on this earth, one would question the perfection of the workmanship. It is not hard to see why this made his ideas unpopular with the devout.

The book I just finished, “The Infidel and the Professor,” is chocked full of interesting observations and funny stories that illustrate the lives and friendship of Smith and Hume. Adam Smith today is the better known of the pair, but this was the opposite during their lifetimes. Their ideas overlap. Since, Hume was twelve years older than Smith, was an earlier established author and that they were clearly in regular contact, we might postulate that Smith copied from Hume. But we also find some ideas first in Smith. When we think about their intellectual society, however, we may conclude that many of the ideas were widely discussed and that maybe each refined his ideas in that sort of community of knowledge. You recognize similar ideas in Franklin and Burke. Is it really possible for any individual to originate an idea?

From our modern vantage point, it is hard for us to appreciate that what Hume & Smith were advocating was iconoclastic. Good to recall the general truth that all the great thinkers we respect today were breaking with the traditions and people around them. That is why we remember them. What Smith and Hume were saying was not intuitive to people back then.

Smith and Hume postulated that it was the capacity of people to create wealth was the true wealth of a country, not the gold and silver that governments could hoard. Beyond that, they said that it is good to have prosperous and rich neighbors and that everybody gets better off from exchange. This opposed common wisdom of the time, that held that people and individuals got rich by taking from others.

Another idea odd for the time is what we would today call the principle of emergence, that a balanced system (or economy) could emerge from the decisions of many people w/o formal coordination or planning from somebody above. This extended into metaphysical belief systems, hence Hume’s infidel problem, but it also impacted morality.

Both Hume and Smith though commerce could be a positive good. Again, this is something most of us accept today, but the idea was anathema for most of human history. Religion and philosophy tended to disparage and even condemn commerce. Certainly, the higher life involved more selfless pursuits, according to previous religion and philosophy (except maybe Epicurus). Hume said outright that the values of monks and religious asceticism, things like mortification of the flesh, were wasteful and negative. There was nothing intrinsically noble about poverty. You might have to endure it, but you should not impose it on yourself or others just to be good. (I am with Hume on this. I believe strongly that we should be willing to sacrifice and suffer to attain a goal we consider worthy, and comfort alone is not a high-level goal, but I just as strongly believe that suffering for the sake of suffering is pathological. I recall the story of one Simeon Stylites, whose claim to sainthood was that he went out into the desert and sat on top of a pillar for 37 years. While I respect his determination, it is virtue wasted and not to be admired.)

Hume was a skeptic about more than religion. He was also a skeptic about the power of reason. He wrote that we can use reason as a tool to achieve our values, but that our values are based on something other than our reason. This is a good formulation. There are limits to both. G.K. Chesterton, like Hume more famous in his own time than now, wrote “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason.”

An interesting note on Smith. He is famous for “Wealth of Nations,” and so thought of a father of capitalism. But a strictly hands-off system is not what he advocates. He wrote that a strong and efficient government was necessary for prosperity. Government needed to provide security, protect that rule of law, promulgate reasonable regulation and help provide for those who could not provide for themselves. He simply points out through argument and example that governments are simply unable to make detailed plans for the economy or society. Government creates conditions by which people themselves can make decisions for their own prosperity.

Another interesting point is that Smith’s more famous work, and the one he edited until his death, was “Theory of Moral Sentiments.” It is a little hard to read the book today because of changes in language and style in the recent centuries, but this is a real advice book on living a good life. It is reasonable and useful. I would recommend this book, maybe in a modernized and abridged form. I also recommend “The Infidel and the Professor.” It is worth the time.

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Years of Days – January 03

January 03

Still very cold.  Working on my tree farm presentation and the bigger related subject.


January 03, 2009

Public Diplomacy & New Technologies

Back story

I went to see the new James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.  It is not as good, IMO, as the old Bond movies because Bond has lost his edge, or more correctly, the rest of us have caught up.  In one scene, Bond calls back to his HQ for a name check.   After a couple seconds, the super spy commuter comes up with a picture of the miscreant.   Very impressive, but you or I could come up with the same result on Google Images in around 0.9 seconds.   Bond would have been better off just using his I-Phone himself.  This is the new world of communications.

Web 2.0/PD 2.0

Initial use of the web for public diplomacy and strategic communications involved online versions of familiar delivery methods, such as magazines, radio and television.  Despite vast differences among them, all these shared the paradigm of one-way communications, where a set message was delivered to a passive audience in a one speaker to many recipients model.  It ignored the web’s special capacity for interaction.  Web 2.0 refers to the way the web has changed the nature of communications, making it interactive, more fluid and less centrally organized. Last year, Internet passed newspapers as a source of news in the U.S.  For young people Internet is beginning to rival television. [1]

This new world can make many people in governments or powerful institutions uncomfortable, since it signals a diminution of their power over information and a dilution of their messages.

We tend to focus on the instant communication aspect of the Internet, but the sinews of its influence are its capacity to find, sort and distribute information.  Powerful search engines give individuals the power enjoyed only by world leaders few decades ago and before that time by nobody at all.  Governments have lost what monopolies they once enjoyed and are now sometimes not even the most prominent voices.  Controlling information is no longer possible.  On the other hand, there is a greater opportunity for engagement to harness the power of the nation and the wisdom of the crowds to produce better and more robust products.   There is no option of ignoring the development.  Internet users demand a degree of interactivity and accept a measure of ambiguity unpredicted a decade ago.   These trends will accelerate as the first generation of digital natives (i.e. kids who don’t remember a world w/o Internet) has reached adulthood.   This is the new world of communications.  Whether we are ready or not, the future has already arrived.

Interactivity and interrelations

The two concepts to keep in mind are interactivity and interrelatedness.   The first concept is more obvious but the second is more pervasive.   Internet users ostensibly love the possibility of interactivity, but most don’t use it to an extent commensurate with their stated preferences. On any blog, there are dozens, hundreds or thousands of “lurkers” for every active participant.  On the other hand, interrelatedness represents the fundamental power of the Internet and its search engines.  It is the interrelatedness – the unexpected relationships – that makes the Internet such a wonderful and terrible place to do public affairs.

Some say the web provides a venue for the best and the brightest to share ideas w/o the constraints of status or station; others contend it is a place where peculiar people congregate to accrete one dumb notion on top of another.  Both points of view are correct.  The medium of free and often anonymous exchange produces the best and the worst as it emphasizes people on the long tails of the normal distribution.

Mass customization

The ubiquity and interactive aspects of Web 2.0 offer public diplomacy the possibility of direct engagement with thousands of individuals on a global scale.  We can bypass the state run media and the various despotic gatekeepers that have long hounded the quest for truth & knowledge.  In the exchange, however, we get a world of constant change, requiring flexibility and creativity, where you have to earn attention again and again every day.  The interactivity means just what the word says.   When we are trying to influence others, we need to open the possibility of being influenced by them. In a free marketplace of ideas, this would be all to the good.  It would produce a synergy greater than the sum of the parts.  The caveat is that this marketplace of ideas is not as free and open as it would appear.

Our own presence in the mix is the first sign of a constrained freedom.  Although our opponents disagree, our activities are generally benign and broadly truthful.  The USG is constrained to tell the truth by its own rules as well as the continual monitoring by our own free media, interests groups and political leaders in opposition.  For the most part, we are probably too timid in the defense of our positions.   Not so our adversaries.  Most of them are heavy handed and incompetent peddlers of web influence, but there are so many out there that some get it right sometimes and others get it right a lot.  When it works for them, their campaign is based on plausible lies, ones that play to stereotypes and prejudice, and often based on caricatures and exaggerations of our own real and verifiable mistakes and missteps.  In a world where significant numbers of people doubt that there was ever a moon landing and where in communities where majorities don’t think Arabs were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, conspiracy theories go a long way.  And the U.S. is probably the single biggest victim of conspiracy theories.  In a world often driven by dispersed impersonal forces, people look for someone to blame.   The U.S. is always there for that purpose.

Countering conspiracy theories with facts and information is futile.   Most conspiracy theories have a built in defense against such quaint ideas as truth or fact.   They are, after all based on “hidden,” “denied,” “secret,” or “occult” information.  True believers in conspiracies derive significant personal status and feelings of self worth from the idea that they know things overlooked by or kept from the masses of people.  It is a true Gnosticism.  As they see it, any counter arguments are merely examples of clever attempts to discredit them.  We have to recognize that some people are incurable conspiracy theory believers.  Others are susceptible to the contagion, but can be cured, but through relationships, not information alone.  A trusted and credible source of the information is what makes the difference.  Web 2.0 provides the opportunity to create such relationships.

In a New World Where Nobody is Well-Loved

We also need to recognize that the constant vetting and finding of flaws, even when done honestly, will create a permanent state of dissatisfaction among large numbers of people.  This is what happens when campaigns go negative and it is just easier to go negative than to defend a positive position.  The U.S., as the most ubiquitous presence in the history of the world, will naturally come under the most scrutiny, fair and foul, but it is a general trend that affects everybody.  The good new in this is that it applies to our adversaries as well as to ourselves.  Al Qaeda’s popularity has also plummeted in recent years among Muslims, for example. [2]

Insiders & Outsiders

Internet 2.0 will strengthen “tribes” as people can go online to find others with whom they identify even across great geographical distances.  (Of course, the tribes I am not talking about are not kinship of linage, but kinship of ideas.)  This may lead to greater trust within groups, as they become more uniform and homogeneous, but also lead to a general decline in tolerance overall, since most people will be out-groups to any particular in groups.   Early hopes that Internet would weave the world together in a kind of cyber age of Aquarius have been dashed against the reality of self-selection and segregation.   In a mass information market, differing viewpoints must be tolerated, not so in the case of core groups of believers autoerotically communicating among themselves on the Internet. Where websites and blogs are most developed, disagreements have become sharper and more venomous.   However, the impersonal/personalization of web interactions allows people with very divergent views to coexist and performs mutually beneficial transactions that would be impossible in a face-to-face world.   General “approval ratings” have already become more transactional and unstable, making it even more important to discount what people tell opinion pollsters and watch what they do and get an idea of their true beliefs by their revealed preferences.

Public diplomacy and the marketing mix

The analogy of public diplomacy with marketing is far from perfect, but it provides some useful insights.  When marketing a product or service, you have to understand which communications techniques are appropriate.  Those useful for selling Coca-Cola are often not valuable for selling passenger jets or legal services.  The same goes for public diplomacy.   Our business is more analogous to selling high end legal services than consumer products.  This informs and constrains our choices.

Public diplomacy involves communicating complicated concepts to people who come from a variety of backgrounds and the U.S. operates in a truly global environment.  It involves long term relationship and trust building.   Messages are more problematic.  Some of our world audiences will react in sometimes violently different ways to the same subject.   Imagine the discussion of U.S. attitudes toward same sex marriage at venues in Amsterdam and Jeddah.  Aspects of the discussion popular in one venue would be odious in the other.  In this interconnected world, messages cannot be neatly targeted to a discrete audience.   Even more challenging is that the more extreme members of each audience will seize on the aspects they find most objectionable rather than look for areas of compatibility.   This has long been a problem, but web 2.0 exacerbates it, since one blogger in an audience of hundreds can characterize a discussion for thousands of his compatriots back home.

In other words, web 2.0 has as much or more capacity to puncture and disassemble public diplomacy messages as it does to deliver them.   The shorter the attention spans media, the more likely this is to be the case.   Twitter with its 140 character limit is a good example.   We have used Twitter successfully to send short messages and a give a “heads up” about bigger things, but it doesn’t easily lend itself to any proactive public affairs task beyond notices and reporting the equivalent of scores or stock averages.  One the other hand, 140 characters is plenty of space for a slogan or attack.

BTW – the last two sentences of the paragraph above had 327 characters counting spaces.   These two directly above are 140 characters – exactly the right size for a tweet. Good luck with deep explanations.

So what do we do?

We look beyond or through the technology to our purpose.  You cannot answer the how question until you have address they why question.  Communication and relationship building is our goal.  Rather than be beguiled or intimidated by technology, we simply need to keep our focus on the goal and use whatever technological tools are most appropriate.  But we do need to acknowledge that changing technologies have changed the game.

Common themes not unified messages

There is much talk in public affairs about having a unified message.  The new technologies, with all the links and leaks they entail in the information net, mean we can no longer have one unified centrally crafted message.  We can have themes and goals that are interpreted and alerted by the individuals on the ground and closest to the challenges.   We will, however, need to tolerate significant local variations on the themes and welcome the ambiguity of message delivery.

Delivering variations on the themes is much more labor intensive than cranking out a single message because rather than one voice speaking to millions (on the model of the national television program) we will have many voices speaking to thousands or maybe even to hundreds and not only varying the theme to suit particular audiences, but also responding to them and quickly responsive to changes in the environment.  It is important that the theme be consistent but the delivery is protean.  It requires more of a robust process than a comprehensive plan.

Set the Proper Goals for Each Situation

There are many degrees of distinction between active opposition and enthusiastic support.   Americans are particularly afflicted by the desire to be loved in the world, but all that is often required is compliance or even indifference.  Although outright opposition constrains our policy options, America’s image in the world has no discernible impact on the sale of U.S. goods or the acceptance of U.S. cultural products.  Much of the sound and fury of anti-American prejudice signifies nothing or not very much.  The fragmentation of media on the web means that those who dislike us will always have an outlet for their vitriol and they will probably be among those yelping the loudest.  The majority may not have a strong opinion on a particular issue.  They may voice support for our opponents, but take no steps to provide anything practical.

Military action, which by its very nature is coercive, will almost never be popular and any exercise of power, which inevitably means choosing among priorities, will annoy somebody.  Since you usually get less credit for the good things you do than blame for the bad, any use of power will probably create more perceived losers than winners.  (The world’s superpower is always on the hot seat.  President Clinton gets blamed for not sending troops to Rwanda; President Bush is excoriated for sending troops to Iraq.)  Lack of practical support for extremism and neutrality or even indifference toward our policies among the mass of a country’s people may be sufficient to accomplish our purposes.  Often neutralizing or discrediting opposition will be the most appropriate tact, and Internet is well suited to this task.  We should consider this on a case-by-case basis, rather than compromise practical goals by pursuing the chimera of seeking full throated outright approval.

All of the above

Using technology to communicate will be an all of the above proposition, with a cocktail of technologies usually more appropriate than reliance on any one.  We will never find the Holy Grail or silver bullet of communications technology and we will never again have anything comparable to the nationwide television network where everybody is watching at the same time.   The ability to reach the whole nation was a historical anomaly.   Throughout most of history and in the future, the communication environment was and will be fractured.  It is only because we all grew up in that unusually homogeneous media environment that we think of it as normal in any way.

The right tools

We cannot prescribe the particular technological tools for any public affairs task until we have assessed the task and the environment.   What we should be looking for is synergy among the tools.  For example, a live speaker is very compelling but not particularly memorable, while an internet page has the built-in memory (you can refer back to it) but is unlikely to be compelling.  Twitter can announce the availability of some piece of information or some event, but it cannot explain the nuances.   An event might be very informative, but nobody comes unless they can be told and reminded.   Obviously, a combination of technologies works best, changing them to adapt to circumstances.   BTW – technology is not only high tech or electronic.   A technology is merely a way of doing something.  A personal meeting is a kind of technology.   Sometime the thousands year old technology is the way to go.

We seek the right MIX of technologies, not the right ONE technology.  There is no silver bullet or Holy Grail of communications.  It is easy to be beguiled by the new or the latest big thing, but technology is not communication and the medium is not the message.  It is only the method.


  1. Internet Overtakes Newspapers as News Source, Pew Research (
    2.  Global Public Opinion in the Bush Years (2001-2008)    (

Other References

The Future of the Internet III, Pew Research (

Other information is based on personal interviews with those doing public diplomacy as well as extensive personal experience working with USG webpages and blogs.

Posted in Virginia forestry | Comments Off on Years of Days – January 03

Year of Days January 2

Another uneventful day.  Very cold, cold enough to discourage walking outside.

I spent much of the day working on my presentation for the tree farm leadership conference, but made little progress.  This was not a complete loss or many not a loss at all.  As I prepared, I followed lots of side paths with very interesting factors.

Chrissy and I went to see a movie at Tysons – “the Post” about the Washington Post publishing the Pentagon Papers.  Good movie.

January 02, 2011

The Worms Crawl In

This is something that just never occurred to me.

I was watching a gardening show today about worms. Gardeners usually like worms. They help the soil remain fertile and aerated. That is what I always thought. But when I looked it up, I found out that worms are an invasive species. All those worms (night crawlers and the like) I remember as a kid were introduced from Europe.

Earthworms are destructive to forest soils, according to what I found at a University of Minnesota associated webpage.  Worms were wiped out by glaciers during the last ice age, which retreated only around 10,000 years ago. Without human help, worm populations move very slowly. Northern ecosystems developed in a worm-free environment. When worms arrive, they change the ecology. Evidently the worms eat the organic material too fast, taking away the layers of humus that all for the reproduction of forest floor plants and trees like sugar maples. Worms are small, but there can be lots of them and they don’t stop.

I never knew this or noticed it. The maple forests around Milwaukee already had earthworms, so I thought that was natural.  It still seems pretty strange to me that earthworms could be a threat. I suppose that when you are talking about long-established ecological relations, almost anything new that comes in can be disruptive.

BTW – honeybees are also not native to North America and neither are a lot of the flowers we see in fields, along with most farm animals and most crops we eat. Actually, I suppose that I am an invasive species, so I am not sure I buy into the native is better idea as a general construct. I will have to find out more about it.

The picture up top is one I took way back in September 2003 near the Milwaukee Airport, it shows the northern hardwood secondary growth forest.  We made a trip across the U.S. in 2003.  I kept up a webpage, it was the predecessor of my blog.  The link is here.

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January 02, 2009

History up Close

Below is the personal story from one of the blog readers about his great grandfather who came from the city of Anah.    It is an interesting and tragic family history.  With his permission I am posting it here.  I will let professional historians sort out the connections and timelines.  I just think it is worth reading and have placed it as it is.

I am going to tell you the story about my great grandfather Isaak El Eini. As I mentioned El Eini means in Arabic from Anah. The picture I am attaching is not a good picture taken in the 1930s in Khartoum, Sudan. He is the elderly man in the back alone. He was thin, tall, dark. The lady in the front was his niece whose parents had moved from Anah to Khartoum around 1900.

He was born in the 1860s. He came from a Jewish family. Anah had been a part of the ancient Babylonian Empire. The Jews had been brought over from Judea by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586BC.

Jews, Christians and Moslems lived in the town in harmony with no problems. Each in their own neighborhoods. The family were in the Caravan business. They took care of the camels, merchandise etc. Anah was an important station on the Damascus to Baghdad caravan route (it took 33 days). The caravans comprising of as many as 1,200 camels carrying textiles from Britain, sugar, tobacco, drugs etc would stop in Anah for 3 days as it was here where they would cross the Euphrates river. From Baghdad there were caravans to Basra where merchandise would continue to India and Asia by ship.

After 1888 when the Suez Canal was opened for all shipping it was quicker to transport goods by ship. This devastated the family business. So Isaak left Anah and moved to Egypt, which was prospering from the construction of the Canal. In those days there was no Iraq. It was known as Mesopotamia and like Egypt was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

He moved to Aswan in southern Egypt and began trading with the tribes in the Sudan. In the late 1890s the British decided to take over the Sudan which was ruled by the Mahdi. Lord Kitchener headed the Anglo Egyptian Army. Isaak followed the army as a civilian trading with the Sudanese all the time. When they arrived in Omdurman (Khartoum) they put a siege on the city. However the siege was not working and the Mahdi was holding out.

Lord Kitchener chose Isaak to act as a spy, enter Omdurman  and to pretend he was a trader who had crossed the Red Sea from Arabia. He brought many gifts to the Mahdi. In return the Mahdi gave Isaak a young boy and girl as a gift to be raised as slaves. Isaak had no choice but to accept the gift.

While in Omdurman Isaak found out that the Mahdi was holding off the siege because some Egyptian Officers were giving / selling arms to him. He left the city and gave all the information to Lord Kitchener.

Kitchener won the battle and became a hero in Britain. As a reward he gave Isaak a lot of fertile land in Omdurman. Soon later he told all his brothers and sisters to leave Anah and come live in Omdurman / Khartoum. They lived there till 1967 and became Sudanese citizens. But in 1967 when Israel and the Arabs went to war, Sudan expelled all the Jews. The family then moved to Britain and Switzerland.

Now Isaak stopped working. He lived off the land holdings and every few years he would sell some acres to live on. He was a terrible husband. and playboy. His wife lived in Cairo all the time with his only daughter Massouda, my grandmother. He would travel to Cairo about once a year to see them. It was basically like being divorced.

In his 70s he had spent all his money. In the early 1940s  my father living in Cairo, heard a knock on the door and it was Isaak. He was sick and died soon afterwards.

As to the two children who were given as gifts by the Mahdi: one was a boy and the other a girl. Isaak’s wife and my grandmother raised them and sent them to school. At 16 the girl got pregnant. Because they wore long wide dresses my grandmother did not realise that she was pregnant. She tried to give birth to the baby and kill it. My grandmother rushed her to the hospital. The needle was infected and she died in the hospital; so did the baby.

The boy later got a job at a bank. His son became a very important official at the same bank.

Hope I did not bore you with such a long story.

Best wishes,

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Year of Days – January 1

January 01, 2018

Resolved to make notes every day plus find previous notes and post.

No matter how prosaic, every day.

This new years day I worked on my presentation for the Tree Farm Leadership Conference at end of the month.  the going is slow.  I am making slides for the 50 minute presentation.  I have too many things to write and cannot make it fit.

It was very cold today, the kind of day when the wind hurts.

Went to the gym today and ran on the machine for around 30 minutes or 500 calories, while watching “the Great Courses” on Turning Points in Middle Eastern History.

Had  Digiorno pizza for both lunch and supper, leftover the second time.

January 01, 2014

Stickin it to the Man

I have been complaining about how independent-minded people cannot get along in the big bureaucratic organizations as long as I have been working in big-bureaucratic organizations. It is getting to thirty years now and I have been getting along reasonable well in big-bureaucratic organizations. For an even longer time, I have been reading books about independent-minded reformers bucking the system to change the paradigms and make meaningful changes.

I always identified with the plucky outsiders. Most of us do. It is the American way. You can easily see it in the plots of so many movies and books. A group of misfits is picked on and oppressed by the powerful and/or popular people. They continue to do things their way and by the end of the movie are vindicated. As I said, most of us identify with the underdogs and misfits.

It can’t be right. There are more than 300 million Americans and ALL of us are rebels? If all of us are a little different and a little rebellious, who are we rebelling against? And if the group of misfits comes out on top, don’t they become the in-group. Maybe it is the nerds and the theater kids oppressing the jocks.

I have been reading another of those business-management-behavior books that gives another set of examples about the rebels working on their own turning the tables on the established and powerful. But, as I wrote, I have been reading these sorts of books for a long time. The names are changed and the exact circumstances are different, but the stories are the same. My study of old books tells me that this story has been going on for as long as people could write. Each of the new renditions makes it seem like it is a new discovery, but maybe this is just the way it is, has been and ever will be.

In my own lifetime, I have seen many of “rebels” turn into the establishment that needs to be overturned by new rebels. These erstwhile rebels in general did not “sell out.” They simply solved the problems presented them. Yesterday’s solutions are often today’s problem, which implies that today’s solutions will be tomorrow’s problems. This seems depressing at first glance and it could be, but I don’t think it is. It is simply a matter of growth and change.

Many of the problems of my youth have indeed been solved and the world is generally a much better place than it was back in 1973. Our generation actually did pretty well. I have reasonable confidence that it will be a better place in 2053 than it is today, i.e. the kids will be all right too. But people will still complain, because people complain. We can always imagine better.

I have been complaining about how hard it is for independent-minded folks like me to make it in the organization. People like me like to “stick it to the man.” But in the course of all my complaining, suffering and strife, I realize now that I have become the man, or at least one of them. People see me like I saw my bosses of the past. I now understand that my old bosses too were surprised by their own apotheosis or demonization, depending on who was doing the taking and when. These successful folks were – in their own minds – the plucky outsiders who had to push open doors and make the system change. Some were right.

It is a little deflating but nevertheless comforting to realize that we – we plucky outsiders – we are the system, maybe too much to say bricks in the wall but not too much to say links in a chain. It is a great strength of our American system that we can easily absorb good people and ideas from outside the current establishment. We actually live in a state of constant revolution, but w/o the nasty bits associated with those things that happened in France or Russia.

It doesn’t work in spite of us but because of us. We “rebels” sometimes don’t admit it or even see it. The system works with us and we work with it.  The energy of our discontent is part of its lifeblood. We never get all we think possible because we can envision better than anyone can achieve and it is a moving target. As soon as we get to a place we thought impossible, we start thinking it is normal, deserved and maybe not enough.

Well, looking around on this first day of 2014, I see that things are pretty good. Can I envision better? Of course I can. Is it better than I envisioned by in 1974? Hell yeah. We solved the energy crisis, brought down world communism, reduced absolute poverty by 80%, cut cancer deaths, greatly improved water and air quality, brought back species such as wolves & eagles; the population bomb fizzled; Lake Erie turned out not to be dead and we even got rid of disco & leisure suits. Those were things I worried about back then, I thought there were no good solutions; fortunately, I was wrong.

And still can stick it to the man. Take a look at this clip.


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January 01, 2012

How Violence Has Declined & Why we Didn’t Notice

Stephen Pinker is my favorite living philosopher of society.  Some would correct me and say that he is a scientist and not a philosopher, but the two can overlap extensively.  With all due respect to the ancient philosophers that I read and loved, many of the questions that perturbed them are now just “simple” matters of science.  For example, philosophers argued back and forth for years as to whether humans were “blank slates” influenced only by their environments or whether they were determined by physical or genetic factors. Recent advances in science have made this argument mute.

People are born pre-programed.  A variety of talents, abilities, habits are inherited to some extent.  On the other hand, within these constraints human behavior and preferences are highly mutable.  (Science proved what any perceptive parent of more than one child already knew.)  I take this to mean that you can have a lot of freedom to change things if you recognize and work with nature, its gifts and constraints.

That is what I liked about Steven Pinker’s book the Blank Slate when I read it about ten years ago.  At first you might feel a little discouraged.   Pinker points out that human propensity to violence, intolerance & sloth were bred into us during evolution.  Humans of the stone age who didn’t react quickly and violently to threats didn’t usually live long enough to become our ancestors.   The good news is that institutions of civilization and social constraints can (and have) made us behave in ways that are – well – more civilized and socially acceptable.
I just started reading Pinker’s recent book, the Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.  I suppose that good intellectual rigor would dictate that I actually finish the book before commenting on the ideas, but I have read several reviews and I just finished reading an interview with the author in Veja that got me thinking about this.  There is a good recent interview here.  The best quick background is Pinker’s TED talk.  (BTW – TED lecture are really interesting in general.)

Pinker studied statistics on violent deaths. Of course, there are no statistics on Stone Age people in the actual Stone Age, but it is possible to study more modern Stone Age people. It turns out that murder rates among primitive people about which we have records are astronomical. It is a myth that people were good and later corrupted by civilization. Civilization civilizes, and it is better than the alternative “natural man.”

Historical records are spotty at first, but it is clear that life was much more dangerous and violent in any ancient or medieval period we study. Death was a penalty for all sorts of minor crimes. And was often inflicted in the cruelest way possible. Torture was common. Entertainments were cruel and bloody. But things improved, at least in the west.

Despite the great wars and murder on an industrial scale, the 20th Century has been the least violent in history.  Of course, more total numbers of people have been killed, but that is because there are more total people.  The proportions are way down.

Most people can vouch for this, if they think about it for even a short time. It is only in recent times that most of the population could expect to live a long-life w/o ever being the victim of the deadly violence that was common to all humankind in the past.

Pinker has to take a lot of crap for pointing out the truth.  One reason is simply because most people like to think they live in the most challenging times.  Beyond that, we have much better reporting.  If a couple people are killed in nasty ways anywhere in the country and increasingly the world, we get graphic and memorable details on the news.

A counterintuitive reason might be that things are actually improving so quickly that it makes the remaining problems seem that much worse.  We repent much more sorrowfully the fewer acts of terrible violence because they seem more personal.   “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic,” is as quote attributed to Stalin, who understood how to kill individuals and millions. It is nasty, but perhaps accurate. We get inured to lots of violence and more afraid of a little.

Pinker also has to face what we might call the miserly industry.  Politicians selling programs and NGOs seeking donations need to paint the in the direst colors.   Pinker is a brave man to take this on.

Of course, why violence has declines is important. What goes down in human behavior could go back up.  Pinker does not think the explanation is that humans have improved, or human nature has changed. He is too much a scientist to think these things.  He does not try to make a comprehensive explanation, but he mentions some possibilities.  The first is the rise of stable states.  He doesn’t use the word strong, but prefers competent in the sense of keeping order and satisfying the basic needs of its people. Competent states must be strong, but not all strong states are competent. Nazis & communists had strong states.

Another explanation is free trade.  In one of the interviews, Pinker quoted that “we can’t bomb the Japanese because they make my minivan.”  Free trade goes with communications. The more we see people are being like us, the less likely we can treat them as sub-human.

We may be less violent because there is less incentive. Hunter-gatherers are always ready for violence. They sometimes commit violence because they fear violence from others and sometimes just to rip off their neighbors, which is one reason everybody fears violence from others.   War used to be profitable, at least for the winners.  Not so much anymore.  Finally, there is a prosaic reason of habit. Many of us have lost the habit of using violent solutions.

I don’t think violence or war will ever go away, but we have seen less of it.  I have never been a victim of serious violence. I felt it personally when Alex was a hate crime victim. This is the kind of senseless thing you cannot purge. His attackers didn’t know him or try to rob him. They merely acted out of the dark demons of human nature. I saw war in Iraq and like many observers, I was stuck by the banality of violence.  I saw violence drop not because of persuasion but mostly because the Marines and our Iraqi allies established predictable order.

Violence and disorder always lurks under our veneer of civilization. The threat never is gone. We have to work all the time to channel the primitive passions and animal desires.  I say “channel” not suppress. These impulses are sources of our energy and creativity.  The uncivilized human is not evil or sinful, as was widely thought in some religious circles, but neither is there any such thing as a noble savage.  Both these notions have caused great misery, as have the ideas that human behavior is determined by genetics or that humans are blank slates on to which society can stamp any design.

Life provides us with a never-ending series of constrained choices. It is certainly not true that anything is possible, but making good choices can expand our contentment as well as our ability to make more good choices. Some human problems are intractable, and some “problems” are not really problems in the sense that they cannot be solved. If we ask the wrong questions, we will come up with the wrong answers. We will never achieve a society where everybody is equal because people are not equal.  We will never achieve a society w/o violence because people have propensity to selfishness which sometimes leads to violence.

But if we recognize constraints, we can achieve better results. “Going back” to a more primitive society is not an option. It would add to misery. Life was nasty, brutish and short in earlier periods.  Going “forward” to a utopia is also not possible.  Life is actually pretty good for most people in our Western market democracies and it is getting better for those in the developing world. Maybe we will just have to manage with what we have.

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January 01, 2011

Bean Soup

My father subsisted on pea soup and bean soup, more or less, for the last twenty years of his life, those things plus some Polish sausage and almost ripe tomatoes. Making them is easy and cheap. The biggest challenge is remembering to soak the beans/peas overnight. You can use leftover ham as a base, or the parts of the ham that you didn’t want to eat because they were too fat or too hard to pick off the bone. You can see why this is such a wonderful peasant food.  It stays good for a long time. In fact, it improves with age.  Nothing is wasted.  You can also toss in whatever vegetables were laying around.  It all turns into a kind of thick gruel that tastes pretty good if you put in a little pepper and salt.

I don’t make these soups as much as I did when I was in college. Back in college pea soup and bean soup were among the foods that had the three attributes I craved: they were cheap, reasonably nutritious and I could make them. That is probably why my father ate them all the time too.  But my kids don’t like either, so they cannot form the basis of a family meal.  As I recall, I didn’t like them either when I was a kid. I learned to like them when I was in college. No doubt under my father’s influence, I made it from scratch, the less expensive and better way, rather than buying the pre-made stuff in cans.

You can get pea soup at some nice restaurants, but it is kind of a specialty not common most places.

We had ham for supper and we have ham bone left over, so today I made bean soup.  In a couple of days, I will make some pea soup with what still will be left of the ham.  This week, we will dine like the old man taught me.

Oh yeah, he used to make cabbage soup too. I haven’t made that for a long time. No matter how much of this kind of food you try to eat, you really cannot get fat on it.  These kinds of food fill you up before they can fill you out – the original diet food.

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January 01, 2009

Unity & Sweet Liberty

We will never again be as united as we were in 1965.   It was a time of an unusual confluence of factors.   The older generations had the unifying experiences of the Great Depression, New Deal and World War II.   Think of what those things did.  Millions of young men and women came together in a common cause such as the CCC in the 1930s and the military in the 1940s.   Never before and never since have so many people shared such intimate similar life-changing experiences.

They and the younger generation were further tied together (homogenized) by the miracle of television.    The limited choice among TV channels ensured that large percentages of the population watched the same things at the same times.   (Not many baby boomers know words to the “Star Spangled Banner” but most can sing the theme song to “Gilligan’s Island.”)  America had also had successfully digested the waves of immigrations that hit our shores in the early 20th Century.  Immigration restrictions and the Great Depression had limited new immigration and so America has a smaller percentage of immigrants among its population than at any other time in its history.  Other “unity” things were also strong.  Church attendance was very high.  Most adult males had connections to the VFW.   Membership in industrial and trade unions has never been higher.  It seemed a golden age for the “ordinary guy.”

American dominance of the world was unique.  We bounced out of the Depression after WWII at a time when most of the other world economies were in ruins.  At some points, the U.S. produced around half of ALL the world’s production.  Nothing like like that had ever been possible before and is unlikely to ever happen again anywhere.  It resulted from the perfect storm of industrialization, depression and war.  Communist domination of large parts of the world ensured that many places remained uncompetitive and backward for longer than necessary.   Speaking of communism, we cannot forget the Cold War.   The threat of nuclear annihilation focused the minds of those generations and facing a benighted, yet dangerous enemy together leads to shared identify.

When we look back at the two decades after WWII, we sometimes see stifling conformity and we unavoidably cast our glance forward to the divisive and challenging times to come.   But we still look l back to the lost feelings of comfort and community and imagine how we could recreate it along with today’s diversity and options for individual expression.  This is an impossible dream.

Above is Union Station in Washington DC.  Such self-conscious permanence in public building is less common now.

First of all, the conditions that created the post-war unity were unique.   They cannot be recreated and nobody would advocate going through the suffering of depression, war and totalitarian threats to try to foster the preconditions.   Periods of growth following challenging ordeals are often pleasant, but you might not want to throw yourself into a pool of ice water just to feel the pleasure of warming up again.

But most important is that we don’t want it.   Unity and diversity are both good things, but they are in tension.   As in those economics curves, there is a point where you can maximize both, but you do have to trade them off against each other.   We have chosen less unity than we used to want back in 1965.   This has implications.

More choice creates more innovation and economic growth.   But making reasonable predictions about the future becomes harder.   It also complicates provision of insurance & welfare benefits, as diversity lessens trust.   In a homogenous community, people understand each other.   Homogeneous communities are also usually relatively small, so people can monitor and balance abuses.  They are reasonably certain that their social outlays are, if not well spent, at least decently targeted.  It is no coincidence that the most successful welfare states are/were in homogeneous Scandinavian countries and that they have begun to breakdown in the face of globalization and immigration of new and different people.

Talking about a “caring” (i.e. one that takes care of you as an individual) government in a place as big and diverse as the U.S. is an oxymoron.    We gave that possibility up long ago and we should stop pretending that is what we want.  Our choices have made that impossible.   What we have demonstrated we want through the choices we have made is a government that ensures reasonable justice and the rule of law, provides for the common defense and provides options.     If you want to put this into more beautiful language you might say, “… in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity …”   it is astonishing how long that formula has remained viable.

So in this new year when it looks like we will be asking a lot from our government, we should pause to remember that we should not ask too much, and it is not only because we should ask not what our country can do for us, but ask what we can do for our country.   Let’s not grab for that remembered unity that we never can recreate or ask for guarantees of prosperity that nobody can provide.  If you give government the power to grant all your wishes, you also give it the power to take them away. It is tempting to trade liberty for security, but w/o liberty sustained security is impossible.

Happy 2009!

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Whiskey & Beer for Christmas

It is hard to buy Christmas presents for me. I know that I have everything I want that the kids could reasonably give me. So it is nice to get “consumables”. I do enjoy trying different sorts of whiskey and beer. I really cannot tell the difference in detail, but it is fun to try.

The picture shows what the kids bought for Christmas. I have begun to work through it.

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Walk to the Brazilian Embassy

Went to the Brazilian Embassy for a photo exhibit “Brasília 1957: a 20th Century Saga.” Brasília was not my favorite place, but it kind of grows on you. It is a nice pleasant place to live and building it was a heroic achievement. It pulled population and the development from the coasts and into the middle. Anyway, I enjoyed the exhibit and a film that went with it.

My photos are from the walk to the embassy from the Metro. It is around a half hour walk from Foggy Bottom and a generally nice way to go. First picture is Taras Shevchenko, a 19th Century poet and a father of Ukrainian literature. I am sure my old colleague Tania Chomiak-Salvi knows about him. Next is Phil Sheridan, famous for his action in the Civil War and later on the plains. Third is Ataturk and the last photo is from the exhibit.

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Researchers use local species to expand market for cross-laminated timber


Wood is the sustainable solution

We need to construct billions of new houses, offices and other structures in the next decades. We can to this at high environmental cost with plastics, concrete & steel. Or we can build sustainably with wood, using exciting new wood technologies.


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Places I would like to go

Sky Islands – In southeastern Arizona, a unique geology has created a ‘sky island’ ecosystem – meaning you’ll find deer, bears and mountain lions in the arid, dry desert.



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Forests Forever

I was talking to a couple people about building with wood. They acknowledged wood’s advantages, but asked if we would run out of wood. I told the unequivocally that we will NOT run out of timber in America. The United States is the world’s biggest wood producer, yet we have more wood growing today than in any other time in more than a century.  I am not sure they believed me. I can mention statistics, but my certainty comes from my own observations. And I thought that I might be more persuasive if I shared that experience.  Fortunately, I have photos. All the pictures are those I took of my own land, so I am confident in their veracity.

Above is a clearcut a few months after the loggers are gone. It looks very desolate, doesn’t it? Below is a few months later. Nature is reslient.

Let’s start with cutover land, i.e. land right after a clear cut. A clear cut must be done if you want to grow sun-loving trees, like pines. Since we grow pines, we do clear cut. If we were growing maples, we would cut selectively. If we were growing oaks, we would clear in patches.  It all depends on the type of ecology you are working with. When I learned ecology in the 1970s, clear cuts were considered terrible things. They talked about climax forests that were supposed to be normal working toward this one goal. We have since learned that there is no one goal and we understand that MOST forest types are disturbance dependent.  We need new forests, middle aged ones and old growth forests.  That implies disturbance. The top photo I took on my land exactly one year after it was clear cut. You cannot see them, but there are 21,000 little trees planted there. There will be a young forest in a few years. In the meantime, this acreage provides wonderful habitat for bobwhite quail & deer. And I think it is beautiful.

Within a few years, you can see the little trees popping up through the brush. The picture above shows one of my plantations of longleaf pine. They are four-years old, which means that this is a clear cut after five years. They soon will be be entering a stage of very rapid growth. On a side note, longleaf pine requires – REQUIRES – fire. Fire can be very destructive, but it is also part of the ecology in many systems. It is a mistake to exclude fire in many places. You can see a photo below of our burning. Don’t worry. It’s all good. I started the fire and I would not do it if I though it would destroy those trees I love. The longleaf ecology is the most diverse in North America because of the under story and the variety of plants on the ground, all of it enabled by regular fire.

In about fifteen years, loblolly pine in southern Virginia will be ready to thin.  We MUST thin the trees to allow proper growth and avoid pests. It is like thinning flowers in a garden. If they are too close together, none of them grow right.  The photo above shows fifteen-year-old pines thinned a couple weeks before. We removed 2/3 of the of the trees, which became pulp to make cardboard. Follow this link to see where they went. Below is what they look liked like five years later. There are fewer much healthier trees and more total growing wood than there would have been had we not thinned. These trees are twenty-years-old. We will soon thin them a second time, removing about half the total number of trees. Five years after that, there will be as much total standing timber, maybe a little more, since the thinning will allow the trees to grow that much faster and stronger. Healthy forest require thinning.

Below here are loblolly pines thirty-years-old. You notice that they are bigger than the twenty-year-old trees, but not that much.  Trees continue to grow their entire lives, but they start to grow a lot more slowly after they are mature.  In the case of loblolly pine, the slow a lot after they are thirty and it is almost time to harvest and start over.

One bonus section.  One of the criticism of forestry is that we plant mono-culture, i.e. only one sort of tree. This is potentially a problem. We plant a lot of loblolly pine in the South, but we also are planting other sorts of trees.  I am restoring longleaf pine on my farms, for example. We also have significant diversity in areas around the streams and wetlands. We protect water by not cutting near streams and lakes. This means that there are a lot of old, mixed forests.  Besides protecting water, these zones provide corridors and shelter for wildlife. And they are just beautiful and peaceful places. Below are pictures of our stream management zones. You can see that these are open, mature forests.

And finally, forest owners are usually forest lovers.  This is a picture of what I call “Old Virginia” since it features the mix of oak, shortleaf pine and others that made up a typical mixed forest of the past.  This will not be harvested. We just enjoy them.

Anyway, will we have enough timber in the future? Yes we will.

Wood is 100% renewable resource. We know how to grow timber sustainably in the U.S. and we are doing it. Wood is the most environmentally benign building material throughout its full life cycle. We should build more with wood.

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