Friday, June 11, 2010

Being Wrong

I hereby interrupt the regularly scheduled but potentially yawn-inducing series on Peak Oil to talk about wrongness.

Oh, I hate being wrong. Even when it's the best learning experience ever. Which it usually is. Yeah, shut up, I know I'm wrong to hate it (oh, the irony), okay? I also don't like constructive criticism, so nyah nyah. At least I am willing to admit it. I know I'm supposed to respect and appreciate the opportunity to grow and improve (and eventually I do), but often I just want to stick out my tongue and go 'thhhppppt'.

It's a mature day for me, what can I say?

Ira Glass, who is totally cool, did an interview with Slate on being wrong and how being not so good at things or wrong about things can actually make someone good at things. It's a brilliant interview of a brilliant guy. I was blown away by some of his statements. Two in particular stuck out.

"I had this experience a couple of years ago where I got to sit in on the editorial meeting at theOnion. Every Monday they have to come up with like 17 or 18 headlines, and to do that, they generate 600 headlines per week. I feel like that's why it's good: because they are willing to be wrong 583 times to be right 17"

It's sort of like the stats on Ty Cobb. One of the greatest ball players ever. Lifetime average (I know I've mentioned this one before) was .367.

If Ty could only get it right 1/3 of the time, what about the rest of us mere mortals? Most of us don't have a good batting average. I try to remember this when attempting to generate leads within my consulting firm. I'd like to hit it out of the park just once, but if I have to open 34.29 doors to be able to walk through 1 (583/17 = 34.29), it does help to know that.

More from the same interview:

That's amazing. I'm trying to work out the fraction in my headlike, how wrong do you have to be to finally be right?

"It kind of gives you hope. If you do creative work, there's a sense that inspiration is this fairy dust that gets dropped on you, when in fact you can just manufacture inspiration through sheer brute force. You can simply produce enough material that the thing will arrive that seems inspired."

This is pretty much the same conclusion Malcolm Gladwell comes to in Outliers. It's practice, repetition and hours 'in the saddle' that create mastery, not just talent or inspirational fairy dust.

So what does being wrong have to do with money? I mean, this is Ms. MoneyPenny's blog after all, and when I'm not flirting with James Bond at MI6 (wait, wrong MoneyPenny...) er, I write about money related topics.

Most of our money assumptions are wrong. Wrongity-wrong wrong. Mine too (yeah, yeah, thhpppt). You know what they say about assuming, right? Well, it's true. We all grow up and live with certain ideas about life and money that we'll defend like it's the last stick of beef jerky on the planet. Actually, you can have the last stick of beef jerky, just leave me the last box of Laffy Taffy, but that's besides the point.

No, I'm not going to give you a list of all the things you might be wrong about. Or that I know I'm wrong about. I'm simply going to tell you this. Ty Cobb got it right 1/3 of the time. The staff of The Onion are right about 3.5% of the time. And they are damn funny.

So if they are the average, that means most of us are right about 3.5% of the time. So the next time you are having a discussion with your spouse or another person about whether you need yet another garden hose reel, or some other important financial matter, remember this. You are probably going to be wrong.

But so are they, so it's all good.

Peak Oil and Us (You, Me, Everyone) Part III - Charles Dickens and the Future

The Getting Dirty post became part IV, because I started writing this one instead.

So okay, someday oil declines are going to cause things to change around here. And we need to learn some skills. But does that mean that society as we know it comes crashing to a halt and we all effectively travel back in time 120 years? Or that things go all post-apocolyptic on us?

Tell me if you remember this from high school:

' It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. '

Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. In my personal opinion, that paragraph contains some of the most important words in the history of the english language.

Why? Because it contains true, honest, big-picture perspective. It is always the best of times and the worst of times. It is always both the season of light and darkness. There is always evil and good. And the more things change, the more they stay the same. In some regards.

Don't you wish people still wrote and talked like that though? I do.

As a young adult, I had a bit of derision for the story, or not so much the story, but the tale it told. I mean, start a revolution by attacking a prison? As the frequently offensive and often correct Fred On Everything writes, it beat attacking a men's room, but only just.

But I've come to understand that Dickens saw the world through eyes that I both agree with and would love to emulate. More than 100 years separated his death and my birth, but he saw things so clearly. He saw things as they are, instead of how he wished they could be. And yet I think he must have been an optimist, because so many of his stories ended in hopeful circumstances. And I think those are the circumstances we face going into peak oil. The best of times, and the worst of times. The best of people, and the worst.

So how do we apply this to a changing environment we can't yet envision or predict?

You plan for the worst, hope for the best. Acknowledge what is, sure, but also what you want t the world to be. Start making small changes now, and continue making them, but keep living your life. Keep an open mind about what is to come. Heck, people have been predicting the end of the world since civilizations began, and it hasn't happened yet. Think about the things you could learn - for work, for life that you can apply both now and later.

A good example of this is understanding how companies will need to change to meet the impacts on themselves and their employees. Sure, they'll lay people off, and the social impacts of that are going to be very large. But there will lots of need for people who can help companies adapt to a largely remote workforce. Or to help with planning that once again includes sidewalks and thriving downtowns. To help manufacturing companies to figure out how to thrive in a climate of ongoing low demand. To figure out how to leverage older technologies, along with some new ones, to meet needs for transportation, medicine and a whole host of other things. To help communities become communities again.

Since I started this topic with a quote, I'll end it with one.

The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

That one was Sun Tzu. He was a smarty pants. Just sayin'.
I don't necessarily see Peak Oil as an enemy, but the opportunities for our success - and our failure - as we face it will come with the change.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Peak Oil and Us (You, Me, Everyone) Part II - What We Need To Learn

So I hope I made you just nervous enough to keep reading with my last post. Because honestly, it makes me nervous that there's so little conversation about Peak Oil. Scary stuff, that. Just the sheer dependence of our - and other country's food supplies on petroleum is enough to unnerve even the most stalwart optimist.

I'm not a big fan of living on a diet of fear though. Gets tiring and boring and in the way of doing productive things a fair amount of the time. I mean, it's good to learn about Peak Oil, the economic impacts - all of that stuff is good from a macro, being informed perspective.

But the real value comes in being productive about it. And that's where we have to look at some interesting models to start to learn. Most of those models are old. Like, prairie housewife old. But the lessons can be adapted and updated.

We've got a lot going for us heading into The Long Descent. We're a more educated society. Huge strides in medicine, womens rights and nutrition have been made in the last 120 years or so. These are going to do nothing but serve us well as we go forward.

But we have some strikes against us. Most of us have forgotten, if we ever knew how, to fend for ourselves. Those of our families that knew how to capture a wild yeast and keep a sourdough going, or how to bake bread over open flame, or how to raise and butcher our own meat are long gone. And worse, most of us don't know our neighbors and our communities. In a world where supplies are limited, community- the sense of it and the reality of it - is often what stands between us and dire needs that are unmet.

But the biggest strike against us is our sense of entitlement. The sense that manual labor, such as picking crops or felling trees is for the uneducated masses. The sense that somehow we are better than that. The sense that a degree, or a series of them, allows us to insulate ourselves from the unpleasantries of life. The sense that we can buy our way to prosperity. Changing our minds about what 'successful' means is a huge challenge.

But not insurmountable.

This is not a story that has to have an unhappy ending. We can learn, and learn we must.

Where? Well, this is the fun part - there are so many places to learn from. Where do I suggest starting? Don't laugh. Here. Yeah, I mean it. Re-reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's lightly fictionalized descriptions of her childhood will give you new respect for what people are capable of. When you are done with the series, make some of these recipes. If you have kids, or just still feel like a kid, the taffy-pulling and ice cream making recipes are not to be missed.

Then go watch this. Seriously, if they can do it, we can. And we've got a lot of perks they did not - for one, we all don't have to build log houses, and for another, we can skip the corsets.

Then read this. My mothers hosted Carla Emery at their home several times before she passed on, and my sister recipe tested for her. Oh yeah, and read my sister's blog, The Chatelaine's Keys, she's brilliant and interesting, and an actual expert on the stuff I'm writing about. Which, I must add once again, I am not.

Then start a garden. Try baking some bread - this bread will literally take you 5 minutes. And oh, is it good. Read some more.

Look, you can think I'm a loony living in apocalyptic la-la land if you want when you read this. Actually though, I'm not. I'm a disgustingly practical working mom in upper middle-class suburbia who consults for Fortune 500 companies. I'm boringly normal, hardly an unshaven hippie-survivalist. I drive to work through traffic to Boston during the week, I wear high heels, makeup, and I color my hair. And for the record, I shave my legs.

But I think we're in for a wake up call sometime in our lifetimes. No one knows when or how it will come. But I have endless faith that we can learn what we need to.

Coming up: Getting Dirty

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Peak Oil and Us (You, Me, Everyone) Part 1- What Is It, and Why Do I Care?

With the gulf of Mexico filling with oil and killing everything in it's path from birds to incomes, I think it's time we talk about Peak Oil. And what it means.

Before I do, let me just say this - there's a lot of really in depth research out there, and I don't claim to be that. What I am is a voracious reader, and deeply interested in the topic, but by no means an expert. I'm also a bit of an optimist, and I really don't think that things will be as bad as some of the predictions. Peak oil is very real - even Dick Cheney would tell you that at some point, the oil is going to run out. And once you start reading about all the things made with petroleum, you understand why Peak Oil is such a big deal that it deserves to have capital letters.

Basically, it works like this:
1. There's a limited supply of oil, and an even more limited supply of oil that is reachable by current technology. And getting to some of the deposits is incredibly risky and expensive (talk to someone on the gulf coast about how risky it is).

2. Oil production will peak and then begin to decline sometime in the near future, if that point hasn't been reached already. No one is really sure, and there's a ton of debate. Let's just say that the debate is about a less than 20 year period though, and most estimates of the realistic most conservative and most optimistic scenarios are only about 9 years apart - 2016 to 2025. That's um, not that far away.

3. As oil production declines become more apparent, gas prices and other resources will become increasingly expensive. For those of us in the northeast that use home heating oil (that would be me), heating our homes becomes a tremendous issue. Let me put it this way: a barrel of crude peaked at $147 a barrel in June of 2008 when prices were skyrocketing. At that point, gas for my car was about $4.12 to $4.38 a gallon here in the Boston area, or about double the price we had been paying a few short months ago. If oil hits $200 a barrel, which has been predicted by some of the best industry analysts out there, that's probably $6.50 gas. Per gallon. I don't know about you, but that's a lot of money to me.

3. Almost everything is made with petroleum. And I do mean everything . So much for those of us who need antihistimines in the summer, antiseptic for anything, take vitamins or medications, want to glue something, paint a wall, throw around the old pigskin, or need an artificial limb. About 6000 products are estimated to have petroleum components.

4. The supply chain will have deep interruptions. Most of today's procurement by stores is 'just in time' meaning they have enough for a short period of time and frequently restock. This means that stockrooms heaped with lasting supplies of goods are a thing of the past, and most factories order based on short-term demand. Then there's the trucking industry - at the height of the spike in oil prices a couple years ago, I read that it was costing about $1700 to fill a tank for a truck. What happens when stuff is too expensive to make or bring anywhere? That's a problem.

5. Food is the scariest supply chain interruption. Most food is trucked or freighted approximately 1500 miles before it hits your grocery store shelves. Finding sources of local sustainable food, including what you can grow is the only way to offset this. But building up sustainable food supplies locally isn't easy or quick. When Peak Oil hits, food is going to become a big, big problem.

6. If you can't afford to get to work, you probably lose your job. Although if it comes to that, the stock market plummets probably have eliminated your job anyway. With a nationwide average of 10ish% unemployment, a lot of states unemployment funds have long since gone broke. Imagine the effects of much greater job losses. We can barely afford the government we do have.

7. No one wants to talk about this. At all. The assumption is that life will go on as it has - increased prosperity, opportunity, nice vacations, good jobs, etc. The sheer idea that it might not happen, and that the Great Recession was just a warm up exercise is so unthinkable to most of us that the only option is to make those that do talk about it into survivalist crazies not fit for normal society. Except that they aren't crazy. And not talking about something does not make it go away, sorry folks. All I'm saying is if you have the dream trip of a lifetime planned, don't put it off until 2026.

8. There's pretty much nothing we can do about it. Even if preparedness were something the nation was ready to have a conversation about, the discussion is probably so depressing that most of us would just get back to 'Dancing With The Stars' anyway.

9. The worst case doesn't have to happen. I mean that. We're pretty good at adapting, us humans. We've lost a lot of the know-how, and that's a problem, but there are still those amongst us who know what we need to know.

10. It's not going to happen overnight. And that's a very very good thing.

Scared you yet?

Good. You should be scared, this topic makes Rob Zombie look like a cuddly teddy bear. And, my little smurfs, it is true, all true.

But all is not lost, and I'm going to tell you about that. But not tonight. Sleep tight.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Pervasity of Fear

Fear is pervasive. Once you are scared of a particular thing, it's really easy to see threads connecting that thing to other things. One of those laws of inertia - if you are fearful of something, you are more susceptible to be fearful of other things.

Which is why I need to stop reading certain types of articles. You know, the ones about people who have lost it all or close to all of it, like this one.

Intellectually, I know we're fine. As long as we're careful - really, really careful. This month is a bit of an expensive one, what with finishing our budgeted shopping list and our vacation, but after that, we're in lockdown. And that's a good thing.

But the news out there, while mixed, can be terrifying. I know we're going to be okay. And yet the news about the recession we're in isn't good, and the idea that we're headed for a double-dip recession seems more and more likely.
So I'm nervous. I try not to let it get to me too often, but I am.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

It's a Brave New World

Today was just like any other weekday...except that it wasn't. This morning, I got up and got ready for work. But unlike most weekdays in the past, I was the only one getting ready to go anywhere at all.

Today was the first day of our 'new normal'. Sander stayed home, his first day of unemployment/summer vacation. Kiera will still go to daycare, only leaving later and coming home earlier. We don't want to pull her out completely, as it will be very disruptive when it's time for Daddy to go back to work. So for now, they will have Wednesdays and Fridays together, and Monday, Tuesday and Thursday will be daycare days.

And even though I jokingly call it vacation, it really isn't. Being a stay at home spouse and partner while job hunting is a lot of work. There are house projects to be done, a child to be cared for and basic life maintenance to be taken care of.

It remains to be seen whether this change is going to work out for everyone. What we do know is that it will give us some breathing room, but at what cost, we're not yet sure.

Stay tuned.