Archive for April, 2006

We had a seminar today at work on “change management”. It is a pretty hot topic these days as change is just about the only thing we can count on. “Plan for change” they say in business. Easier said than done.

It is always interesting what I pick out of an hour long talk like that as important. I am something of an accidental expert in change, owing to a decade of living at a different address every six months, never knowing where I’d be next…..constantly leaving behind and starting anew…sometimes so often I couldn’t tell which one I was supposed to be doing.

Change management is about rituals. I think alot of people disregard rituals as remants of a less sophisticated time…but I don’t think so. I have alot of habits that kept me sane during those years when nothing was constant.

Everywhere I went I found a way to exercise immediately. I wrote. I’ve been using writing as a calming habit for years. Oddly, I listen to the same music. I have a certain group of songs that I use to trigger reflection, and “center” myself. I have favorite clothes that I always took with me. I would spend alot of time walking around. I always liked that. I found friends immediately. Sometimes I didn’t even really like them….they just needed to be there. I read…I’ve done that for years. I sleep. Everyone knows that.

The point is that we have these habits that get us through the days, through rough times. “Success is a habit” they say. I say pretty much everything is a habit. If we don’t have them we are bombarded by too many options….too much to process. We get overwhelmed.

Anyway, I was just thinking how many coping mechanisms I have for stress and change. It is not me that internalizes change by force of will. It is those habits that buffer me until I can bear my new situation.

I won the prize for attending the seminar. They gave away a copy of “Who Moved My Cheese” to the person who’d visited the most countries. The next closest was a guy who’d been in the army his whole life.

Next topic…..I was talking to this guy the other night at a bar and he was struggling with his life and what he wanted to do (which seems to be a common topic these days). And as he talked about all the stuff going on, and there was plenty… occurred to me how hard it is to really achieve anything and be satisfied with it.

I’ve read theories, biographies, academic papers, and pop psychology about what it takes to “succeed” in life. Its one of my very favorite topics.

You know what? Its fucking hard to succeed. The best way is to focus on one thing and one thing only…..then get obsessive about it to the point of psychosis….then let it feed on you until you will not accept anything but success. Everything in your life should support that goal.

If you can do that….success will find you. You don’t need to do anything special. You don’t need to be smart, or planful, or charismatic, or well connected. If you can feed your brain that one overriding goal over and over in a sort of self-hypnotism….it happens on its own. Your subconscious wills it into being.

Those last two paragraphs are pretty much the secret to getting everything you want out of life….if you want to re-read it.

The problem….which was this guy’s problem….is that people spread themselves thin. I figure most people can only do one thing really well, as you have to commit to it……if you are talented and determined, you might be able to do two. Three seems almost impossible. You’ll just be average at all of them and spread yourself too thin.

Life is hard though. Things get out of your control. At that point you have to get back to your coping mechanisms….simplify, perform your rituals, focus on what you want most….and perhaps most importantly, which I didn’t mention before: ask for help from friends/family. And most, most, most importantly: Have hope.

I had another topic, but I’ll get to that later…..

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Jason mentioned this article the other day and I finally got around to reading it.

For those without the time to take a look, since it is sort of long, I’ll give you quick summary: 1) Fossil fuels are a finite resource. 2) We will hit a world wide production peak in the next 5 years. 3) Without cheap energy to fuel “progress”….we are fucked.

I have actually read a good bit about the oil production peak, and since I think like a pop economist (which means I pretend to be savvy buy really have no underlying theory on which to base my opinions)…….I really do see this as a crisis the likes of which modern man has never seen.

I am not much for doom and gloom, as we are all still here, despite decades of warnings about acid rain, nuclear holocaust, the extinction of the whales, and dozens of other “the sky is falling” scenarios.

This is one is pretty plausible though…..and I’ll explain why.

1) Fossil fuels are a finite resource: Everyone knows this is true in theory. Oil lies beneath the earth and is created over a long period of time from biomass under certain conditions. If you extract it faster than it is being created… eventually you run out. We are attempting to extract in a few hundred years what it has taken the Earth 4 billion years to manufacture.

That’s great, you say….but people are smart and will find new creative ways of extracting and finding oil and we will be good for many, many years to come, right? No. Why?

Because we don’t need to run out for there to be a real crisis.

2) We will hit a world wide production peak in the next 5 years.

What does “production peak” mean? Well… means we’ve extracted as much oil in a year worldwide as we are able to. The next year, no matter how hard we work, we will find and extract less oil. 50% of the oil that the Earth contains has been used up and we are on the downward slope to 0%.

What does “production peak” mean to us?

3) Without cheap energy to fuel “progress”….we are fucked.

Everything you do each day to participate in modern life is predicated on the assumption of cheap energy.

You drive a car. That requires gas. You flip a light switch. That requires electricity, which is overwhelmingly generated through burning fossil fuels.

You want to eat? That doesn’t require fossil fuels, but the truck/plane/boat that brought the food to you does. Plumbing…uses electricity. You have furniture? It was manufactured, shipped, and processed using fossil fules.

Modern cities? They require not just energy….but cheap energy as their whole premise would be rendered moot without cars to sit in traffic and tool around town. Retreat to the suburbs? Urban sprawl becomes impossible without cars.

Don’t think you can retreat to your house and sit on the Internet though. How will you buy your food, your computer? They will have to be transported to you from the foreign countries where they are all now made. Distance adds money in transportation costs. The absense of cheap fossil fuels will add to the cost until, potentially, everything not made locally becomes cost prohibitive.

If we go back to most goods being manufactured and grown locally we have essentially regressed to life before the industrial revolution.

Is it all that bad? We’re not running out, we’re just hitting the production peak.

Well… we hit the production peak the price of energy will rise as it becomes less available. This price increase gets transferred to the cost of all goods that require energy to produce….which is basically everything.

So as prices rise for even the basic goods people have less money to spend and save in general. This creates a downward spiral of productivity.

But we replace oil? To an extent yes. But what we replace it with will be more costly and require more effort than oil, which will be a drag on production. Oil, despite what oil companies tell you, is relatively easy to get to compare to what you can sell it for. A third of the most profitable companies on the planet are oil companies.

What about wind? Wind energy currently supplies less than 1% of our energy needs, and is not a viable alternative to oil. We’d need so many turbines that there would be no place left for urban sprawl.

Renewable sources? Like biomass? Again, This is like wind…simply not scalable enough. The entire US would have to be turned into a corn field for ethanol. Besides….it takes effort to grow and convert biomass to energy. Fossil fuels have already done this for us. Biomass will never be as easy as fossil fuel. And what about the effort/people to grow the biomass? That is time people previously spent in more productive pursuits.

Hydrogen? This is the funniest to me. There really isn’t any free hydrogen on Earth. It is bound up in other molecules. So we have to make it. How do we make hydrogen? We transfer the energy extracted from burning fossil fuels to loose hydrogen from its current chemical relationship. Hydrogen requires fossil fuels to make.

Nuclear? Actually, this one is probably our best bet. Uranium though is also a finite resource and the technology for a fusion reactor is still far off.

Think about it another way if you like. The world is growing economically. China just passed Japan as the world’s second largest consumer of oil (we are the first). What would happen if there were less oil? Easy…there would be less growth, because all products made require fossil fuels in some form. No matter how you look at it there would a downturn in production if energy prices increase signficantly.

Not a recession, from which we recover, or a depression, which conotates that we are at a low point and will return to previous levels…..a permanent reduction in our ability to produce because one extremely signficant input, energy, has permanently become more difficult to obtain.

But still….we’ll figure it out…find new oil…..use different sources to replace what we’re losing. Life will go on as before? Wrong.

Here’s an analogy: Imagine we are a small nation that finds lots of bags of gold lying around everywhere….very fortunate. We spend the gold and become important. The standard of living in our country is high. We are not lazy though. We spend the gold in productive pursuits and are a great nation. Eventually though the gold runs out.

We look for some more. We find it but even then there is less. We still have our productive pursuits, as we were not sitting idle, but we always financed our productive pursuits with the gold. The gold is gone, and we are finding new ways to finance our productive pursuits, but they are hard to come by so we are not as productive as we once were. It requires extra work without the gold.

Our standard of living falls slightly as we produce less because effort is diverted from our normal productive activities by finding replacements for the gold that we used to take for granted.

Once our standard of living starts to fall, it continues as producing less means there are less earnings, which means we cannot buy, which means there is no demand for our production, which means less jobs, which means less earnings, which creates a circle of downward productivity. It just isn’t as easy as it once was when there were bags of gold lying around everywhere.

We are currently taking all the “easy” energy so to speak. It is already made for us. The future of energy will be harder than taking pre-made bags of gold out of the earth.

Not to depress you….the flipside of the energy predicament is also true. If we found a cheap, limitless, renewable energy source…..we would see a boom the likes of which man has never seen…..which is really what we’ve been seeing for the last 100 years.

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I’ll buy someone a beer next time I see them if they will write me something instead of me always writing you something???

I wonder if anyone will take me up on it?

On another note, after dozens of losses, I can now whip 13 year old tail at the online XBOX tennis game I play. I rely too much on the risk shot though.

On another note, I was privy to one of the upper type management meetings today where my bosses got fussed at (not really fussed, but in a way) by their bosses. It is interesting to see them squirm and get frustrated when they are usually the ones putting the pressure on us. It really didn’t feel good to see them get grilled though. I felt a little sorry for them.

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I met an Oxford philosophy major in Morocco in 2000. We were in Chechauaouene in the mountains, walking around trying to clear our head of Tangiers. I have some pictures of that actually. If I get up the motivation, I’ll post them.

I was mostly out of my “thinking” phase by then and all the happier for it….but, as I’ve said before, I attract anyone interested in philosophy, psychology, or literature….so I usually indulge them until they get frustrated with me for not participating in poking holes in everything.

I explained to him a little of what in the intervening years became the way I see the world….a carefully crafted, incredibly flexible filter of self “suggestion” that curves reality to make up for my genetic predisposition to deconstruct everything and everyone until they become ridiculous, stupid, and useless.

He was interested….if only because, even by then, the web of my worldview had become so nearly airtight as to be amusing and simple…..even if I admittedly used some circular logic. But everything is reduced to belief at some point……even something as absolute as geometry…even if you call them axioms or postulates instead of dogma or commandments.

Remember “proofs” in geometry….where you used other rules to validate new ones? There were a few that couldn’t be “proofed”….they just had to be taken for granted… “Two parallel lines never meet” or “between two points there exists one straight line”.

For the mathetmaticians out there, forgive my butchering of Euclid’s Postulates. The point is that everything of consequence is eventually reduced to some kind of belief or non-provable assumption. Call it science…or call it religion….they are all based on something unreducible. Science just tends to be based on things much more unreducible, while we’ve reduced many of the assumptions religion started with.

So…as he got closer to my unreducible assumptions, he told me the story of Plato’s Cave.

In the story (which I suggest you read if you have time), there are a group of people immobile, who cannot turn their heads. They stare at a cave wall all day and that is all they have ever known. Behind them is a raised platform where puppeteers carry objects across for the prisoners to see and behind that is a fire that casts shadows of the objects on the cave wall. The prisoners, having nothing else to do, name and talk about the objects they see.

One prisoner escapes, and turns around. He is blinded by the fire, and eventually gets of out of the cave and is blinded again by the sun. He is confused and does not understand his new surroundings.

Immediately he thinks of the others who are still in the cave. Should he go back and “free” them?

That was the question asked to me: Would you want to be free, or would you prefer to stay in the cave?

I think most people would chose “freedom”….but I think it is not so clear cut. What were the conditions outside the cave? Did it rain all the time? Was it cold? Was food hard to come by?

Let’s keep in mind that the “prisoners” in the cave did not know they were prisoners. Plato never said they were unhappy or mistreated. They simply knew only a life of shadows on a cave wall.

That didn’t mean that their lives were not rich in their own way. They could have felt love with the other voices they heard…shared things in common with others in the way they described the shadows. Perhaps one was a good singer, and entertained the others with his/her beautiful voice.

So let’s draw the extreme scenario…that the cave was warm and the shadow shapes were varied and beautiful….that the other “prisoners” were friendly and a life looking into shadows was rich in its own way…….outside the cave was dark, and it was a struggle to even survive. There was no comradery like in the cave. The cave is the truth to those who live there.

If the escapee goes back and releases the other cave dwellers, he has not freed them… they simply all have to participate in a different game, one not as beautiful and more difficult than the cave shapes. Outside the cave becomes the new prison.

You are never truly freed. You can never escape from yourself. My guess is that those who were happy with the cave shapes will find ways to be happy outside the cave. Those that hated the shapes, will also hate the fire and the sun when they see it.

In 2000 I think I would’ve chosen the cave….at least theorectically, although I do realize that someone was asking me that question high in the Atlas mountians in Northern Africa….I wasn’t exactly a cave dweller I guess. Now I think I would answer, “What difference does it make?” Cave or no cave, “free” or not “free”….you make your own prison, and it will follow you wherever you go if that is your choice.

Which one would you choose? Cave or no cave?

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