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.