Signs of the Times

Do you ever think about how many freeloaders we have in society today? You can go up to them with a rightful request for them to participate and they will coldly look you in the face and refuse to help because they seem to know others will fill that void.

We came into full realization of this freeloading tendency when the entrance wall of our subdivision was falling down, and we tried to ask the 240 homeowners to help out. Only about 20% of them contribute in any way to the upkeep of the entrance that requires mowing, trimming, lighting, fertilization, irrigation and landscaping.

We do not have a formal home-owners association (HOA), so contributions are completely voluntary. And, the annual dues are now $150 per home, or $12/month, to keep the front entrance area shrubs and flowers watered, weeded, grass mowed, and nighttime lights paid for. And, the average home in this subdivision is worth well over $500,000. It costs about $10,000 a year just to maintain the beautifully landscaped entrance, so all we would need is for about 25% of the homes to pay their dues to keep all the bills paid.

But, no, even after community meetings where we served drinks and snacks, most of the homeowners simply ignored the need. As we showed detailed pictures that the entrance walls were going to collapse, they still wouldn’t step up. Yes, there were about 10% of the homeowners who did, but 90 percent did not.

My wife Susan and a few other leaders in the community debated whether they should put a sign in the freeloader yards indicating they didn’t pay.  We all knew that wouldn’t work and might actually backfire.  So, she and another member of the community Board of Directors came up with a better idea: offer two signs homeowners could put in their front yard: one larger and more colorful one if they paid their dues and contributed to the capital repair budget, and a more plain one those who simply paid their dues.  Pictures of both are shown here.

As you might expect, the results were dramatic with over 65% of the homeowners now paying their dues and/or making donations … they don’t want the appearance of being freeloaders.  Guilt is good!  And, given that about 20% of the homes are vacant and the owners have no idea their property has this image, I am still amazed that about 15% of the homeowners are perfectly fine being recognized as freeloaders, having no sign at all.  Some good news resulting from all this work is we were able to repair the entrance wall that was ready to collapse and looked dilapidated, giving our whole neighborhood a black eye.  The project cost almost $50k, but we raised it and now have a beautiful entrance that makes everyone proud to live here, and Realtors tell us it really improved our home values. The other benefit of the project is it did bring our community much closer as we had a project to work on together.

 

Proof Reading

I have found that I can not proofread my own writings. Sure, I can read over what I have written for clarity and basic grammar, but I find I have blind spots … things I skip over, perhaps assuming the reader has my perspective. When I blog here I assume the reader understands the energy industry and works in it as a professional. If not, you would probably come away wondering what I was talking about.

Today’s spell checkers and grammar checkers can catch egregious errors, but we have all learned that the English language has so many words that look very close to what we thought we were writing. However, I am sure I am not alone expressing embarrassment over rereading an old email or blog post only to find that a word or two had been changed by the spell checkers.

My wife does most of my proof reading since she knows what I am trying to express. She is also very sensitive to the readers perspective. But, I wonder who proofed the letters of Paul, Peter, John and others in both the old and new testaments? Did the scribes catch previous errors and correct them?   As you consider the writings in the New Testament, be aware that we are seeing reading that the Church decided are the key documents for our understanding.  Many others were tossed out, often through contentious debate. I like what this author of one of my favorite books in Chemical Engineering wrote as a preface:

“Any living language suffers a battering from the tongues and pens of the common run of its users. It could be said that there seems to be a law of increasing linguistic entropy that makes a language less and less capable of assisting the formulation of clear and precise ideas and of expressing them.

Two of the worst linguistic practices found within any small subject … are ellipsis and jargon. The use of ellipsis can be defended. Among those who know their subject and each other well, a few words can stand for a half hour of argument … but it can be pretty effective at excluding the novice.  Jargon, on the other hand, has no defense. It is a sort of a thieves’ cant used to keep the uninitiated at arm’s length. Like weeds, jargon takes root in a subject and in time becomes ineradicable.” 

                    Blair Kinsman, Wind Waves, Prentice-Hall Inc., 1965 

Yes, the fact that I treasure this shows how much of a geek I am.  But, that all sets the stage for my story about blind spots and attempting to proof your own writing.  It was part of my completion of my Master’s Thesis in Chemical Engineering. My thesis was a real barn burner: The Analysis of the Products Formed in the Partial Oxidation of Dried Sewage Sludge. I know, you never saw that on the required reading list in any discipline and I am sure nobody reading this blog would ever read it.

My advisor did and he really liked what I had written but he said my spelling was miserable. I told him that I had checked all the words I didn’t know … after all, I had to pay a typist to produce the document which I had carefully printed for her. He said I had only misspelled one word, but I had done that the same incorrect way dozens of times in the thesis. What word was that I asked? He said it was the word reveil. Spell check won’t let me type that here. Clearly I had intended to spell the word reveal, but I just couldn’t “see” the error when I wrote out my thesis and the typist merely typed it.

When he told me that I thought for a moment and said: “Oh, how silly of me … everybody knows it is “i” before “e” except after “c” …

Just thought you would get a kick out of my blind spots with spelling …

The Genre of Double Entendre

There are times when being obscure can be more effective than direct.  For example, the deer repellant Not Tonight Deer, brings about an irrelevant thought (but probably only if you are a man), completely unrelated to deer.  We encountered this deer spray in our attempt to keep deer from eating plants in our garden … especially any Hosta plants you might have.

Clever use of this technique is admirable when you can pull it off this way. In the United States, innuendo and double entendre were rarely used in radio media

until the 1980s when the Howard Stern Show began to push the envelope of what was acceptable on the radio using double entendre. This garnered so much attention it spawned an entire genre of Radio called “Shock jock radio” where DJs will push the limits of what is an “acceptable” double entendre use.

Misinterpretation and offense at double entendre seem dominant today.  It is almost like everyone is trying to outshout each other on how pure they are in their thinking.  We seek words that have no male implications for jobs such as postman or fireman.  We now try to substitute person where we can.  We may even preferentially imply a female position name.

We are living in the make-believe world of an elitist class trying to purge such vulgar and sexist terms like he and she … words that limit gender flexibility expressions for a miniscule population of abnormal thinkers.  Do not jump on me … I meant abnormal in the context that it is far from the normal thing people think.  It is the thought of a very small minority.

Our language is complex, but its intent is still to communicate.  Once we lose the ability to express ourselves in a natural voice because of some irrational fear of offending one or two people who might just encounter our thoughts, will eliminate our ability to communicate at all.

The quest for the perfect becomes the enemy of the good!

The Latest Forms of Crop Subsidies

Perhaps you are unaware that farmers here and around the world are paid to NOT grow certain crops because if they did it would drive down prices so much that all farmers would suffer.  This is a direct result of free market economics. The law of supply and demand.  Read about it in this article if you are surprised.

Most markets, like oil and natural gas, accept these oscillating price characteristics.  Periods of high prices encourage drillers to explore and drill more only to overproduce that results in shutting down wells.  There is little to no “coordination or control” in these free markets … they tend to seek their own natural equilibrium over time.  Of course, if the market players decided behind closed doors to coordinate this, it is called restraint of trade and can be one of the quickest ways to get into prison.  It is also called “market manipulation” in this country.  In the rest of the world, it is still legal and is called the well-known Oil Cartel.  The idea there of course is to control the world supply so that prices stay high.  Fortunately, through energy efficiency and enhanced oil and natural gas supply drilling techniques, we have pretty much limited the impact of this cartel with our ability to supply our own needs … again due to free markets working in this country.

Carbon is now entering the world of supply and demand with Brazil asking for subsidies to stop destroying the Rain Forest … which they are doing to clear cropland to raise cattle and grow soybeans to feed them.  The government refused to stop them because this provided a livelihood for their people.  Seems reasonable again if you can believe and trust that the Brazilian government will pass this on to their farmers.  Evidence that the money we send to other countries to help their people and actually does seems as scarce as hen’s teeth.  You decide. Read the WSJ article here. 

Please remember that payments like this must be made each and every year.  It reminds me of the stories of our National Park rangers who have emphasized that we should not feed the bears in these parks.  The results are always tragic.  Once you stop feeding them, the bears become extremely aggressive and raid neighboring houses.

One can only hope that our national political process will take a careful look at this latest bribe offer and consider whether it really solves the problem, or more likely just kicks the can down the road while encouraging even more bribery proposals.

The Cutting Room Floor

If you have read my blogs, articles, and books over the past few decades you no doubt have heard me talk of the amount of material I write that winds up on the cutting room floor. If you are young, the meaning of this phrase may elude you.

Wikipedia reminds us that the term cutting room floor was used in the film industry as a figure of speech referring to unused or scrapped footage that was not included in the finished film. Outside of the film industry, it may refer to any creative work unused in the final product.

In fact, these scraps called offcuts of film are retained in a special cutting room bin and numbered during the editing process in case they are required later. In some cases, they become films themselves. A perfect case in point is the film The American President where the offcuts became the TV series West Wing. The lesson here for all of us should be to never throw away those offcuts.

But we do. Ideas, especially once posed in written form, can emerge triumphant over time, and be deemed prescient, but only if preserved. It is OK to call an idea “ahead of its time” and “unrealistic” only to see it as foundational to our future. Plus, when we revisit these offcuts, we can often see our bias and insensitivities better than if they were simply swept away or under the carpet.

Then, as time goes on, a new group of young energetic and creative individuals asks seemingly obvious questions about why we still do this or that, or why we don’t do the same. The team looks at each other and often one person … an older one … squints looking into the air and says: “Didn’t we (pick one of these words: try, do, fail at, offer …) that in the past? Does anyone remember the reasons?” Yep, this is proof of institutional or corporate memory being lost.

The reason I offer all this is that our industry has been here before on so many ideas that are being bantered about. “Been there, done that, and we have a plaque on the wall to prove it!” But those who know where it is buried have been deemed “dumb old utility guys!” Most of them simply took a package because there wasn’t much reason to hang around. Way too many are sitting around watching the clock just waiting for the right offer: not to stay … to leave.