BP and the Forest of Fangorn

by Ouida on June 13, 2010

The old world will burn in the fires of industry. Forests will fall. A new order will rise.

“The Forest of Fangorn lies on our doorstep. Burn it.”

Saruman, LOTR: The Two Towers.

I planned this blog post several days ago before Thomas Friedman’s editorial in today’s Times.  Friedman’s editorial puts the blame for the BP oil spill where it truly belongs, with each and every one of us.  We have had so many opportunities to get our “oil situation” right, but we have squandered them.  The 1970’s oil shocks, runaway inflation and the recession of the early 1980’s did push us toward fuel efficient cars and thermostats set at 65 degrees but neither of those maneuvers is really an energy policy.  The 1990’s bull market, tech boom and cheap oil pushed us toward MacMansions, the suburbs and SUVs.  9/11 wasn’t really a time for introspection and personal responsibility as much as it was a time for anger and war making.  No energy policy again…just another missed opportunity.  From 1996 to 2006 I drove a 4-Runner everywhere I went and thought nothing about it.  I didn’t make the connection either until I saw Syriana in January 2006 and realized what my petrodollars were really doing.  I walked out of the theater and said, “I’m buying a Prius.”  By February 6th I was driving my new car off the lot.  A Prius isn’t an energy policy either and the truth is that we may never get one at least not from our government.  But we as individuals can make one.  We can drive fuel efficient cars.  I am sorry to say that a car that gets 25 miles per gallon is not a fuel efficient car.  One that gets at least 30 mpg is.  We can replace our drafty windows with energy efficient ones.  We can get digital thermostats.  CFU light bulbs.  We can walk, we can cycle, we can compost, we can garden, we can lose weight for the obesity epidemic adds about a billion gallons a year in additional fuel consumption.

What will it take for individuals to take action?  Waiting for the government is like waiting for Gadot.  We can remain on the park bench waiting for him to arrive, be we know he never will.  That is the point.

So what will it take?  Should the Earth take matters into its own hands and the ground open up and swallow each SUV that drives over the roads?  What would happen if oil-soaked oysters rose from the depths of the gulf, grew feet, came ashore and hurled themselves at BP executives instead of die quietly on the ocean floor?  Would we get the message then?

The image of the Forest of Fangorn is a powerful one;  a forest that literally rose up and moved to intercept and destroy the creatures who had desecrated it in order to create weapons of mass destruction.  Do we need walking trees and talking animals to get the point?

I know this, I am feeling increasingly hopeless about our ability to get this right.  We’ve had so many chances.  Cheap oil and the consumer destroyed the electric car in the 1990’s.  I would like to blame GM, but they are not entirely to blame, they made the SUVs but we bought them.

Where do we go from here?  Please comment.

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The Glee Journey

by Ouida on June 9, 2010

Last spring I canceled my satellite and I watch more TV today than ever.  Do I have rabbit ears?  No.  I have the Internet.  I figured out that I had literally spent thousands on cable then satellite paying for shows that I never really got to see.  Two years ago I bought my first CSI subscription from iTunes.  Then one day about 18 months ago I discovered that CBS rebroadcasts many of its TV shows online.  I picked up a Mac Mini and plugged it into my new LCD TV.  I began streaming programs directly to my new TV.  Since the Internet rebroadcasts air after the official network broadcasts, all I really needed was the discipline to watch my “shows” at odd times.  The money I’ve saved by not paying for cable or satellite actually paid for my Mac Mini.  Somehow I found Glee while surfing the FOX website.  I had put off watching it despite the rave reviews from my friends because I thought, hey I’m middle-aged.  This show is for kids.  But I was once a kid.

When I was a kid I was in choir.  My teacher was Mrs. Bridges we won our “Regionals” but I never competed at “Nationals”, we moved.  I was a geek as a kid and had few friends.  In junior high had a tendency to want to hang out with the popular kids and that really got me nowhere.  I used to lock myself in basement and sing for hours.  I got a bit smarter in high school about picking my friends.  Friends I could watch Rod Stewart sing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” with and scream like a crazy woman or hold hands with in the dark while Mike Meyers went on a killing spree or friends who would cover for me when I sneaked out to meet the forbidden boyfriend.  I was still a geek, though, lugging every school book I owned in a big red bag knocking people aside as I went to class. The red bag of courage what what my classmates used to call that bag.

I ignored Glee until the “Single Ladies” episode.  Then I was hooked.  Something about being a misfit but wanting to be accepted resonated with me.  Every week I find myself swaying on the couch singing.  I’d hold up a lighter while swaying on the couch if I wasn’t so worried about the fire hazard.  I sing in my home more now than I have in the last decade.  My voice is no longer the solid reasonably trained alto that it was;  it has more cracks in it than a windshield in New Mexico, but I sing none-the-less.

The Glee Finale featured three songs that I love and own.  Journey’s “Lovin, Touchin, Squeezin” and Lulu’s “To Sir With Love” both on 45 and Queen’s “A Night at the Opera” featuring “Bohemian Rapsody” on LP.  LP and 45s were, uh, lumps of vinyl that music used to be recorded on.

The Glee Journey is a journey of the Soul, from adolescence, to young adulthood, through middle age, old age to the end.  Will Schuester, the club’s coach, said there really is only one beginning and one end to life and the rest is one big middle.  What we stuff in that middle is really what matters.

Last night was a wonderful season wrap and there was enough substance to keep me singing until the Fall season premier.  People are surprised that the show is a hit, but I’m not.  FOX picked it up within 15 hours of receiving the script.  I suspect that during those 15 hours the executives at FOX were transported back to their own adolescence.

Share your thoughts about Glee.  Please comment.

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Understanding the Value Proposition

by Ouida on June 6, 2010

Every business coach and mentor I have ever had from Robert Kiyosaki to author Phil Laut, stress that a sale occurs when value meets price.  In other words, a person determines how much something is worth to them before they pay for it.  They can evaluate the experience of owing a product or the presumed experience of owning that product before they buy.  Apple gets high margins for its products because the user values the experience he  has owning an Apple product enough to pay a premium for that experience.  I drive a Prius because I place a premium on the feeling I get while driving it.  I buy whole rather than processed food, because I value the overall effect whole foods have on my health.  Ellen Ruppel Schell argues in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture that we have become so focused on price that we have lost sight of the value proposition.  What is the value proposition? When looking at an item or service, that we intend to buy, we determine its value in our lives.   When the value of the item or service exceeds the price we are willing to pay, we have a value proposition.  The value of the item or service we are buying is actually worth more to us than the money we are going to part with.   About 20 years  ago I went shopping for shoes with my friend, Robin.  Her grand parents had just sent her $200 dollars.  Before I knew it we were on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and Robin was handing over the entire sum for a single pair of shoes. I was flabbergasted.  Robin told me that her family taught her that you never skimp on shoes.  Robin bought shoes that could be resoled and repaired, shoes that were intended to last years.  Having a pair of shoes that would last for years was more important to Robin than the $200 dollars in her wallet. I used to be a pretty enthusiastic skier.  Because I have very narrow feet, most ski boots are ill-fitting.  I went to a local shop in Durango about 15 years ago and the boot fitter fitted me with a pair of Rossignols.  The fit was great, but the price tag was $600 dollars.  About a month later, I went to a ski shop in Albuquerque and plopped down $450 dollars on a boot that fit just okay, but had the advantage of being cheaper.  Thus began my boot fitting nightmare.  Six years later I had shin and ankle injuries and had gone to every boot fitter I could find between Taos, Breckenridge, Purgatory, Wolf Creek…you get the picture…trying to make the cheaper boot fit properly so that I could actually enjoy skiing in it.  I finally went to a boot fitter in Aspen and walked out with the Rossignols.  I asked for and got a discount, but that wouldn’t have mattered.  I had learned my lesson:  when it comes to ski boots, the fit is key and trumps everything else including price. I spent hundreds of dollars more than I needed to because I let price trump value when it came to that pair of ski boots.

Several years ago I read The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works–and How It’s Transforming the American Economy.  That Wal-Mart is a powerful company is really an understatement.  They can save forests by demanding that their suppliers reduce their packaging, they can support wild-caught fisheries rather than farmed fishing and save coastlines, they can undercut the competition and drive local small business out of business.  Wal-mart is the nation’s largest low-wage employer.  Their current motto:  “Save money, Live better”.  At the time The Wal-Mart Effect was written their motto was “Always Low Prices, Always.”  The Wal-Mart Effect was about the high cost of those low prices.  Catchy isn’t it?

One of the featured stories in the book was of Snapper, maker of lawn mowers.  They stopped being a Wal-Mart supplier because they could not make a quality lawn mower to meet the Wal-Mart price point of less than $100 dollars.  Snapper concluded that there are worse things than not being a Wal-Mart supplier.  Charles Fishman, author of, The Wal-Mart Effect, mused that at the prices Wal-Mart charged for its lawn mowers, you could afford to get one every year.  Which is good, because at those prices, you don’t expect one to last longer than a year and it probably isn’t worth repairing anyway.  We just replaced our lawn mower, purchased in 2006 for $100 dollars with a $200 dollar model purchased last week.  Both from Wal-Mart.  Frustrated with a mower we could barely get to work each year, we were hoping for quality by going with the higher price point.  What is our real cost?  So far $100 dollars per year for lawn mowers with the added cost in frustration and stress of having a product that is difficult to start.

I am not too old to remember the time when a family purchased a lawn mower and that mower lasted season after season with perhaps a tune up every other year.  Not so any more.  In our culture today we value price over performance.  It wasn’t always that way, but it is now.  I have a Poulon Weedeater purchased at, you guessed it, Wal-Mart.  It’s cost was $87 dollars.  Its heart and soul are plastic and therein lies the rub.  Parts that should not fatigue and break from simple use, do.  Why, because they are plastic.  I replaced the plastic choke housing a few years ago, for $18 dollars.  Now there are so many other broken parts, all plastic, that the cost of the parts exceeds the original cost of the machine.  I replaced the Weedeater with simple garden shears, and a lawn service, but I wonder about our land fills being filled with useless and poorly-made equipment.

Is this what happens when price trumps common sense? That we are doomed to pay more for an item over the long haul because we are constantly having to pay for replacements?  By my count, our $100 dollar lawn mower actually costs $300 dollars and counting.

How do you work out your value proposition? Please comment.

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BP and US

by Ouida on June 3, 2010

Six weeks ago an explosion at the Deep Horizon well off the US gulf coast caused that well to begin spewing 800,000 gallons a day of crude oil into the water.  Satellite images today showed the spill creeping toward the Florida Coast.

I was 27 and in medical school on the East coast when the Exxon Valdez hit a reef at Prince William Sound and spewed 11 million gallons of crude into the Ocean, destroying fisheries, birds and other wild life.  More than 20 years later Prince William Sound is not fully recovered.  The Exxon Valdez spill provided ample opportunity to study what happens when a catastrophic oil spill occurs and cannot be cleaned up.  It is estimated that the residual oil along the coast line will degrade at a rate of 4% per year.  Humm at that rate I’ll be dead and in the ground before the oil from that spill is gone.

I am sure that when this explosion is investigated careless and silly actions and omissions will have been determined to cause the explosion and hamper attempts to staunch the issue of oil into coastal waters.  After all Exxon found it too expensive to repair the radar on the Valdez so the ship was literally blind as it moved through the water and the crew was exhausted because Exxon ignored its own policies regarding crew rest and relief.

Sarah Palin chanting “drill baby, drill” suddenly seems puerile, the rant of a decidedly uninformed politician who simply wanted to garner votes and win an election.

We are being asked to believe that while drilling in deep waters may not be as safe as we thought, it is okay to drill in shallower water, because we can do that safely.  How can we even believe that we can drill safely underwater when we cannot transport oil safely over the water?

Unlike most people, I don’t need Obama to get mad.  I just need him to develop a credible energy policy, something this country has never had.  Dare I write it ? An energy policy that does not involve oil. I would like to think you can erect systems that can overcome any level of incompetence.  Engineer around an idiot as it were.  But it takes human effort and will to engineer such systems and, in the rush for oil, those systems will likely never be implemented in the first place or will be disabled when they are needed the most.

CNN lists new terms that are part of the American lexicon because of the explosion at the Deep Horizon well.  The list would be funny if the situation were not so tragic for the list delineates the methods that have been attempted to contain the spill but have failed.  Now the effort may depend on relief wells that will have to be drilled to control the oil leak.  Relief wells that are months away.

When I was in medical school on the East coast, the Exxon Valdez disaster was a disaster that occurred on TV.  It seemed impossible that I would ever see any direct evidence of the spill ensconced as I was in the North East.  Now scientists predict that unless the situation is controlled, citizens living on the East cost will get a very up close and personal view of the spill for it will truly be coming to a neighborhood near them.

Please comment.

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