Friday, October 26, 2012

The Ascender's Creed

I am not a Prepper.

I am not a Survivalist.



I will not worry about every possible hazard we could face.

I will focus on the future I want to create.

I will steadfastly work towards achieving that future.

I will only worry about the things I can control and leave the rest up to higher powers.

I will follow the principle of ensuring that every function is covered by multiple elements and every element has multiple functions and trust in the resiliency of the system.


I believe that entering such a future is purely a matter of choice, collectively and individually.

I believe that we can choose those futures at any time up to the point of extinction.

I believe that the sooner we choose such a future, the easier the transition will be, the more people will be able to make the transition, and the more comfortable and prosperous that future will be.

I call it The Long Ascent because in the end we will only choose one, but at this point there are many paths open.  Where do you want to go?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Tools vs. Machines

I'd like to expand one idea I alluded to in the Death of Tyranny, that the Industrial Age was brought about by making mechanical slaves.  In my language of patterns, the difference between a tool and a machine is that a tool helps you do something while a machine does it for you.  The distinction isn't always clear cut; in between scythes and lawn-mowing robots, you have the options of reel mowers, push mowers, self-propelled mowers, riding lawn mowers, and lawn tractors (not to mention cows, sheep, rabbits, ducks, etc.) for getting your grass trimmed.  While there are important philosophical reasons not to even have machines as slaves (especially Cylons), today I am more concerned with the practical side.

One rumor I have heard from the very early days of industrial automation (circa the 1950s), they had to make a choice between analog and digital robots.  Analog robots were cheaper to produce, easier to maintain, worked faster, required less power, were far easier to modify, and did much more precise work.  Digital robots only had a single advantage: they didn't require an full-time operator.  In other words, analog robots were tools, digital robots were machines.  I think we all know which choice they made.

Nor is this question just a matter of history.  I love what Marcin Jakubowski is trying to do over at Factor-E Farm.  I truly wish him the best of luck in completing his Global Village Construction Set.  Honestly I think what he is doing there is the best chance of maintaining a high level of technology as we move off Hubbert's Mesa.  I just hope he has the time to complete it.  If you look at his Compressed Earth Block Press, you will clearly see it is a machine.  Just give it power and dirt and it will spit out blocks for you.  Contrast that with the Auram CSEB Press.  It is completely human powered.  There are no fancy hydraulics or gears or belts to break down.  It is basically just a box with a giant lever.  The GVCS Press will clearly win on a per person or per machine basis over the Auram one.  But there is much less that can go wrong with the Auram.

On the Long Ascent, machines can be useful, but good tools are essential.

Friday, October 5, 2012

An End to Literacy

You may be surprised to see this topic in this blog.  If you are a long time reader, you have rightly come to expect basically uplifting posts about possible positive futures.  On the face of it, this topic can seem quite discouraging.

Let me first state, I am talking about an end to literacy, or more exactly, one possible end.  This is not like the death of tyranny, where the outcome is like that for cancer that has metastasized; the question is not whether the cancer will live, the question is whether it will kill the patient in its process of dying.  Nor am I talking about the complete extinction of literacy; like calligraphy after the invention of the printing press, writing may go from a major industry to a rare hobby.

Nor do I view literacy as a bad thing, or even as a needless luxury.  Tripp Tibbetts wrote a good post on the role of books in the preservation of knowledge; the Leibowitz Society is an excellent if infrequent blog on that general topic.  What made literacy so special was it allowed the transmission of knowledge from one person to another without being in the same place and time.  As energy availability declines, the second part may grow greatly in value.  It is quite conceivable certain knowledge will be forgotten only to be learned again from books.  Not having to travel to meet in the same place is also an important consideration; after all, everyone reading this blog probably is literate.  If this was a podcast, I couldn't be quite as certain.

Therein lies the key.  Knowledge no longer needs to be printed to be transmitted.  Videos are more complex than books and are more likely to decline with the availability of energy.  Once books are made and distributed, using them takes little energy, at least during daylight hours, but the costs of production and distribution are not trivial, and they are subject to mildew.  However, while audiobooks require much more storage space than ebooks, they are much smaller than regular books, and earpieces are much smaller, simpler, and more resilient and energy efficient than screens.  As long as we retain the technology to crystallize the abundant earth of silicon and print circuits on it, we should be able to continue make audiobooks.

On the Long Ascent, your MP3 player might just be your library, too.
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Friday, September 28, 2012

The Forgotten Sister

Remember the HMHS Britannic?  If not I'm not surprised, very few people have even heard of her.  She was the slightly larger sister to the Titanic, a name which is familiar to most, especially after the film by James Cameron.  The third ship in the White Star line, the Olympic, had a long career, but the Britannic was sunk in its first year of service -- not quite as spectacularly short as the Titanic's, but still quite short.

Why then is one a tragedy of epic proportions and the other a minor footnote in the annals of World War I?  Because every single person was able to get off the Britannic.  Now, 30 unfortunate souls in 2 lifeboats did die when their crafts were caught in the propellers, but there were 1036 survivors.  They had redesigned the craft so that there were more than enough lifeboats for everyone: 48 lifeboats capable of carrying 75 people each, or 3600 total.  They even designed it so that all the lifeboats could be launched from one side of the ship, in case the ship was leaning to one side.

What was the real difference?  What made the sinking of the Titanic a tragedy and not merely an accident was the faith that it was "unsinkable".  Once the shipbuilders realized that their design could sink, it wasn't too hard to make the ship survivable.  They did also add a double hull, a standard in still in use today, but while they work great for icebergs and rocks, torpedoes and mines pretty much ignore them.

This blog is not about history, however, and this is not just an interesting anecdote.  We stand at the same juncture, and this time billions of lives are at stake, not thousands.  Others will tell you we face a dark future ahead, and to be honest, that is likely to be true.  But all that really stands in our way is our faith that our civilization cannot collapse.  We still have the capability to make a smooth transition, but it requires people to stop thinking we can keep going as we have.

We all can make the Long Ascent if we choose to.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Death of Tyranny

One year ago today I started this blog.  The choice of a date was purely a coincidence. Originally I intended it to use it as an entry in John Michael Greer's contest for short stories depicting a future of declining energy usage.  However, I am not much of a fiction writer, but I do love writing essays, and for decades I've been crafting a vision in my head of a possible positive future with greatly reduced resource usage.  I've slowly been revealing bits and pieces to you during this past year.  Since today is a special day I wanted to share a special piece

Aaron Copland wrote a wonderful piece of music called "A Lincoln Portrait".  No matter what you think of his actions, Lincoln did have a powerful way with words.  My favorite quote is from the middle of the piece, from the Lincoln-Douglas debates of October 15, 1858:
When standing erect he was six feet four inches tall, and this is what he said.
He said: "It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says 'you toil and work and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
Brandon Smith wrote an excellent article a couple weeks back on Alt-Market entitled "How to Defeat Tyranny".  Very importantly, he did not entitle it "How to Defeat a Tyrant".  That is fairly easy.  We have witnessed it at least twice in the past decade, in Iraq and Libya.  But if you just get rid of one man another will frequently take his place. (My apologies to any other female dictators out there, but tyrants do tend to generally be men.)  What Brandon talks about is defeating the spirit of tyranny.  As such it is very much a spiritual striving, a crusade or jihad in the best senses of the words.  As Lincoln said, if you want to force anyone to do your bidding so that you may benefit at his or her expense, you have a tyrannical spirit inside yourself. 

Neither Lincoln nor Brandon Smith went far enough, though.  They can be excused for only facing the most immediate struggles.  However, that is not what this blog is about.  One of the most important themes Daniel Quinn has in his classic book Ishmael is the story of the Takers and the Leavers.  I don't want to go too far into that now, but the Takers are about, as Paul Wheaton so colorfully puts it, "making Mother Nature your personal bitch."   The Leavers try to change things as little as possible.  What Quinn misses is that there are two antonyms to "take".  Not only do you have "take it or leave it", you have "give and take".  So in addition to Leavers and Takers, you can have Givers.  If you can manage to give back more than you take, there are no limits.

This brings us back to the tyrannical spirit.  People are beginning to understand now that ethics does not just apply to how you treat other people.  If you just take from Nature without ever giving back, you still have the same tyrannical spirit.  IT DOES NOT WORK.  IT HAS NEVER WORKED.  IT WILL NEVER WORK.  The difficulty is that the problems accumulate over generations.  Unless you have the correct perspective, you may think it is working, like someone falling out of a building saying "See? I'm not dead!" as he passes every floor.  Nature only has so much to give.

I just want to say here that I am saying this not as someone who has won the war over that tyrannical spirit within myself, over even as one who wins more battles than he loses.  I just know that it is a fight that needs to be fought, and while I may frequently need to pick my battles, I always keep fighting.

Victor Hugo said, "There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come."  I say there is nothing so dangerous as an idea whose time is about to pass.  It is time for the very idea of tyranny to die.  The thought that you can get something without giving something back must be extinguished.  And it will be, whether it takes the deaths of 7 people or 7 billion.  Like drawing money out of a bank account, if you take it out faster than you earn interest, it doesn't matter how large it was to begin with, eventually you must go broke.  Nor does it matter how many #10 cans you store or how many cases of ammo you cache.

So what is the opposite of tyranny? Husbandry.  From the bacteria in our guts and the fungi on our skin to the food webs in the rain forests and the oceans, we must care for all forms of life, helping them so that they may in turn help us.  This is the only way we can survive.  This is the way we will thrive.  This is the Long Ascent.

Friday, August 31, 2012

On Earth As It Is On Mars

"A day on Mars is a little longer than a day on Earth: 24 hours and 40 minutes.  A year on Mars is less than two Earth years: 686 Earth days, or 668 Martian days.  Mars is 6,787 kilometers in diameter, compared to Earth's 12,756 kilometers.  Its gravitational acceleration is 3.71 meters per second squared, or just over one-third of Earth's.  The atmospheric pressure at the surface of Mars averages 5.6 millibars, about one-half of one percent of Earth's.  The atmosphere is largely composed of carbon dioxide.  Temperatures at the "datum" or reference surface level (there is no "sea level", as there are presently no seas) vary from -130 to +27 Celsius.  An unprotected human on the surface of Mars would very likely freeze within minutes, but first would die of exposure to the near-vacuum.  If this unfortunate human survived freezing and low pressure, and found a supply of oxygen to breathe, she would still be endangered by high levels of radiation from the sun and elsewhere.

After Earth, Mars is the most hospitable planet in the Solar System."  --Greg Bear, Moving Mars

Some people see exploring outer space as a colossal waste.  Any numbers associated with outer space truly are mind-boggling.  Light, which could circle the Earth more than 7 times in one second, takes over two seconds to go to the Moon and back and over 8 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth.  Mars is 50% further away than the Earth, so you would have to wait from 8 to 40 minutes to get a reply.  Sending a package to Mars today would take at least 6 months and cost well over $10,000 a pound.  Even if you devised some technomagical teleportation system that just had to overcome the Earth's gravitational pull, at today's prices for electricity it would cost over $7 to send a gallon of water to the Moon.

Most people will agree that satellites have improved life here on Earth.  Many people use Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) to navigate.  Satellite TV is a popular option.  And virtually everyone who gets a weather forecast benefits from weather satellites.

Beyond satellites, though, the short-term benefits are dubious at best.  Even Gerard K O'Neill, one of the biggest early proponents of solar power satellites, projected that it would take at least 20 years before the program produced as much energy as it consumed.  Other projects have even worse economic projections.

Not all benefits can be measured economically, though.  There are the spin-off technologies such as photovoltaics, of course.  Some people fantasize about finding another Earth-like planet and finding a faster-than-light way to get there.  Even if that were remotely possible, it still wouldn't solve any of our problems.  But look at the threats facing us, and then compare them with what life on Mars would be like.  Nuclear meltdown?  EMP weapons?  Massive solar flares?  Mars doesn't have a magnetic field, you would need that kind of shielding everyday.  Desertification?  Mars is a desert.  Sea level rise?  Deforestation?  Loss of wildlife?  Loss of arable land?  Loss of industry?  Running out of oil?  Mars doesn't have any of those to begin with.

Every conceivable problem we face, short of a rogue black hole, would be much worse on Mars.  Logically, this means, if we can solve those problems so we can live on Mars, we can solve those problems so we can live on Earth.

Sometimes doing things just because they are hard makes the Long Ascent easier.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Road Ahead

I've been working out the map for the Long Ascent for a long time. Tripp, over at Small Batch Garden, is ahead of me on the actual journey, which he documents well in his blog.  I highly recommend reading it if you want to see what everyday life on the Long Ascent is really like.  He recently posted on his blog an excellent piece, "Starting at 40", that maps out the future pretty well.  The last paragraph gives a wonderful explanation of why I call the road ahead the Long Ascent.  Coming from someone who truly lives it makes it truly meaningful:
I've modeled my activity around these trends and around permaculture principles more generally for the past 4 years, and can say, first-hand, that it is a joyful and rewarding way to live, whatever the time frame for energy descent turns out to be.  It's hard sometimes - automatic dish and clothes washers are pretty awesome tools when one wants to spend their time doing something else.  And let's face it, who doesn't want to spend their time doing something other than washing clothes and dishes by hand!  It's a lot more deliberate, living in power down mode; the number of things one can accomplish in any given day declines dramatically without those excellent fossil fuels working constantly behind the scenes to free up our time.  But there is a certain elagance, a kind of da Vincian sophistication, that can only be found in a life lived simply.  Hardly a day goes by now when either I or my wife don't utter the phrase, "I love our life," and how many people, fossil-fueled or not, can say that?  There is a real and tangible silver lining in energy descent, but it has to be experienced first-hand.  It can't be lived and written about by proxy.  I mean, it can, obviously, but it won't mean much until you own it for yourself.  It's not a lesser life, it's not even a lateral move, it's actually better this way, because it's the way we have always lived and done business.  Realigning with a more classical way of life is normal, peaceful, and fulfilling.  It's the last couple hundred years that are the strange bit.
That's why overcoming our addiction to fossil fuels is the start of the Long Ascent.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Ratchet Effects

For those who don't know tools, a ratchet is a device which allows something to move in one direction but not the other.  A ratcheting screwdriver, for example, will only turn the screw in one direction, so you can twist it back and forth without having to let go.

When a technology is introduced that expands the capacity to produce food, population grows to use all that extra capacity.  People don't generally voluntarily reduce population size, so the adoption of that technology becomes irreversible.  (I would like to thank Garrett Hardin for introducing me the ratchet effect.  It really is just an extension of Thomas Malthus's ideas and is central to Jevon's Paradox, that increasing efficiency in using a resource increases the overall use of that resource.  Hardin was specifically concerned with food production, but the ratchet effect applies to many other endeavors.)

Just because people don't choose to do something, however, doesn't mean it doesn't happen.  Technologies can be lost and populations reduced without any intention.  When they cut down the last tree on Easter Island, being a lumberjack was obsolete.  The bubonic plague significantly reduced the number of Europeans.

Going back to the tool analogy, a screwdriver which only tightens or only loosens screws isn't very useful.  That's why ratcheting screwdrivers have a switch: flipped one way it tightens, flipped the other it loosens.

There also is an reverse ratchet effect.  Extinction is a 100% phenomenon; a species is not extinct until every male or every female of a species is dead or incapable of reproducing.  So too is it with technology.  As long as someone somewhere in the world knows how to do something, the technology is not completely lost.  With the key technologies that allowed populations to expand, this leads to a ratchet effect on the downside.  Those who still have those technologies will have an advantage over those who don't, and they will grow in proportion to those who don't.  (Please note I am talking about relative percentages, so if one group loses 50% of its population and the other loses 75%, the first has doubled in relative proportion to the second.)

No matter how bad things get in the short term, the reverse ratchet effect will determine where we resume the Long Ascent from.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Prepaid Arbitration

How do you settle disputes in the absence of a legal system? Or more bluntly, how do you get people to uphold their end of a deal without pointing a gun at their head?

The best answer I've found came from someone who named his avatar Judge Jude.  His avatar and the project we were mutually involved in passed into the aether long ago, so I can't provide any references.  I also haven't seen this idea anywhere else, but I only claim copyright for these words, if anyone wants to take the idea and implement it, please feel free.

There already is a mechanism for settling disputes without resorting directly to the legal system: arbitration.  All the "judges" you see on television, whether they were judges previously, are technically acting as arbitrators.  One feature of most arbitration is that the arbitrators only get involved after a dispute is arisen.  This can make it a contentious and expensive process.

Judge Jude's innovation was to get involved before the contract was signed.  His fee was a certain small percentage of the contract.  (How small can be an area of competition between different arbitrators.)  The contract wasn't binding until both parties and the arbitrator signed off on it.  This makes for great incentives.  The arbitrator has a huge incentive to make sure that everyone understands and agrees to exactly what they're getting into, so there won't be a dispute later on.  The better he does this job, the more satisfied his clients will be, the better his reputation, and the more he can charge.

What if a dispute does come up, and someone does not want to comply with the arbitrator's decision?  That person then gets blacklisted: the arbitrator will no longer adjudicate any disputes or sign off on any contracts for that person.  If they do that several times, they will soon find no one wants to do business with them.

Settling disputes before they arise will be key to prosperity on the Long Ascent.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Rearranging Blog Rolls

I just wanted to let you know I'm reorganizing my blog rolls here and on Going Upslope.  I'm still keeping the more theoretical, large perspective blogs here; I'm moving the more practical, day to day blogs to Going Upslope.  I think this will match better with the intended audiences for each.  So don't be offended if I move your blog, but you may want to change which blog you link to.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Ripe Blackberries

You have never picked a ripe blackberry.

I have never picked a truly ripe blackberry.

No one, in the history of the world, has ever picked a truly ripe blackberry.

When a blackberry is allowed to fully ripen on the cane, the slightest bump will send it tumbling to the ground.  If you approach it very carefully, and in one quick motion grasp both sides of the very ripe blackberry with equal pressure, you will be rewarded with a sweet sticky mess on your fingers.  Licking off your fingers will make every other blackberry you have tasted pale in comparison.

There are two kickers, of course.  Visually a truly ripe blackberry looks very much like an almost ripe blackberry, so you never really know when you will get one.  Once the berry starts to dry out and look leathery, it is overripe.  It still will make a decent tea, though.  The other thing is that if you use gloves to protect your fingers from the prickles, the effect is not nearly the same.

The larger point is that you will never have this experience unless you are out there in the blackberry patch picking berries.  Okay, maybe a really good friend will let you lick his or her fingers, but you still have to be out there with him or her.  A pack of berries you buy will never have ones quite that ripe, even if you get them from a farmer's market.  And while you can buy the blackberry bushes to plant, chances are good that if you live in an area where blackberries do well, some bird will come along and deposit the seeds naturally.  Once you get a number of these, you will probably want to only keep the best and cut out the rest, as I have done.

On the Long Ascent, you can find, for free, simple pleasures that are better than any you can buy.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Living on the Land

Many people who are concerned with Hubbert's Mesa want to "live off the land".  It is a wonderful dream to find a place that will provide you with all your needs.  By all means, if you have the ability to do so, finding a good place to crash is well worth pursuing.  (If you're looking in western Pennsylvania, I can even help you.)

However, first and foremost, you need to realize that perfection is not possible. REAL real estate will always have something missing.  Some deficiencies can be corrected, which is all the more reason to start sooner rather than later.  Other problems are not feasible to change, you will have to decide whether it is something you can live with.  Consider your needs in their time order both when deciding where is an appropriate place to live and what projects to start with.  Also consider the kind of community you will be living in, including the neighbors' attitude and the local zoning codes.

What if you can't afford to move?  You can still do your best to live off the land you live on, like William Hunter Duncan.  You may have more to be more creative in finding solutions, but the most important advantage is that you can start doing things now, like planting a garden.   Invest in your skills today and "live on the land".  It may even help you save enough pennies that finding the perfect place becomes feasible.

The Long Ascent begins where you are right now.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Human Potential

As I've said before, investing in yourself is one of the ultimate forms of savings.  There is quite a large body of literature about self-improvement, of which I have read quite a bit.  I'm going to share with you some of my favorites.  Before I do that, however, I would like to turn it on its head.  Improving yourself certainly is in your own self-interest.  As we come off Hubbert's Mesa, we will not be able to rely on machines as much as we have.  Necessarily we will have to rely on ourselves more.  Making sure that everyone is living up to their full potential is the best way to resist collapse.

Now for my short list of the books I've found most helpful in improving myself:

  • Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz

  • This is the second self-help book I ever read, and the first I ever read deliberately. When my family went on a six-week long car trip the summer after sixth grade, I didn't think to bring anything to read. All I could find in our travel trailer was "Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Energy but Were Too Weak to Ask" by Naura Hayden. This book was at the top of her list.

    Back then cybernetics was still a relatively unknown word, and even to this day I'm not sure how many people understand that it is the science of goal-seeking. The basic point of this book is that we all have goal-seeking mechanisms in our psyches, but they are below our conscious awareness and beyond our direct conscious control. This book is about reprogramming ourselves by changing our self-image.

  • Getting Things Done / Making It All Work by David Allen

  • There are a multitude of "time management" books out there. In my opinion these are simply the best. What he describes is not a single system but rather the characteristics of successful systems. Getting Things Done is the simple how-to guide and is more appropriate for people looking for steps to follow. Making It All Work is the follow up that provides a more conceptual framework for people looking to design or tweak their own system.

  • Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

  • This is the fundamental guide for creating value. Once you get the central theme, it can get a little repetitive, but that's to make sure that you do get the central theme. One of the important things that distinguishes this book from other books on getting rich is that it is completely independent of monetary and political systems. Even if you are just living with one other person on a deserted island, the concepts in this book will serve you well.

  • The NIV Student Bible [Zondervan]

  • I think this is the latest version of the Bible we used when I took a two-year Bible study through CCO. I've looked at a lot of different editions of the Bible. The NIV translation is the one I've found easiest to read. In addition, I found the commentaries in the Student Bible were the most accessible to me when I was just starting out.
I've found these to be the most useful books on developing human potential, and I hope you find them useful as well on the Long Ascent.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Going to Market

Tomorrow starts the new season for the Slippery Rock Community Farmer's Market (SRCFM).  The theme for this season is "Grow by Growing".  I'm particularly excited for the new season, as I have been preparing to participate as a vendor.  This is a bit of a homecoming for me, as I attended regularly the first two years, mainly selling sprouts and pizzelles.  If I recall correctly, it has already been ten years since we were in the unpaved parking lot behind the bank on the main corner of Slippery Rock.  Most days I would come home with no more money in my pocket but with a lot of different produce. 

This is the earliest it has ever started, and at the beginning they will be selling seedlings to raise funds for the market.  I will have a few of my own seedlings to sell this year, although if I don't sell any, I'll go ahead and use them myself.  (That is a major part of my "business plan", to literally "eat my losses".  I won't expand beyond what I can use until I'm sure others want to buy my stuff.)  I also have packaged up some biochar to sell; I've been holding back from using it myself in case people want to buy any.  (Don't worry, I will give you the full details on biochar in a future post -- hopefully with pictures.)

I tried last year to get into selling at the farmer's market in a major way, to the extent of buying a 10x20 foot greenhouse.  I knew my place was windy but didn't realize how major a problem it was until I found the twisted wreckage of the greenhouse lying next to my house, one side still attached to the ground.  I realized then that I would need to focus on staying low to the ground.  I've been building frames and planter boxes for that, a few of which I will have on display tomorrow if people want to order them.  I've actually had decent success starting seedlings in the cheap plastic peat pellet greenhouses, surrounded by 2x6 frames with a lath lattice on top.

This may seem like shameless self-promotion, and to a certain extent so far it has been.  But there is a larger trend here.  At the organizational meetings for the SRCFM, there have been a lot of new faces -- not just new to Slippery Rock, new to any market.  As the global economy deteriorates, and as food prices rise, more people are looking to make money by selling to their neighbors, and more people are looking to save money by buying from them.  Cutting out all the processing, transportation, and middlemen is a win-win situation for both buyers and sellers, and it helps build local economies while lessening the risk of global shocks.

Going to the local market to buy locally grown food and locally produced goods will become more frequent on the Long Ascent.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Tree Speaks

Man is the tool of the Creator and creation.  Man can help nature do what would otherwise take many years.  Man belongs to the earth and the earth belongs to man. -- Coyote Thunder, in Tom Brown's "Grandfather".

Since today is National Arbor Day, I thought we should hear from a tree.  Okay, it's not really a tree speaking, it's a story of a dream and a lesson that Tom Brown's "Grandfather" experienced.  I am, of course, paraphrasing to condense it, but it really is a wonderful read; I hope you take the time to do so.


Grandfather fell asleep under a very large, old tree.  He had a nightmare that a horde of people came to destroy the tree.  Nothing Grandfather did could stop the onslaught.  Eventually the tree died in agony.

When Grandfather awoke screaming, he was relieved to see the tree still strong and healthy.  He did begin to wonder if he truly was any better than the hordes.  True, he did have reverence for the tree, and all living things, but he still depended on killing things for his survival.

One of his elders, Coyote Thunder, came to Grandfather and knew what was wrong without Grandfather having to explain.  He took Grandfather to a remote mountain gorge.  As they walked silently through it, Grandfather noticed that on one side of the stream, the forest was strong and healthy, but on the other side, the trees were twisted and diseased.  He could see no reason why the two sides could be so different.  Finally, seeing Grandfather's perplexed look, Coyote Thunder explained that he was the difference.  He took care of the strong, healthy forest, even as he fulfilled his needs.  The key was that he always considered what the forest needed first.  Then he only took what was a hindrance to the forest.


No matter whether we are in a forest, a garden, or anywhere else, learning to give as we take, considering the needs of everything as well as our own, will help us regenerate the world so we can all continue on the Long Ascent.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Little Blue Ball

"The only real recourse is for each of us to realize that the elements we have are not inexhaustible. We’re all in the same spaceship." -- Frank Borman, commander of Apollo 8 

As people get ready to celebrate Earth Day on April 22nd, I want to remind you of a famous picture:

I think it no coincidence that the first Earth Day was celebrated a mere 16 months after this picture was taken.  I'm not saying that this image itself was the impetus for Earth Day, but images do have power.  The space program gave us a unique viewpoint we never had before.  Our planet is immensely large from our own personal perspective.  Even traveling one quarter of the way around it in a jet airplane feels like a major undertaking.  When looking at a map or a globe, all the details we see make it seem large.  From a spaceship hundreds of thousands of miles away, however, our planet is just a little blue ball hanging in space.  We need to be grateful for the blessing this world is in our otherwise harsh universe.

This perspective is critical to guiding our path on the Long Ascent.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Penny Saved...

... is two or three pre-tax pennies earned.


If you work in the United States, you pay Social Security and Medicare taxes on the very first dollar you earn.  (I'm not well-versed in the tax codes of other countries; some are better, some are worse.)  Your employer pays an equal amount, too, and if you're self-employed, you get to pay both.  That's almost 1/6 of your income off the top, unless you happen to earn more than the cap on Social Security taxes.

Next comes income taxes.  If you're poor, you do get a break.  You can earn almost $10,000 before you start paying federal income taxes.  If you have children, you can do even better through the Earned Income Credit.  But once you start earning more, you can end up paying up to 35% of your income to Uncle Sam.  Add to that state income taxes of up to 11% (for Hawaiians who earn over $200,000).

If you spend what money is left, you may have to pay state and local sales taxes up to 9.45%.  At least you get to see that.  When I was in Poland, the 22% sales tax was included in the sticker price.  Other countries hide their sales taxes as "value-added taxes" that the companies pay.

Of course, part of the money that you pay for stuff you buy goes to other peoples' wages, which gets taxed all over again.  If the money goes to a corporation and generates any profits, they get taxed again; if it pays out a dividend to its stockholders, they get taxed once again on that.

Direct taxes are not the only issue.  Other expenses are involved in having a job, such as commuting and having nice clothes.  I have known several couples where they ended up better off financially when one person quit working and took care of the household.

Cutting expenses by doing more for ourselves will get us further on the Long Ascent.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Language of Patterns

It has been decades since Christopher Alexander wrote A Pattern Language, but it is still a very important book in eco-architecture. While much of the contents are dated, the concept of laying out a system of patterns which build on each other is a very valuable one.  In fact, this has been my archetype for this blog.

This goes far deeper than "Towns, Buildings, Construction," (the subtitle of A Pattern Language). The more famous John Archibald Wheeler, physicist, struggled with the implications of quantum theory.  In particular, there is a relatively famous "double slit" experiment (described in better detail in The Ghost in the Atom) which challenges our notions of reality.  If electrons go through a single slit, they end up in a simple bell-shaped curve.  If they go through two slits, they interfere with each other and create a much more complex pattern.  Where it gets really strange is if they slow down the electrons so only one is going through at a time, the complex pattern is still generated.  The electrons still interfere with each other, even though only one is present at a time.

Cutting to the chase, what this really means is that all our formulas, theories, and laws don't really matter.  All we really have are patterns to recognize and follow.

I will try to be your guide to the patterns you will encounter on the Long Ascent.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Packing a Lunch

I packed a lunch today.

I packed a lunch yesterday.

I will very likely pack a lunch tomorrow.

I don't do anything fancy, usually just a sandwich with some kind of lunch meat and cheese -- ham or turkey and Swiss or American, roast beef and cheddar, garlic bologna and American -- usually with a leaf of lettuce, or a piece of fresh fruit on the side.

I pack my drinks, too.  I make a fruit punch with 3 cups each orange and grape juices, 1 cup seltzer water, and 8 cups filtered water.  I also make lemonade with 2/3 cup lemon juice, 2 teaspoons xylitol, 2 packets stevia, 4 tablespoons of organic sugar, and 7 cups water.  I freeze them in plastic drink bottles filled 80% full.  I'll pull one out and put it in my insulated lunch box the night before if I'm working in the morning or in the morning if I work in the evening.  The other I'll put in right before going to work.  That way I have one ready to drink right away, and the other stays cold the entire day.

Why am I telling you this?  In part this is a response to Joel Caris's blog post on irrationality in food choices.  In the office where I work we frequently don't have time to go get lunch.  In previous years I would get so hungry I would just grab something from the vending machine.  Consequently, I would always gain weight during our busy season.  This year, in part by making sure I have something relatively good to eat when I do get hungry, I am actually losing weight (and not spending nearly as much on junk food).

Packing a lunch is a simple act, but it makes us look forward and gets us in the habit of preparing for the future.  We are much better able to resist temptations if we have made allowances for our needs beforehand.

The Ascent will be Long, pack a lunch.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Garden Path

And Jehovah God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made Jehovah God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil....  And Jehovah God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.  Genesis 2:8-9,15 (ASV)

The vernal equinox last Tuesday marked the official beginning of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere.  For me, this represents the beginning of the gardening season.

I have been an avid gardener for a very long time.  When I was growing up, my father has a very large garden on the east end of our property.  For a couple years the neighbor brought his tractor down and plowed it up in exchange for the use of the field on top of the hill on the south side of the house.  Probably my earliest memory of a garden is hopping from one big clod to another in the freshly plowed garden.

It wasn't too many years later I actively became involved.  Gurney's had a one-cent seed packet for kids.  (Alas, I don't see it in their catalog anymore.)  It was a huge collection of all different kinds of vegetables and flowers.  With that variety, something was guaranteed to grow.  In my case, I had a lot of success with some kind of black bean.  I grew it for several years in a row, until I had a honey jar filled with them.  It would not surprise me if it is still in my parent's house somewhere.  (I wonder if they would still germinate.)

My next foray into gardening came after reading Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholemew.  (If you've never gardened before, I highly recommend it and its successor, All New Square Foot Gardening, which has 10 major improvements.)  Coming home for the summer from college, I thoroughly enjoyed putting together square beds with concrete blocks salvaged from an old basement on the property.  I did enjoy some successes and had a number of learning opportunities.

Shortly afterwards I learned about John Jeavons Ecology Action and his biointensive methods.  I especially like his perspective on grains and compost crops.  I started developing my own variety of rye specifically to use its straw as a mulch.

Around the same time, I entered the Master of Science in Sustainable Systems program at Slippery Rock University.  During my second semester there I took the Permaculture Design Course.  I have been using those principles on my property ever since.

This year I'm coming full circle.  I am taking the correspondence course for teaching Square Foot Gardening, and I've been making boxes and mixing soil accordingly. I wholeheartedly agree with Dorothy Frances Gurney's sentiment:

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,--
One is nearer God's heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

You don't need to enjoying gardening on the Long Ascent, but you'll be better off if you're close to and with someone who does.

Friday, March 16, 2012

There's Always Room For Beer

As we prepare for Saint Patrick's Day, I'd like to share one of my favorite jokes with you:


A philosophy professor set an empty jar on his desk in front of the class.

He proceeded to take a few large rocks and put them in the jar until they reached the top.

He asked the class, "Is this jar full?"  The class all agreed, the jar was full.

Then he poured in some small stones.  Again, he kept putting them in until they reached the top of the jar.

He asked the class again, "Is this jar full?"  The class all agreed, the jar was full.

Then he took some sand and carefully poured it in and shook it up until the sand had filled in all the spaces between the rocks and the stones.

He asked the class a final time, "Is this jar full?"  The class all agreed, the jar was full.

He explained, "This jar is like your life. The large rocks are the most important things in your life, like your job and your family.  You can fill up your life with just those.  The small stones are like your dear friends; they, too, can fill up your life.  The sand is like your hobbies and other interests; they will also fill up your life."

He asked, "So, class, what lesson did you learn?"  One student raised his hand, and the professor called on him.  The student came to the front of the class, pulled a beer out of his pocket, and poured it into the jar.  Then he exclaimed, "There's always room for beer!"


The jar, like our lives, is always full.  All that matters is how we fill it.  If we filled it with beer or sand first, there will be no room for stones or rocks.  On the Long Ascent we need to make sure we make room for what is most important to us first.

Friday, March 9, 2012

My YouTube

Today I posted my first video to YouTube, on Winter Blackberry Care.  Honestly, the production values are not that great.  If you do have blackberries or other brambles, though, you may find watching it worth your while.

My primary interest in mentioning that here is not self-promotion, however.  (It does come in a respectable second, though).   I more want to comment on an interesting developing phenomemon. While there is a lot of silliness being posted to YouTube, more and more serious offerings are showing up there: how-to's, political commentary, financial advice, to name a few.

What makes this interesting is the ease of putting stuff out there.  I spent $40 for the camera, $9 for the SD card, and a few dollars for the batteries.  After a few minutes of filming and a little over an hour to upload, my video is out there for everyone to see.  That level of access is relatively unprecedented.

There is a dark side to all this, too.  I could have given all the same basic information in under a page of text, which would have only taken up a few kilobytes.  If I wanted to be fancier, adding a few good pictures could have told all the details you can get from watching the video, at a cost of a couple megabytes at most.  As a video, however, I uploaded over 300 megabytes (though I presume YouTube compressed it for download.)

Not only does the video take up more room, it is much harder to store it.  As far as I know, there is no legitimate way to download the video from YouTube.  Printing it out would also prove very difficult.  If the information was presented in a text or PDF file, downloading and printing could both be fairly easy.

Of course this also means if you don't have access to the Internet, you don't have access to this information.  While the Internet itself was supposedly designed to withstand a nuclear war, I'm sure there would be nowhere near the ease of connecting as there is today.  For my little piece of gardening advice, that hardly matters.  But if more and more people start relying on knowledge from the Internet, especially in the form of videos, there is the potential for great loss.

We can use technology on the Long Ascent, but we need to ask ourselves whether it is appropriate and what would happen if it wasn't available.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Multitude of Rs

Back in a simpler age, education was concerned with the three Rs: reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic.  (Obviously, they weren't so concerned with spelling back then.)  The environmental movement came up with its own version of the 3 Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle.  It is a catchy phrase, but it has become trite.  People rarely think about what it actually means.  We need to carefully reconsider those 3, but in addition, I think several more are worth adding to that list.
  • Refuse

  • If someone tries to give you something you don't want, refuse it. Even something as simple as refusing a glass of water saves the several glasses worth of water and a little soap required to wash it.

  • Rethink

  • Before you consume something new, ask yourself if you really need it or if something else would work as well. A hyper-mileage car may be a good thing, but if you can do without any car, that is far better.

  • Reduce

  • If you do need to use something, see if you can use less of it.

  • Rent

  • If you are only going to use something occasionally, consider renting it. If you only have one week of vacation a year, why own a vacation home or even an RV when you can rent one instead?

  • Refill

  • Not so long ago, when drinks came in glass bottles, it was possible to get them refilled. You still do have the option to fill your own cup with coffee and fountain drinks at many coffee houses and convenience stores.

  • Reuse

  • Refilling bottles is an obvious way to reuse things, but other things can be used over and over even if they are normally thrown away after one use.

  • Repair

  • Usually things don't wear out all at once. As stuff becomes more costly to produce, if something is mostly working, fixing a small broken piece becomes more worthwhile.

  • Renew / Restore

  • Eventually things will wear down or age. When it is something that represents a major investment of materials and energy, like a house, it can be worthwhile to make it like new again.

  • Return

  • One of the problems with being a conservationist in a consumer society is that for many of these options, there are no economies of scale for the end user.  If we were to start returning stuff we have used up to where we bought it, they would have more incentive to deal with it properly.

  • Repurpose

  • This is basically reusing stuff, except it is for a different purpose than the original -- for example, using chopsticks for plant stakes.

  • Redesign

  • Once consumers start returning things they have used, companies will want to rethink how they make things.  Some examples are making things that are easy to disassemble or using standard parts that can be reused if they are still good.

  • Recycle

  • Breaking things down into their constituent materials and reusing them is not a bad option, but it is usually the last that should be considered.  Considerable time and energy has to be expended doing this -- granted, it still usually takes less than starting with virgin materials, but other options are better.

  • Regenerate

  • This is the ultimate goal.  Sustainability sounds like a good idea, but it is not enough.  All the other Rs help minimize the damage we do and keep things going as long as we can, but there is a limit to how much of that we can do.  Focusing on regenerating our resources and world we have degraded is what will propel us upward on the Long Ascent.

Friday, February 24, 2012


I am a major fan of Jeff Goldblum.  I have loved every movie of his I have ever seen.  Today I want to relate a story from Holy Man, which he co-starred with Eddie Murphy and Kelly Preston.  The story was told by Eddie's character.  I am, of course, paraphrasing:


One morning a man went for a walk on a beach.  A major storm had passed through the night before, and the beach was littered with thousands of dying starfish that had been washed onshore and were now drying out in the sun.

The man came upon a young boy who was picking up the starfish one by one and tossing them back into the ocean.  The man chastised the boy, "Why are you doing that?  You're not making any difference.  There is no way you can save all these starfish before they die!"

The boy answered, "Yes, but for each starfish I save, it makes all the difference in the world."


We face a perilous point in Hubbert's Mesa.  From our current vantage point, we can still see the possibilty of much brighter world is visible in the distant future.  We do need to keep that vision in our mind, as it will become more hidden from sight.  But the immediate future requires our attention, too.  The path ahead has many hazards, and if we lose control and tumble, it could be fatal.  We need to look to our destination when we rest, but focus on our surroundings as we proceed.

One thing we cannot do is look at what we are losing.  There is so much more than we can possibly save.  We have to block that out and concentrate on saving what we can.

On the Long Ascent, that makes all the difference in the world.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Abundant Earths

"Rare earths" are the focus of a number of high tech applications, including high-temperature superconductors and very efficient photovoltaic cells.  They are a collection of 17 elements which, while actually not uncommon in the Earth's crust, rarely form large deposits.  This makes them difficult to extract economically.

Looking at the abundance of elements in the Earth's crust, the top four elements stick out: oxygen (47.4%), silicon (27.7%), aluminum (8.2%), and iron (4.1%).  I propose calling them the "abundant earths".

Iron has been the basis for civilization for over 3 millenia.  Lightweight and corrosion-resistant aluminum has been critical to much of the progress of the twentieth century.  While the semiconductive nature of pure silicon allowed for the development of modern electronics, as components of glass and especially clays, silicon has played a major role in human culture since before the beginning of history.

Why I am concerning myself with these abundant earths?  Because we are not going to run out of them any time soon.  Concentrated deposits that are cheap to extract may become harder to find, but most of us have more of these elements than we could ever possibly use literally under our feet.  The only issues with these abundant earths are the knowledge and the energy to refine them.  If we truly follow the philosophy of "reduce, then reuse, then recycle", making sure our uses of these are expenditures rather than expenses, there is no technical reason they couldn't be available far into the future.

These abundant earths provide a firm footing for the Long Ascent.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Time Order of Needs

Many financial planners say you must distinguish between "needs" and "wants" when deciding what expenses are most important.

Survivalists have a "Rule of 3" for setting priorities:
  • You can survive about 3 minutes without oxygen.
  • You can survive about 3 hours in extreme temperatures.
  • You can survive about 3 days without water.
  • You can survive about 3 weeks without food.
These correspond roughly to the physiological level of Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs".  Sleep is another physiological need, but it doesn't fit nicely in to the above, in part because those are external.  As some point your body will likely force you to sleep; you just better not be operating heavy machinery at that time.  Some people list clothing, but that is tied in with extreme temperatures.  Sex is another physiological need, not so much for the individual as for the species.  3 decades without sex would be disastrous for the human race.

I left out the last rule of 3:
  • You can survive about 3 months without companionship.  
This is a psychological need.  It is a need nonetheless, but despite the rule people can vary greatly in how long they can go without it.  Maslow categorizes psychological needs into four levels, in order: safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.  His theory is that you need to fulfill one level before you start to satisfy the next, starting with the physiological.  One problem is this theory does not explain such conditions as anorexia nervosa, where a physical need is denied to fulfill a psychological need.  Another important criticism is that Maslow's hierarchy is culturally biased.

This brings me to where I disagree with financial planners and why this entry is not titled "Needs vs. Wants".  Except for the physiological/psychological distinction, these really are the same kinds of things. "Need vs. want" is just a matter of degree.  In the long run, any system which does not fulfill all of these is incomplete.

While a strict hierarchy does not explain things well, putting our psychological needs in some kind of order does make sense.  I think it a worthy exercise to extend the analysis that is simple with physical needs, namely how long can people survive with those needs unmet?  Quite frankly, I don't have these answers.

What I do know is that making sure all our needs are met, starting with the most urgent, is critical to not losing our way or falling down on the Long Ascent.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Cheapest Bed Warmer

Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow again yesterday, so we are in for six more weeks of winter.  One adjustment people are making on Hubbert's Mesa is turning down the thermostat to save money as energy prices rise. We bundle up as we move around during the day and pile on the blankets at night.  However, the transition as we get into a cold bed can be jarring.

While this is mainly a matter of comfort, this is a practical matter too; you can waste a lot of time trying to fall asleep when you are too cold.  Many solutions have been devised: electric blankets, hot water bottles, metal contraptions to put hot coals in, even putting blankets in a clothes dryer for a few minutes.

My method is one I haven't seen others use.  I like to lie down on top of my blankets (and pajamas) while I'm fully dressed.  For 20 to 30 minutes, I'll read, listen to podcasts, play with my latest iThingy, or type on my laptop.  Then I'll quickly change for bed and get under the covers while they're still warm and cozy.

This is nothing major.  But this solution is almost totally free (since I would spend my time doing those things anyway.)  It is just another example of putting your pants on both legs at the same time.  Small changes in behavior can be simpler and more effective than complicated technical solutions.

The more creatively we can solve our problems, the easier the Long Ascent will be.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Expense vs. Expenditure

In common everyday usage, expense and expenditure are used synonymously.  Even some accountants use them interchangeably.  In the United States tax code, there is a subtle but important difference.  No, even though one of my careers is a professional tax preparer, I am not turning this blog into a detailed discussion of taxes.  However, the distinction between expense and expenditure is a critical one for any discussion of sustainable economics, especially from the top of Hubbert's Mesa.

To put it simply, an expense is spending money for something which you completely benefit from in the current year; an expenditure is spending money for something which you benefit from for multiple years.  For example, your car is an expenditure (or at least I hope if you're reading this blog, you're not buying a new car every year!), the gasoline to fill it is an expense.

Where this distinction relates to sustainability and Peak Oil is that it doesn't just apply to money.  For those purposes, though, one year is very arbitrary; it probably should be expanded.   For example, making concrete takes a tremendous amount of energy, invariably from fossil fuels these days.  If you make concrete objects so that they are only put to one use and then discarded, that represents a substantial energy expense.  On the other hand, concrete objects that are designed to be reused over and over are an expenditure that can pay dividends for centuries.

We need to carefully analyze whether the resources we use are expenses or expenditures, because on the Long Ascent, expenses weigh us down, but expenditures are what allow us to go higher.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Lawn Nazis and Trash Fascists

Today I want to tell you a tale of two cities.  Call one "S", for "stylish", and the other "R", for responsible.  (The identities are hidden to protect the guilty.)

The residents of "S" are very concerned with outward appearances.  In particular they want everyone to have impeccably groomed lawns.  They have even gone so far as pass an ordinance that grass must be kept below 6 inches, and one of the town officials goes around in the spring with a ruler to make sure that people comply.  Those who don't are given one warning and then face a $300 fine.

People living in "R" want to make sure we leave the planet in as good a condition as possible.  They are very strict that people recycle everything they can.  The refuse collectors are charged with watching the trash as gather it.  People who fail to separate out recyclables get a note on their trash can warning them they could face a stiff fine.

Why does this matter?  Because as long as these Lawn Nazis and Trash Fascists only hold power at a local level, you can choose whether you want to be stylish or responsible.  If you find yourself in the wrong town, you can easily move to another more to your liking.  Heck, you might even find a town, call it "SR", that has both, if that is what you want.  Once they start taking over state or national governments, however, escaping them becomes much more costly.

Having as much local control as possible will help us navigate the Long Ascent.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tom Brown's "Grandfather"

When I was going to college in California, I took a survival course from Christopher Nyerges.  One day he related to us the story of Tom Brown, Jr.  He gained fame for his skills as a tracker.  One interviewer mistakenly reported that he ran a survival school, and he was flooded with requests, so he did start teaching survival skills.  His story, "The Tracker", is a fine read.

Today, however, I want to discuss part of the story of his teacher, who was called "Grandfather" even from a young age.  One particular valley plays an important role three times in his life.  When he was growing up, he would frequently visit that pristine valley to play.  In the middle of his life, decades later, he discovered that a mining camp had been erected.  The natural beauty had been devastated by all the human activity.  Finally, as an old man, he visited the valley one last time, when he discovered that the intervening decades had erased much of the evidence of the exploitation.  Except for a few scraps here and there, the valley was starting to look much as it did in his youth.

There is, of course, a point beyond which nature will never recover.  After the last tree on Easter Island was cut down, they never came back.  But as long as something remains, the natural world has a remarkable ability to heal itself, given time.

One of our most immediate tasks on the Long Ascent is ensuring that enough of the wilderness is preserved so that healing can take place.

Friday, January 6, 2012



The End Of The World As We Know It.


I'm confident you've already heard that the Mayan calendar ends on 12/21/02012.  In reality, it doesn't so much end as it starts over.  It's more of a Y10K problem; as long as we only use 4 digits to write the year, in 7988 years we will have the same problem.

Don't get me wrong, while I don't like the concept of THE EOTWAKI, it is useful to talk about the world changing so fundamentally that the rules we have known no longer apply; you could call it a teotwawki.  However, I don't the fact that the emphasis is on what is ending.  If the sun goes supernova or an asteroid the size of Texas crashes in to the Earth, then by all means call it a teotwawki.  Other, lesser changes like the supply of oil not meeting the demand represent an opportunity, though.  We should use an acronym that represents that. I propose TSOABWTWHEK:

The Start Of A Better World Than We Have Ever Known

While we need to watch our step, we also need to keep looking up as we make the Long Ascent.