Sunday, December 31, 2006

Thoughts on a mountain top

A hike to the top of Bald Mountain always produces a flurry of thoughts.

I think today's corporate grail, "the economy of scale" is largely a fallacy. Real economy comes from small scale. Localized, small-scale production, support and services.

Over-concentration of manufacturing, distribution and management leads to a host of social and environmental ills. It has led to a "corporate feudal system", in which workers are dependent upon the benevolence of corporations for food, water, fuel, housing, clothing, etc. Specialization has become the norm, and lost are the direct connections between people and the source of basic life-sustaining necessities. For most of us, the concept of "living off the land" is probably as abstract as living on Mars. (And that state of affairs is just fine in the eyes of the global business community.)

The internet has become one of the more profoundly democratic tools that could serve to educate people how to better provide for their own security. To increase self-sufficiency. To facilitate micro-economies. But for this, net neutrality is essential.

There is a real economy of scale, and this is created through the consolidation of human understanding, compassion and kindness.

***

Businesses compete by delivering their products at the best price. To survive, corporations must continue to improve their performance through a variety of means. Inevitably, increase of profits, and earnings per share, requires reducing operational costs. (This is where "economy of scale" enters their models.)

An important element of increasing profits is "externalizing costs". The more cost that can be stripped away from the resources a business needs, the higher the profitability (and hopefully, the lower the cost of the product to the consumer.)

But someone pays for costs that are externalized. Usually, it is the society at large. Externalized costs include resource depletion, pollution, waste management and recycling, infrastructure degradation and human health and welfare impacts.

The United States has in fact made considerable progress re-internalizing these costs, forcing manufacturers (and subsequently, consumers) to be responsible for the "total cost" of a product through its entire "life cycle", from resource extraction through reuse, recycling or disposal. This is accomplished through regulation, taxation, community pressure, etc. California has long been a leader in this effort.

Globalization, however, introduces a method for the evasion of such controls. As corporations move the resource extraction and manufacturing operations to countries with weak or non-existent social and environmental controls, they successfully externalize important elements of a product's total cost.

It is for this reason that Americans, despite stricter regulation of industry at home, can continue to enjoy the same low prices for products, even while corporate profits soar.

We have succeeded in transferring once-localized problems to a global scale. And in this way, we each share responsibility for solving these issues wherever they arise.

My travels in Latin America repeatedly allowed me to witness this phenomena in action.

***

Someday, we will be shocked that we buried anything but organic waste. As resources decline, we will no doubt mine landfills to reclaim valuable materials (just as we mine gold and diamonds now.)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas at Graeagle

YESTERDAY EVENING



We must be hungry, all hovering at the kitchen






Jackie and "Snue"



Sergio, Jessica and Cathie






Ted



Susan ("Snue")



Sergio kicking my butt



Meals on wheels. Cathie arrived with dinner ready to cook, including this wonderful salmon.



Cathie's "Prana" waiting for gifts from above



Sergio breaking


OUT FOR A WALK THIS MORNING









"Prana" walking Ted



Exploring Yonkalla Trail












Jackie and Susan


Jessica and her Grandma

Monday, December 11, 2006

Facing winter

Awoke from a common dream. (Or is it? Did I just dream it was common?)

I have the unique ability, it seems, to fly above the land, suspended from an umbrella grasped in one hand.

Getting airborne requires only putting a little more spring in my step, then pushing off.

Flying is not without insecurities. I’m careful not to let my grip slip, and structurally, the small umbrella is not very sound, the fabric having come loose from some of the ribs.

But for now, I sail unnoticed over Los Angeles enjoying fantastic views (and it’s amazingly clear!)

Slept until 8:00 in my darkened fish bowl. An interesting experiment these past couple years: I’ve basically rested as much as my body desired. I would think my health would benefit from such a routine.

***

California’s population declined by 29,000 last year, the first decline in 10 years, according to the State. But that’s just a small city.

***

John Steinbeck describes a familiar feeling, as he crossed the Southwest:

“I was driving myself, pounding out the miles because I was no longer hearing or seeing. I had passed my limit for taking in or, like a man who goes on stuffing in food after he is filled, I felt helpless to assimilate what was fed in through my eyes. Each hill looked like the one just passed.

Why had I thought I could learn anything about this land? For the last hundreds of miles I had avoided people. Even at the necessary stops for gasoline I had answered in monosyllables and retained no picture. My eye and brain had welshed on me. I was fooling myself that this was important or even instructive.”

Finished Travels with Charley before noon, then prepared to go out. I’ve been intending to drop in on friends at "Chateau St. Jean" winery. As I looked out, it was raining. Cold and gray. Enough to make me pause. I have that luxury at the moment.

Wandering around my small apartment, a quiet voice finally said “you’re a coward. Get out there.”

Returned videos, ran out to the Kenwood post office. My mutual fund distribution check was there! Rain increasing, I went up to "Chateau St. Jean". Walked into reception. Dana was at the desk and gave me a warm greeting. Bonnie heard the commotion and came out of the winemaker’s tasting room. They were about to have a company meeting, so I took the cue to make it brief.

Wandered over to the retail room, where I found my friends Sharon, then Philippe and finally Dan.

It’s so difficult to maintain connections.

Visited "Chelino’s" for a burrito. Too much food, but not wishing to deal with a styrofoam take-out container, I finished everything. This left me uncomfortably full. (How often is this scene repeated across our great nation!)

Next stop, "Flying Goat" for a coffee and to do some work on the computer. Only stayed a short while. I was not inspired to work there; it was growing dark, a light rain falling.

Returned home. All the effort to suit up and go out, for what? Not much accomplished.

Rain turning heavy tonight.

Jeff called. He was on the road, just approaching Montreal. I asked about the weather. He said it was “nice”.

“That’s great.”

“No it’s not!”

He said he’s seeing changes in the weather up north. To him, Global Warming is a reality.

At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union today, it was reported that a Canadian-American study has determined summer ice in Arctic may cease by 2040. Governments see potential positives: winter access to Canadian ports that are currently ice-bound in winter, Russia can extend oil drilling further into Arctic waters. (Insanity that would bring further localized air pollution and warming from the drilling operations!)

Working from journals, I posted entries to the blog from January and February 2005. Each entry is painfully slow, typing at my dining table, then taking the computer over to the kitchen to try to raise a wireless connection for the posting process.

Kofi Annan leaves the U.N. after ten years as Secretary General. In a parting speech, the soft-spoken and seemingly ineffective leader had his harshest criticism for the U.S., which he says is losing its moral compass and “has abandoned its principles.”

The day passes, and so little is accomplished. This must change.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Free will

Opened my eyes after 8:00 and quickly knew there would be no magical mandate to drive me forward. I languished in my aimless state.

So, where does this path lead? Nowhere good, that is clear. On the radio, I constantly hear of people pursuing noble goals, which only serves to increase the depression.

After washing some laundry and hanging it outside in the weak midday sun, I left the house and drove over to “Flying Goat”, if only to not be alone. RSSI’s wireless was transmitting, but was clearly not actively hooked to a network, so I couldn’t connect. (The connection at home was too sporadic to work on-line.)

People like Russ, and Robert, and Jeff and Drew ask when I’m going to join society, hook up like normal people. I like being at the fringe, with a sense of independence. I seek to avoid some of the things that submerge people in today’s corporate quagmire. I still am unable to escape contributing to the oil companies. That remains the strongest corporate force in my life. Notice how powerless we feel to control the price of gasoline. In truth, virtually every corporate commodity has become the same. Whether it’s gas, electricity, water, telephones, food, medical and dental care. We have entrusted these necessities to those who have no particular interest in our well-being. The ideal of a “free marketplace” is tenuous at best.

So I exercise my “free will” by trying to minimize the amount I must engage in this marketplace. (A pretty funny concept coming from someone whose life for the past thirty years has been focused on “purchasing”.)

Anxious that the BMW might not turn over in the quickly cooling afternoon, I left my coffee shop office and turned homeward. (This is not going to be acceptable, having to be home before it turns cold and dark.) As soon as I arrived, I hooked the bike up to the trickle-charger.

On the way home, I detoured a bit to buy groceries at “Oliver’s Market”. Though not particularly convenient, there is pleasure in shopping at a locally-owned market. And the quality of products here is generally better than the “Whole Foods”, which is succumbing to the “efficiencies of scale" mentality which often leads to compromises on quality.

Finished reading “Breaking the Limit” tonight. I was surprised how many places my own journey intersected with Karen Larsen’s North American adventure five years earlier, though she was much more diligent in avoiding interstate highways and large cities. And the lessons she describes so well are all familiar.

There’s one thing very apparent from her story, however: a woman traveling alone is subject to very different social phenomena than a man traveling alone.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Life Themes

My back injury was worse than thought. It still bothers me and I must take it easy.

Promised I’d go out and pick up six bottles of wine for Charlene and Henry. At first, Charlene wanted to go with me and learn about wine, then decided she had too much to do preparing for their gathering today.

I headed out to “Bottle Barn” at 10:30, with a 6-bottle shipping box strapped to the back. Down the road, it was flapping a bit, so I pulled over to better secure it. But I couldn’t start the bike again. The battery was drained. I was at Farmer’s Lane and Bennett Valley Road, on a slight hill. Tried roll-starting it. No luck. Rolled off onto a side street, out of traffic.

Walked the bike a block or so, quickly remembering what it’s like to push this thing. Tried roll-starting again, but it wouldn’t kick over. A block up was a "Valero" gas station. The service bays were closed. “It’s Saturday,” the young man in the office announced.

“Do you have any jumper cables and a car that could jump me?” He had cables, but no car. Then a middle-aged woman seated in another room, leaned over into the doorway and said we could use her Mercedes parked outside. She had a “toy dog” in her lap and I assumed she owned the station.

Opened the Mercedes hood and after looking around, noticed the decal “battery is located in trunk”. Recalling warnings in my owner’s manual about jump-starting the bike, I nevertheless followed the same procedure I would use for a car. The bike started right up and I quickly disconnected the cables, somehow thinking any damage the jump might do would not be instantaneous.

Without hesitation, I handed the attendant $10 with my sincere thanks.

Continued on my mission to “Bottle Barn”. This is fun: spending other people’s money on wine! I knew what I was looking for in a German wine and was excited to find “Dr. Loosen” 2005 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett (with screwcap!). It was still in its case, at the bottom of a stack of new arrivals. Surprised at the price of the French Gigondas ($15-20), I then noticed Guigal’s 2003 Crozes-Hermitage at $17.69. A handwritten sign cited Robert Parker’s review, scoring the wine “91-94 points”.

I was $13 over budget, but intended to only charge Charlene and Henry the $100 I had promised to stay within. But Charlene was thrilled and they insisted on paying even more than what it cost. We agreed I’ll take $120 off the next rent check.

Leaving them I remarked that I was simply doing what I enjoy, “spending other people’s money. Now the urge to shop is out of my system!”

***

Out to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Many more non-paying cars (parked jut outside the fee area) than paying cars (parked beyond the toll booth.) “This is nuts. The parks need the money.” But not being a complete idiot, and unemployed, I parked outside and walked in.

It was reassuring to see so many people out enjoying the beautiful weather, especially now, when there’s considerable pressure to be at the mall.

The hike today was considerably more difficult, possibly because I began at an unrealistic pace, trying to pass a couple of young ladies who I did not wish to be “following” on the trail.

A chilly breeze out of the northeast, noticeably drier than recent winds. Relaxed on top of Bald Mountain, as I’m accustomed to do, lying in the grass, my hat shielding my face from the sun. Drowsy, perfect. But I only rested fifteen minutes or so. Future plans were not being elucidated. Nothing was being “accomplished”. This continues to hang over me.

“I have to think constructively. What should I do?” A purchasing consultancy for wineries (a la Tenzing)? Something so remarkable about the film 49 Up was to see the 49-year-old juxtaposed to the 7-year-old; how at 7 they already foresaw their life’s theme!

This causes me to reflect on the themes of my life. Is there a common thread? (No doubt, there is!) What is it? And why not continue it, even embrace it, rather than look beyond it?

It’s not science, music, art (though there's a romantic notion of hidden talents.) It is the world beyond the horizon. At three years old, I recall gazing out at Lake Erie’s distant horizon; at six, wondering what’s beyond the mountains’ sunset silhouette; the fascination with maps, with stamps of the world; at eight years old, the Family cross-country odyssey; high school fascination with the War in the Pacific, with Viet Nam; procurement missions that took me to out-of-the-way places; backpacking across Europe and later doing business in Europe; and, finally traveling the Western Hemisphere. There is a theme. Movement.

Maybe I’m not intended to have a “home”, a fixed address? That something that has gnawed at me, that “thing” that “responsible people my age” are assumed to have.

The predictable stimulation of these walks in the mountains raises the question “why not get this exercise early in the morning, then go through the day with the energy generated?” That would make too much sense.

Pleasantly-fatigued, drove to “Chelino’s” in the fading light, and enjoyed dinner as I read the newspaper.

President Bush’s words betray a trace of erosion in his single-minded stubbornness: “we are going to stay in Iraq as long as the Iraqi government wants us there.” A slight departure from his “until the job is done” claim. We are quietly backing away from the “job” of “bringing democracy to Iraq”. We will now settle for any government that might quell the violence and allow a face-saving withdrawal.

Tonight, I listened to a “Prairie Home Companion” broadcast from my “hometown”, Buffalo, New York. It was better than many of their shows.