Yosemite – Grandeur Even on Soggy Days

Yosemite National Park  – urban release

A few days in and around Yosemite National Park can do wonders for adjusting an urban warrior’s attitude. In this, I speak from experience. Although the park is crowded in prime season, with noise and traffic by the roadways and main paths, the sights more than compensate for this. And, one can reap further benefits by going out early in the morning or by finding less well-travelled paths. There are still places where one can find real peace and temporary release from the challenges of city life. It is restorative.

Drought, what drought? Birds, what birds!

Although drought has stressed the park — as can be seen from the dead pines and other sad trees that dot some slopes — the area still manages to host an abundance of nature. We set out on a guided bird walk led by Michael Ross (Yosemite Conservancy) and never left the paved roads and pathways. Yet, stopping every few meters to listen and observe, we spotted birds all around. In addition to some familiar peri-urban avians like ravens and Steller’s jays, we found forest birds like acorn woodpeckers and western wood-pewees and less familiar flyers like Bullock’s Oriole, yellow-rumped warblers, and northern rough-winged swallows. Standing there quietly on the edge of a meadow or woods, nature goes on about its business all around you. It draws you in.

Yosemite Valley - looking eastward as the rain clouds rolled in

Yosemite Valley – looking eastward as the rain clouds rolled in

Despite the drought, the weather was cool, rainy and at times downright soggy. The rain offered some advantages to those with Gore-Tex lined shoes and a willingness to explore. First of all, it transformed views around the valley into scenes reminiscent of Chinese scrolls, with lush greenery mixed with granite mountains and low clouds. Second, it gave the many waterfalls along the valley walls a turbo-boost, helping them to live up to their reputation. Third, it helped to reduce the flow of tourists along the pathways to the favourite sights. These benefits far exceeded the disadvantage of getting a little wet along the way.

Glacier Point in a Cloud

Glacier Point in a Cloud


An evolving park

On the way to Vernal Falls

In our wanderings over the course of a few days, I was a bit haunted by reflections from a piece that William Least Heat-Moon wrote for National Geographic Magazine called “Yosemite – Grace Under Pressure” (January 2005). He described the fate of the original inhabitants of the valley, most of whom were driven out or marginalised by insurgent Euro-Americans, and the damage to the environment in the early quest by the new arrivals to exploit the natural riches. He also pointed to reasons for optimism in that the park has managed to preserve the transcendent “grand beyondness” of the valley and brought people closer to nature.

Ken Burns reinforces this view in his film Yosemite – A Gathering of Spirit (2014), which highlights the efforts to protect the valley and surrounding region. Shown regularly at the visitor’s center, the film is uplifting and a fine way to dry out on a rainy afternoon. At the park museum next door, there are efforts at educating the visitor to the Native American history. An interesting model village and various exhibits highlight their culture and traditions. My favourite part of this was a demonstration by a Native American artist on the craft of basket making, taking redbud twigs and transforming them into practical works of art.

Beyond the valley

Yosemite Park is huge and one can only manage to cover selected highlights over a short visit. Beyond Yosemite Valley, there are sights such as the wonderful giant sequoias at Mariposa Grove (closed from June 2015 for two years of renewal) or open expanses at Tuolumne Meadows (which we saved for our next visit). There are big rewards in getting away from the main path and onto some of the side trails. Taking a little extra time, one can find calm and better observe the natural world all around. Walking the trails, thick with organic material that absorbs footfalls, is good for the soul. Thankfully, it is still here to be found and very worthy of our efforts to preserve it.

From our room at a B&B in Fish Camp, CA

My take on the view from our room at a B&B in Fish Camp, CA

Photos and sketch by Doug, (c) 2015

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Down House – A visit to Darwin’s Home

A visit to Darwin’s Home

Seeking to escape London, Charles and Emma Darwin moved their family to a country house outside the village of Downe in 1842. With similar — though temporary — intent, we also sought to escape the city for a day on Saturday. And, so, we hired a Zipcar and headed out in search of the Darwin’s home. We arrived shortly after opening time and we were glad we did. It is school holidays this week and the home was soon inundated with families on outings to teach their kids about nature and evolution. Judging by the ruckus emanating from the crowd, I had the feeling that some of the parents may have also been pondering whether to apply natural selection. Nonetheless, we were impressed to see so many young kids on scientific outings with their folks.

The voyage

Charles Darwin spent the last 40 years of his life at Down House. It is perhaps not very surprising that he stayed put for such a span of time. Darwin had previously spent nearly five years, 1831-1836, circumnavigating the globe on board the Beagle as part of a scientific mission. Nicknamed “the philosopher” by the crew, he served as the ship’s naturalist. While the trip provided him with the raw material for his seminal work on evolution, the sea did not sit well with his physiology. As Darwin wrote in a letter towards the end of the voyage, “I hate every wave of the ocean, with a fervor, which you, who have only seen the green waters of the shore, can never understand. […] I will take good care no one shall ever persuade me again to volunteer […].

Voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836, © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons.

Voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836,
© Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons.

We set out on our own voyage of exploration in search of Down House. Though a mere 20 miles from our home in Greenwich, getting there proved to be an adventure of its own. This was my first outing with a right-hand drive stick shift vehicle and the route we took involved travelling across a big swath of Kent on narrow English one-lane country roads, winding through a hilly, soggy landscape. The rural road network in the UK is surprising in its limitations. Well used by a fairly dense, automobile-equipped population, the roads twist along ancient paths with only an occasional bit widened for two cars to barely pass. In places, it seems as if the roads haven’t changed much since the days of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. Travelling on the high sea seems rather attractive in comparison!

Down House

Down House is indeed set in a beautiful location with acreage and a feeling of natural space around. One approaches the home through the orchard which is planted with varieties dating from Darwin’s time (some referenced in his notes and correspondence). Lenten roses were in bloom along the walkways and snow drops were blooming in a bed around back.

English Heritage has done a wonderful job maintaining and presenting the home, with many of Darwin’s own furnishings and other objects from the same period. Darwin’s study features his original desk chair and research materials. It is a wonder to reflect upon the working conditions of the mid-1800s and the discipline required to push forward a new scientific view. Darwin was no upstart and he was apparently very aware of the upheaval his work might cause. Consequently, he developed his research in a very careful and painstaking manner.

Darwin on evolution:
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
— Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859


The collection on display at the house includes a diverse array of items ranging from Darwin’s black beaver top hat and his backgammon set, to items related to his studies. Things that particularly caught my attention included his 750 page diary from the Beagle voyage, as well a number of satellite journals; a page from the hand-written manuscript for On the Origin of Species; a printed volume from ornithologist John Gould, who worked on specimens provided by Darwin; and three different Galapagos finches like those studied by Darwin, placed side-by-side to highlight the evolution of their beaks, which adapted to various food sources.

 My favourite item, however, was a copy of Das Kapital, a gift from the author to Darwin inscribed “from his sincere admirer, Karl Marx, 16 June 1873.” Darwin later wrote to thank Marx saying “Though our studies have been so different I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of knowledge, and that this in the long run is sure [to] add to the happiness of mankind.” While most economists do indeed feel that Marx was an insightful analyst, as to Darwin’s point about Marx adding to mankind’s happiness, I do fear subsequent events may have demonstrated him to be a bit off track.

The way back home

On our way back to London, we stopped in Down village centre for lunch at the George and Dragon pub. There we enjoyed some fine English fare including a chicken and wild mushroom pie, chips (fries), and peas with gravy, washed down by a fine half-pint of Harvey’s Sussex bitter. The pub is a convivial place, providing a refuge for muddy hikers and soggy dogs, while offering a nice fireplace on a cold day.

Outside, it had begun to sleet. As we wandered back to the car, I stopped in front of the village church. There on the side of the bell tower is a sundial dedicated to Charles Darwin. This seemed like a rather fine place for a memorial to Darwin, highlighting that science and religion need not be in opposition. With that in mind, we set off to test the boundaries of physics and faith as we advanced down the narrow country roads back to London, praying that we would not meet someone with an opposing view… head-on.

=> To view the full blog post with pictures and maps, click here: https://www.q4tk.com/2015/02/22/a-visit-to-darwins-home/

=> Picture gallery: To scroll up or down, use the arrows on the bottom right of the gallery.

Charles Darwin's Home - Down House, Kent, United Kingdom

[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_a-page-from-the-manuscript-for-origin-of-the-species.jpg]100A page from the manuscript for On the Origin of Species
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_darwins-study.jpg]160Darwin's Study
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_darwins-weed-garden.jpg]80Darwin's Flower Beds
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_das-kapital.jpg]200From Marx to Darwin, A signed copy of Das Kapital
"From his sincere admirer, Karl Marx, 16 June 1873"
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_down-house.jpg]110Down House, where Darwin lived for 40 years from 1842
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_view-over-darwins-front-wall.jpg]90Looking over Darwin's front wall...
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_church-in-downe.jpg]50The village church in Downe, with sundial memorial for Darwin.
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_hearty-pub-grub.jpg]50A hearty meal at George & Dragon, Downe
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_john-goulds-ornithology-from-zoology-of-the-beagle.jpg]50A page from John Gould's ornithology in Zoology of the Beagle
=> From London to Down House

Rochester Cathedral and The Dongola Expedition

Sunday morning and a plaque in Rochester Cathedral

Rochester Cathedral is rich in history, architecture and ornamentation. Its nave is a marvellous space. But the thing that caught my eye on a recent Sunday morning was the Dongola Expedition of 1896. Well, not the Expedition itself, but rather a memorial plaque along the cathedral’s aisle, just off of the transept. The plaque was short on details, but as it commemorated two lost lives, I took it that the expedition hadn’t gone well. Little did I know just how much blood was involved!


On a recent cold Sunday morning, we grabbed a Zipcar and headed out to do a little exploring of our new home, the United Kingdom. Our target was Rochester, England, a town on the River Medway about 45km East and a bit South of London.

Rochester is a picturesque place with a long, historic, high street of interesting eateries and shops. Charles Dickens knew it well and set part of Great Expectations there. Founded by Romans, there is still a large castle that includes a Norman keep. The castle was besieged by King John in 1215 AD as a reprisal after rebellious barons had forced him to sign the rights-giving Magna Carta. Rochester cathedral is the second oldest in England, with the original structure consecrated in 604 AD during the time of Saxon rule. The Normans rebuilt the structure starting in 1077 AD, yielding the edifice that is still in use. As we wandered through the cathedral, I noted the memorial plaque and it haunted me. This set me to wondering about the story behind it.

Dongala Expedition Plaque   The text of the memorial plaque

“In memory of R Polwhele & E H S Cator Lieutenants Royal Engineers who died on service in the Sudan 1896-7.

Erected by their Relations and by those Brother Officers who served with them on the Dongola Expedition 1896.”

The Story

During the second half of the 19th century, the British became increasingly engaged in Egypt. Among other interests, they sought to protect the link with India via the Suez Canal (which had opened in 1869) and to ensure timely repayment of Egyptian debts. With some British participation, Egypt maintained control of Sudan. This arrangement became  increasingly costly after 1870 due to an Islamist rebellion (the Mahdi Revolt). As this gathered steam, the British drew back their presence and insisted that Egypt do the same.

To facilitate the withdrawal, the British sent Major General Charles George Gordon, who arrived in Khartoum February 1884. Gordon was a seasoned veteran in Sudan, having served previously as Governor-General of Sudan, a post he held on behalf of the Egyptian government and with British support. In that earlier role, he had put down rebellions, led peace missions, developed some aspects of the economy, and used his power to suppress the practice of slavery in Sudan.

Upon his return to Khartoum, Gordon evacuated civilians, wounded soldiers and others, but also feared that, left unchallenged, the Mahdi forces would advance to Egypt. So, he defied the wishes of the British authorities and organised a defence for Khartoum drawing on Egyptian, Sudanese and British forces. Soon, the Mahdi forces laid siege to the city.

Back home, popular support for Gordon prompted the government to change course. General Garnet Wolseley took command of the appropriately-named Nile Expedition, leading an army of 5,400 men with the objective of saving the situation in Khartoum. Wolseley sent 2,400 troops by camel and the rest travelled up the Nile with the support of roughly 400 boatmen specially recruited from Canada for that purpose.

Alas, conditions deteriorated for the defenders of Khartoum and the city fell to the attacking army (50,000 strong) on 25 January 1885, two days before the reinforcements arrived. The victorious army massacred the garrison and cut off Gordon’s head and presented it to their leader, Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi.

This did not set well with the British. In the 1890s, they mobilised the latest military resources and with Egyptian support launched a campaign under General Herbert Kitchener to regain control of Sudan. Lieutenants Polwhele and Cator, as engineers, played some role in the construction of infrastructure for the advance and resupply of the British army (including railroads). In the course of this, they lost their lives.

Eventually the British-led forces defeated the rebels at their capital in 1898. Some 10000 defenders lost their lives in the battle. The British then set up the Anglo-Egyptian administration and established colonial dominion over Sudan until its independence in 1956.

Paying attention

This quick summation does not do the story justice. Indeed, books have been written on the topic. For example, Winston Churchill penned a famous — and in places controversial — volume entitled “The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan“. Nonetheless, even from the glimpse shared in this blog post, it is clear that the story underlying the plaque in Rochester Cathedral is a harrowing tale of violence, valour and imperialism.

My pause in front of the plaque opened a new horizon for me, a chance to view the history of the Cathedral from a different angle. That is, it led me to consider not just the physical structure, but also some of the people associated with it. This reminded me of the value of taking a moment every now and then to stop and take in the environment around me.


Selected sources and references:

The Nile Expedition – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nile_Expedition

The Mahdist War – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahdist_War

Charles George Gordon – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_George_Gordon

The River War by Winston Churchill (Available on-line for free via University of Pittsburgh)


Listening to a poet

“There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.”

Excerpt from the poem, “Blossoms”, by Li-Young Lee
from the collection entitled Rose, BOA editions, 1986.

It seems to me that I make far too little time for poetry. Sometimes, I am reminded that I regret this. On those occasions, I seek out an opportunity to pause and make space for listening to a poet. Bill Moyers, for example, reminded me of this with his reporting on the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2009. Often, when poetry connects for me, it is about experiencing a moment: something I know or something I am seeking or something new to me.

Last month, a family member’s medical condition led me to drop everything and head back to the United States for a short visit to North Carolina. This is a state that I know from experience. I have been coming to North Carolina periodically to visit family since 1979. There are many things I’ve come to love about this state. Beaches, wonderful diversity in food and restaurants, kayaking (of the tame variety, on the Neuse River or at the coast), family and friends, book and music stores, bagels, splendid rural settings, folk arts and music (often with poetic lyrics), fine museums, and a tradition of investment in higher education, among others. Although it is a state of contrasts and stresses, sometimes disturbing, I still find joy there in many familiar things and many new experiences.

On my way to the hospital, I tuned into WUNC’s program on the “State of Things”, which features interviews on local developments. First up was an interview with UNC economist Stephen Lich-Tyler whose father had been murdered. The discussion focused on capital punishment and Lich-Tyler’s scheduled participation as a witness at the execution of his father’s murderer. The discussion was thoughtful and moving. Among other things, I was struck by Lich-Tyler’s language, which seemed clear and communicative to me. (Being an economist myself, I suppose this may be due to our shared academic experience, something like a shared tribal affiliation, perhaps?)

Next up was an interview with the poet Li-Young Lee who had served as a judge in a NC poetry contest and was returning for the awarding of the prizes, where he would give a reading of his own material. His experience is incredibly wide-ranging and rich. Lee’s great-grandfather was an elected president of China. His dad was a personal physician to Mao. After a falling out with Mao, his family fled to Indonesia, where Lee was born. There, his dad helped found a university. During Sukarno’s rule there were ethnic conflicts in Indonesia and his father was persecuted and jailed. Eventually, the family fled to the USA. And, this was just the starting point for Lee’s education and emergence as an award-winning poet in the English language. His poetry relates his experience with careful observation, reflection and clarity.

Li-Young Lee at NC State, April 2014

Li-Young Lee at NC State, April 2014

In his interview, Lee was asked about his own story, but instead he first referred back to the previous interview with Lich-Tyler. Lee was moved by Lich-Tyler’s story and the experience of suffering. Here he shared an insight that struck home with me: he thinks that art may help. He characterised art as permitting communication about suffering via symbols that transcend language and culture. This communication may take place via various artistic channels, such as stories, poetry, paint or sculpture. This really spoke to me in the context of my visit. Lee continued this line of thought referring to martial arts in Asia as well as art more generally. He portrayed the creation of art as working through issues, leading to clarity in perception of the true nature of objects. “Disillusionment” he called it, as in removing the illusion, getting to the essence of something, achieving a clear perception of a reality. Via clarity, one may be more confident and avoid conflict without a fight, perhaps even finding a win-win scenario in peace.

I was surprised to Iearn that Lee was giving a reading at NC State that very evening. I quickly rearranged my plans and made space in my life to listen to this poet. I arrived early and was glad I did. Lee spoke to a full house. During his talk he read four poems. He spoke about his wife falling asleep in his arms, lulled by his reflections on life. In turn, he reported on his wife’s reflections during an intimate moment. He noted a blurring of divinity and erotic art in his poetry. I was enamoured with a number of his poems touching on food, fruit, blossoms and associated experience. His reading was delivered with a good sense of humour, but also depth and insight.

While taking a few questions he pointed out that his poems are never finished, but he goes back to revisit and rewrite them. Does he ever face writer’s block? Indeed! The problem is that poetry potential is all around. What not to write is the hardest decision; in writing the first word on paper, the writer takes a very hard step, committing to a certain direction.

For me the experience delivered lots of food for thought. It also confirmed that despite the political stress in NC these days, there is still a rich intellectual current in North Carolina that engages all sorts of folks. The poetry prize winners ranged from students to retirees. It amazed me that I could drop in from another continent one day and land at such a poetry reading the next. This positive and encouraging experience left me hungry, so I adjourned to another experience that I don’t often get in France: a big Mexican dinner of fish tacos and all the complements. Looking out across a big margarita on the rocks, I resolved to make more space in my life for listening to poets.

Truth in Music: James Blood Ulmer and Phalanx Deliver A Soulful Performance


James Blood Ulmer

James Blood Ulmer & Phalanx – Live at Fontenay Sous Bois, 31 January 2014

James Blood Ulmer and Phalanx (revisited) delivered a wonderful show last night at the Winter Sounds Festival 2014 (Sons d’hiver) in Fontenay Sous Bois outside of Paris. The music was a blend of jazz, funk and R&B, in finest James Blood fashion. The band was in top form and the small venue was filled with an enthusiastic crowd. Players included: James “Blood” Ulmer – guitar, vocals; Lakecia Benjamin – alto saxophone; Mark E. Peterson – bass; G. Calvin Weston – drums.

While James Blood was the star attraction, each member of the group made an important contribution to the vibe. Mark Peterson laid down a clean, funky base line. Calvin Weston provided the underlying drive and rhythm that held it all together, but with a lot of interesting detailing and nuance. Lakecia Benjamin added warmth throughout, as well as some of the concert highlights (check out the segment at about 19 minutes into the concert for her smooth solo that reaches out and moves the soul).

The festival organisers have posted the full concert on-line in HD. It is available at the link below (starts at about 4m:10s into the video):
=> James Blood Ulmer and Phalanx: concert at the Sound of Winter festival

Check it out and enjoy!

The Amazing (Generally) French Highway System

The French Highway System: A Road to Somewhere

Occasionally, the French find interesting market-oriented ways to deal with strategic challenges. Sometimes they arrive at a capitalist destination in a manner that was not necessarily part of the original plan. A fine example of this is the amazing (generally) French highway system.

Capitalist tendencies

The Normandie Bridge over the Seine near Le Havre
The Normandie Bridge over the Seine near Le Havre (Credit: Pecold / Shutterstock.com)

The autoroute system was established under the direction of the state, which granted concessions to state firms to build specific sections. These firms were largely privatised in recent decades, in some cases with substantial portions of the shares winding up in the hands of institutional investors, employees and small investors. Nowadays, these privatised firms and some emerging competitors from the private sector operate most of the long-haul sections of the system as toll roads. The tolls are generally based on distance travelled and the rates are fairly high compared to what toll roads charge in some countries such as the United States. Only in urban areas and Brittany, do the main highways generally remain in state hands with mostly toll-free operation.

My way is the highway

The amazing thing is that the intercity portion of the system works very well. Despite the heavy presence of the state in the French economy, somehow the government hit upon the right idea of exploiting a market-based solution to further the development and operation of the highway system.

Across most of the intercity network, the roadbed is generally well maintained with wide shoulders. With a legal speed limit of 130 km per hour (80 mph) outside of built-up areas, it is easy to cover distance quickly. Capacity is generally adequate except during peak travel seasons (though, admittedly, traffic can be periodically heavy at other times as well).

Rest stop on way to Nantes

Rest stop on way to Nantes – Accommodations in a non-commercial rest area

There are rest areas every 15 kilometers (10 miles) or so. Many of the rest areas are quiet, non-commercial parks with restrooms, telephones, picnic tables, playgrounds and space to walk dogs. The accommodations in the non-commercial rest areas are basic with unheated restrooms and no hot water. Others areas, at less frequent intervals, are more standard car and truck stops with gas stations and restaurants, heat and hot water.

Yay, infrastructure!

The investment in infrastructure is quite impressive, often implemented with architectural flair. A fine example is the Normandy Bridge across the Seine near La Havre. The various installations are often accented with splashes of color. In some places, there are engineering marvels like the new tunnel in the outer beltway around Paris. With little disruption on the surface, the tunnel cuts under a dense urban area as well as parkland. Built by the construction firm and highway operator Vinci as a toll road, the tunnel uses a duplex approach with North- and Southbound lanes stacked on top of each other in a large tube. The result of such investment is reduced travel time and improved quality of life, all while making a contribution to stimulate the economy.

Beautifully bucolic

View from the wetlands of a rest stop in Picardie

A view of lush farmland, looking across a wetland built into the landscaping of a highway rest area in Picardie

The highways offer an excellent option for exploring the gorgeous French countryside. But, even along the roadway the landscaping is attractive with occasional sculptures and special plantings, and no billboards. As in most countries, the French urban road network may be stressful and challenging to drivers, but out here in the countryside it often feels like one is driving through a postcard setting. Indeed, when travelling across France it pays to budget a bit of extra time for a foray or two off the main road. A surprising number of temptations are situated along the highways, ranging from vineyards to splendid natural sites, from historic monuments to gastronomic wonders.

Conclusion: Time for a Road Trip?

The French highway system is a confirmation that public-private collaboration can indeed make a positive contribution to quality of life. While a country road, less-travelled, can offer many charms and attractions in France, the highway travel to the start of the country road may also be a worthwhile part of the experience (particularly if you plan ahead to avoid peak travel seasons and heavily-utilised routes). Could it be time to hit the road?


Hiking Along The Loire at Muides


This gallery contains 17 photos.

Southbound to the Loire River I awoke to the prospect of a gorgeous day this morning and resolved to get out into nature. It is harvest season and a great time to head off on a day trip to the … Continue reading

On the Trail from Orsigny to Viltain


This gallery contains 12 photos.

From Orsigny to Viltain Sunday – The late summer weather around Paris has been spectacular: low humidity and cool temps with warm sun and blue skies. Today, I could not resist taking a few hours for myself and heading out on … Continue reading

Mission to Planet DC

Planet DC

National Zoo Sign

Washington: A National Zoo?

There is something other-worldly about Washington. Power, wealth, poverty, urgency and complacency are in the air. It is disorienting, amazing, distressing. I got a chance to experience this world up close in July thanks to a month-long mission to Planet DC.

Although I travel there often, this was my first extended visit to the city in a couple of decades: a chance to settle in, observe and swim in the sea of local life. It left me in a funk that has continued after my return to Paris. I am still trying to process all that I saw and experienced.

My mission

During July, I had the opportunity to pursue my economic research agenda in Washington, DC, operating as a visiting scholar based at a Federal government agency. I was struck by the dedication and competence of my colleagues there as they pursued their duties.

They believe in their mission and are seeking to improve policies and government operations. In the same spirit, they generously took time to provide me with constructive input and suggestions for advancing my policy research.

Time and again their positive energy amazed me. Theirs is not always an easy lot. Federal employees encounter many daily challenges including consequences of budget cuts, periodically hostile press and politicians, arbitrarily compromised objectives, and stakeholder conflicts, among others issues.

My agenda involved a series of interviews with experts (government, private sector and academic), collection of data, and research to track down various reference materials. I had the opportunity to travel far and wide across the city and to meet folks from various walks of life. To say the least, the city exhibits quite some cultural and economic diversity.

Quest for excellence

As a young Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso (West Africa) broiling under the intense mid-day sun of the hot season, I discovered the joys of pulling up a chair in a shady spot outside of our mud hut and reading. Not much else was going to happen until things cooled off. It was during such a season back in 1983 that I found the time to read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I had never read anything like it. The book describes a motorcycle trip across the United States and an inquiry about values. A central theme for me concerned the importance of the quest for excellence, a message that has stuck with me since.

As the political capital of the largest national economy in the world, Washington is certainly in the position to cultivate excellence. There are some impressive manifestations of this. To cite a couple of examples from my recent mission:

  • Library of Congress – During the course of my research I had the opportunity to visit the Library of Congress, which is certainly a fine historical example. The Thomas Jefferson Building (1897) is a world-class architectural gem. I witnessed people from around the world gawking at the grandeur of reading room. Moreover, the collection itself is also extremely impressive. I took advantage of this to track down references that I’d been unable to obtain in Europe.
  • US Botanic Garden – A more recent example of such excellence is the renovation of the US Botanic Garden, which included establishment of the adjacent national garden. The US Botanic Garden, originally established in 1820, is just up Independence Avenue from the Capital Building and Library of Congress. The renovation of the greenhouse, a Bartholdi fountain (Bartholdi also sculpted the Statue of Liberty), and gardens greatly moved me. Completed in the past decade, this effort resulted in a facility that provides for education, art, entertainment and, in my view, spiritual renewal. It is a place of beauty and yet somehow the renewal was accomplished in a time of tight budgets and partisan in-fighting.

Of course there are many, many more examples across the city. Such examples demonstrate that there can be a positive role for government in contributing to our advancement directly or in partnership with the private sector and non-governmental organisations.

But, on the other hand…

Despite encounters with excellence as I wandered through the world of Washington, there were nonetheless some concerns nagging at me everywhere in the background. These concerns started with the impression that part of the infrastructure is in poor condition. They grew as various contacts and news items pointed to social challenges, civil rights issues, undue impediments to legitimate businesses, environmental degradation and other pressing issues. Some are local, while others are a reflection of national malaise. Although Washington came through the Great Recession with less damage than some other parts of the US, it is not fully insulated and the challenges are visible.

Storm Clouds over the Old Executive Office Building

Storm Clouds over the Old Executive Office Building

My concerns deepened after an admonition from my host to be careful during my commutes into town. He had been stabbed in a mugging a while ago and held up at gunpoint another time. As an economist I am concerned with such problems and their many social and economic roots, but I am not used to facing them as a personal threat on a daily basis.

Then, there was the metro. I recalled the system with an initial sense of pride, thinking back to my days in DC during the 1980s. Nowadays, however, it is only just getting a much needed makeover after years of relative neglect. In July, during a brutal 10 day heat spell, I discovered that the system operators were no longer maintaining the air conditioning on the cars where it had broken down. Commuters were faced with the choice of running from car to car in search of A/C or potentially having to tough it out in a crowded, non-air conditioned carriage.

Next came political issues. A few weeks after my arrival, Bill Moyer’s had an interesting show on Washington, DC, based on a very troubling interview with Mark Leibovich. Leibovich recently authored “This Town“, a book about the workings of the place. He highlights the problem of the rotating door in DC between policy making and lobbying, political fund-raising and interest peddling. He highlights what is essentially a disconnect between the objectives of many of the powers-that-be and the national interest. The insiders with ties to either of the main political parties have access to potentially large incomes if they work on behalf of various vested interest groups. Thus, there are disincentives to tackle issues head-on. Unfortunately, in the interview Leibovich does not offer much in the way of solutions.

Partly as a consequence of the insiders game, progress to obvious problems comes slowly. Outside of the political realm, I have the impression that many average folks are hunkered down living busy lives and, in many cases, dealing with some financial stress. Several news items came up during my stay that underscored the problem. One item showed labor income declining as a share of national output while inequality increased:   see this article from the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland. After progressing somewhat in the 1990s, median household has been falling significantly. Another item came from a study by the Economic Policy Institute, showing US workers putting in more hours in a effort to maintain incomes. Then, more recently, Robert Putnam presented an op ed on Crumbling American Dreams using his home town as an illustration.

There were other national news items that added to the gloom:

  • US Health – Recently, a spreadsheet from the Organsation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) caught my eye: OECD Health Data. New data on health developments in 34 wealthy countries of the world were just released. The United States was at the top of the list for healthcare expenditure, spending some 17.7% of GDP in 2011 (GDP is an indicator of our economic output). This was nearly twice the health expenditure in OECD countries on average: 9.3% of GDP. Moreover, US healthcare expenditure is far ahead of the other countries: second place goes to Netherlands, but even they spent just 11.9% of GDP.
    What do we get for our large expenditure? In 2011, American women on average at birth have a life expectancy of 81.1 years, whereas in the average OECD country, women can expect 82.8 years. For American men, the figure was 76.3 years, whereas the average OECD country offered its men the prospect of a life expectancy of 77.3 years. In Netherlands, women and men at least have something to show for their above-average health expenditure. That is, they have above-average life expectancy: 83.1 years for women and 79.4 for men. In the US, we are paying nearly twice as much as the OECD average and our lives on average are shorter by a year or more.
  • Climate change – Then, there were several items on climate change developments. One that really came as a wake up call was authored by James Hansen et al (2013) on Climate Sensitivity, Sea Level and CO2. The authors provide compelling evidence that the damage from the C02 already pumped into the atmosphere is not yet fully manifest due to lagging responses from some natural systems, and that if we continue we can expect significant impacts in terms of sea level rise and disequilibrium in key natural systems. According to these authors, if we persist in use of all available fossil fuels, we can expect this: “Burning all fossil fuels, we conclude, would make much of the planet uninhabitable by humans, thus calling into question strategies that emphasize adaptation to climate change.”
  • Voting Rights – There were other news items from several states on voter disenfranchisement in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s invalidation of a key portion of the Voting Rights Act. Taking North Carolina as an example, the Huffington Post reported on proposed changes that eliminated college students’ ability to use their state-issued student IDs for voting purposes, reduced early voting by a week, eliminated same-day registration, ended pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and a student civics program, killed an annual state-sponsored voter registration drive and lessened the amount of public reporting required for so-called dark money groups, also known as 501(c)(4)s.
  • Impediments to business – It is not all a bed of roses for business either. There are bureaucratic and regulatory barriers and other challenges related to government dysfunction. One example can be found in the World Bank’s Doing Business Indicators.  The “paying tax” indicator shows that the administrative burdens in the United States are far in excess of other leading countries (and, it is not just the tax rates, but also the hours it takes to comply administratively with the requirements). According to this tax burden indicator, the United States ranks 69th among the world economies, just below Madagascar and just ahead of Mongolia. Hardly a leadership position!

These matters are serious and getting clear information about each issue is not always easy. One cannot rely on the evening news for balanced reporting and it takes a bit of digging to identify a reliable source of factual information. Still, the cumulative effect of this news flow is daunting. I can certainly appreciate the urge to keep one’s head down and to press on with more immediate daily challenges. Unfortunately, a failure to respond to some of these issues will entail heavier costs if one waits to address them later.

Next steps?

This is not to say that I am pessimistic. I was encouraged to find people inside and outside of government working to assess problems empirically and seeking a factual basis for discussing policy options and responses. In addition, there is an emerging debate in the United States that recognises the limits of empirical assessment and the need to have an open debate about the subjective aspects of some policy questions such as dealing with inequality. For example, see this paper on income inequality by G. Mankiw, a former Bush administration official. I don’t agree with all of his suppositions or conclusions, but it is a useful starting point recognising the role of preferences. It has unleashed a helpful debate.

I think we also need to be open to consideration of the role of government as part of the solution. This was underscored to me upon my return to France. I spent my Saturday here running errands on foot, using public transportation and walking to shops past some wonderful public spaces: a forest park, a new fountain, newly repaved roads, and a public-private redevelopment zone downtown. France has many economic problems of its own. For example, the state is large and weighs heavily on entrepreneurship. But, the French example does underscore the benefits of having some public investment in areas where there is a need for a coherent system-wide plan or where there is a market failure. We should not rule this out now in the United States. There are positive examples in the US as well: for example, the initial development steps for the Internet. Government has contributed on occasion to attainment of excellence!

Reviewing the list of issues discussed above, I certainly seems that there is need for action. In the United States, we need to break out of our complacency. We need to challenge the system to do better and to be more responsive to unmet needs. We should not accept business as usual in “This Town”. And, once we have decided that there is a role for government in provision of a given service, then we should insist on government’s quest for excellence in the matter. Why should we the citizens and taxpayers accept anything less?



Silver Spring, Wine and Peace

A stroll around Silver Spring

In 1984, we moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, settling into an apartment right up against the boundary line with Washington, DC. Recently, I had an occasion to visit again and took the opportunity to set out on a walking tour around our old haunts in the downtown.

Silly springs?

Our home was right around the corner from the site for which the town was named: the Silver Spring. Although the town is often called Silver Springs (and, on rare occasions, even “Silly Springs”), its actual name refers to a singular spring. The spring still exists on the edge of town in a small patch of green called Acorn Park. The poor spring struggles on, forlorn and neglected, producing just a tiny bit of humidity. In the decades since we moved away, developments and paving all around have cut off the replenishment of its aquifer and nowadays the Silver Spring is nearly dry.

The Silver Spring

The Silver Spring

According to the historical marker on the site, the spring was discovered in 1840 by Francis Preston Blair and daughter Elizabeth while touring the woods on horseback. They saw sunlight reflecting on mica sand in what turned out to be the spring and named it accordingly.

Wine and peace?

Silver Spring has been transformed in the years since we lived there. Downtown has been rebuilt with new housing, shops and commercial activity all around. On a recent Sunday part of the downtown was blocked off, vendors were selling food and kids were running around in a fountain that sprays water up from holes in the plaza pavement. Funky music played via a PA system and the atmosphere was festive.

Further on I came to an area where there has been an influx of Ethiopians. Although it is near downtown, parts of it have some resemblance to Addis Ababa with signs in Amharic and passersby conversing fluently in the language. Ethiopian flags, coffee and food are all around. The Addis Ababa Restaurant on Fenton Street has a good reputation. However, on my visit this weekend, I had another destination in mind.

I continued my walking tour of our old neighborhood and, based on a recommendation from local friends, wound up in the Adega Wine Cellar and Cafe. The cafe serves up some interesting sandwiches and I had quite a decent crabcake. As it was a hot and humid day, I parked myself at a table in the air conditioning to sketch and enjoy a glass of Koina Riesling. I received a generous pour and savored the cool, refreshing wine, which had a nice acidity, with a hint of citrus and sweetness on my palate.

The Velvet Devil and a few other selections at the wine shop

The Velvet Devil and a few other selections at the wine shop

While sketching, I was intrigued by the wine selection on the shelves around me, including a bottle labelled The Velvet Devil (which I placed on my agenda to try on a future visit). Although the shop is not particularly large, Adega’s has an interesting range of wines with selections that appear to offer good values from key wine regions around the world.

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Adega’s turns into a kind of wine bar as folks come in for a glass and conversation. Next to me sat a few young Frenchmen quaffing a bottle of a big red. I enjoyed hearing their banter blend with the Spanish, English and Chinese being spoken by some others around. It seemed that although these folks were quite diverse, they would all agree on at least thing: a cool glass of wine on a hot day was a splendid idea.

Stop Sign - Takoma Park, MD
Stop Sign – Takoma Park, MD

Setting out to continue my walk, I had a feeling that perhaps there was some hope after all for most folks around this world to get along, at least as long as the supply of Koina Riesling and big red wines holds out. As I headed back to my friends’ home in Takoma Park, a stop sign gave me some further advice for helping along the cause of peace: STOP EVIL. Makes sense to me!

 Map of Silver Spring