Saturday, August 28, 2010

A balanced energy playing field

We've built our civilization on cheap fossil fuels, but their bang for the energy buck is declining. When oil just flowed out of the ground it didn't take much energy to collect it and take it to market.

Oil is locked up under the boreal forest and at the bottom of the oceans. It takes much more money and energy to get this oil than it did when oil was flowing free.

You could tell similar stories for natural gas (which needs hydraulic fracking) and coal (mountaintop removal). Fossil fuels are getting harder and harder to obtain, and it won't get any easier. The easy stuff has already been burned off.

The market has a solution, but the market for energy is unbalanced. The current price of energy doesn't include the externalities like the cost of using the atmosphere as a carbon sink. Those externalities are coming back to bite us in the form of ocean acidification and climate change.

To solve the problem we need to insist that government level the playing field. Carbon extracted from the earth and going into the atmosphere and the oceans is the problem.

To balance the market, we need to add the cost of equivalent carbon abatement to the price of the resource as it's being extracted (or imported). The government should collect this money and distribute it evenly to all Canadians.

These fees would be revenue neutral. All the money from the fees will be distributed to Canadians and those funds will cover any increased costs in the marketplace.

Some people will buy low-carbon goods and be better off, and some will continue to buy higher-carbon goods and spend proportionally more. The balanced market signals would favour people who pollute less.

At it's core, this would pay the public back for the private use of a common resource, restoring the imbalance without being punitive.

Cost-effective alternatives will emerge, and will allow us to reduce our dependance on fossil fuels.

This particular strategy is called Fee and Dividend. The government will send you the money it collects from energy companies. Ask your friendly neighbourhood political leader to adopt a market solution to energy security. Ask them to adopt a Fee and Dividend approach to energy security.

You might also like:

Fee & Dividend: Make money while saving the planet

EROEI: Bang for your energy buck

Can you dump your gas company?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Shower: The fountain of ideas

The shower is the perfect storm of ideas. There, there's water pressure, but no mental pressure. Effortlessly and without direction, you can freely associate concepts and come up with great ideas.

The other reason ideas happen there is because it's also the one place left where you can't really take your iPod. There are no distractions.

Ever wonder what effect this constant stream of mental input is having on your output? Constant input means no ideas.

Take the chewing gum out of your eyes and ears every once in a while. Think. Make things. Be creative. No pressure though. Pressure will fatigue you back onto tried, tired ideas. There are no rewards either. The rewards will distract from the process.

If you invite them, the ideas will come, but not when you're scrambling for them, and certainly not when you're distracted by your media source of choice.

The acquisition of data is important, but without the quiet reflective time, like the seven minutes you spend in the shower, you won't be able to put the ideas together.

When you hit upon the idea, write it down quickly because even if it's not perfect, being prepared to capture the fleeting ideas will keep you ready when that one big idea floats by. Don't fool yourself into thinking you'll remember it later. You won't.

The fountain of ideas has nothing to do with the water and everything to do with the mental space that the shower enables.

Unplug. Stem the flow of external chatter. Turn off all distractions.

Ask. Have a clear question you're trying to answer.

Relax. It's ok if you forget you were even trying to answer the question. Your subconscious will work on this in just the same way as you suddenly remember the name of that movie you were trying to think of three hours ago.

Respect the idea. If you don't take your ideas seriously, by at least writing them down, your mind will get wise to you trying to use it this way and quit giving you the ideas you're asking for, like a muscle you never use. Instead, make use of the ideas, and your brain will keep putting in the effort to help you out again and again.

Unplug, ask, relax, and respect the idea. Or you could just go have another shower. You know you need it.

You might also like:

Have you been neglecting your imagination?

Change comes from the inside

The problem with vague problems

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Deficit Spending: Don't dump your problems on the future

Should this kid pay your debts?

The future is going to have enough of its own problems, so offloading our not-quite-balanced budgets onto the backs of the future is terribly immature.

Everybody wants more than they can afford. As you'd expect in a free market environment, an industry has jumped up to sell us the money we don't have, in exchange for our futures.

Governments are no different. Running a deficit has been sold to us as a perfectly reasonable approach to give us things we want, but can't afford.

People talk about cutting the deficit like it's some sort of virtue. If your friends in government overspend by $10 million last year and only $8 million this year, they're still in the hole $18 million (plus interest) and no closer to getting out.

But they cut the deficit, and we hail them as heroes for doing so. All they've done is stolen slightly less from the future. You're still not on a road to recovery. More like going from ten packs of smokes a day down to eight.

Economist John Maynard Keynes always comes up in these discussions. People use his name like a secret password that lets them spend as much public money as they want. During the good times, when countercyclical fiscal policy would suggest saving money we forget about him.

Deficit spending leads to one of two places, austerity or bankruptcy. Either we struggle mightily to pay it back, or we let the system kerplode. Neither of those options is very attractive.

Running a deficit is like coating your arteries with plaque. A little here and there doesn't seem to cause much of a problem. As you add up the debt though, the interest robs you of your purchasing power, so you need to run a deficit again, coating your arteries with more plaque. The cycle continues, and unless you cut way back on your spending to pay off the accumulated debt the system breaks down and you have a heart attack.

Greece has reached a critical point in this, with its austerity measures that their citizens are revolting against. Nobody likes being forced into austerity. We would like to remain in the style to which we have become accustomed.

The easiest way to do this is to stay out of debt in the first place, and if you find yourself in debt, pay it off as fast as you can. That goes whether you're a private citizen on a level of government.

The future will have enough problems of its own. Don't dump yours on it too.

You might also like:

Money Trouble

Protect the environment to protect the economy

Fee & Dividend: Make money while saving the planet (This is way better than cap and trade)

How interest on debt threatens the environment

(Then again, you might not, but they'll sure make you think.)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Have you been neglecting your imagination?

Burt Rutan speaking to a packed audience at Airventure in Oshkosh Wisconsin, July 2010.

Once you find yourself in a routine, it's easy to neglect your creative side. Creativity is too often stifled. It's time we fix that.

Creativity can be shut down by the expectations of the world. We have a drive to fit in, to meet the expectations of others. Standing out is risky. Having unproven ideas is risky. Your idea might seem stupid and nobody wants to be embarrassed in front of people they respect.

So what if your idea doesn't work. A few minutes or days of embarrassment perhaps? A reprimand? A "That's not how we do things here"? Laugh that stuff off. Any organization that's not willing to entertain new ideas will become obsolete before they know it.

Even Albert Einstein knew that "Imagination is more important than knowledge".

The real risk is in not taking any risks. Instead, dream big and then figure out how to make it happen.

One guy who does: Burt Rutan. He was the airplane designer responsible for many recordbreaking airplane designs. A third of his designs don't work at all, which is fine, because that allows him the mental freedom to come up with innovative designs that do. At a recent talk he explained how important creativity was to his designs, and how kids and adults these days need to harness their creativity.

Google harnesses its employees creativity by allowing them to work on whatever they want for 20% of their work time. It used to be 10%, but they increased that amount after realizing that many of their flagship products were initially developed during this time. Google engineers are smart people, but they unleash their creativity on problems that inspire them. Between gmail, Google News, and Google Earth, among many others, liberating their employees' creativity is essential to developing their business.

Knowledge isn't essential anymore. Creativity is. You can look up what year Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but Columbus, or any other collection of data can't be creative for you or draw out the interesting connections. You need to do that.

Creativity is the part of whatever you're doing that isn't going to be taken over by either computers or by cheaper offshore labour elsewhere. It requires a measure of boldness and daring, and it accepts the possibility of failure. It's a choice between imagining what's possible or being content with the same old thing. Dream big. The rewards are worth it.

You might also like:

Creative task? Rewards lead to worse results.

Fail Early, Fail Often

Lunar Lessons: Ready for More

And if you haven't seen it already, watch Black Sky: The Race for Space to see Burt does for fun.