Saturday, February 26, 2011

need less stuff

With the specter of another move on the horizon, I have once again decided that I need to travel lighter. As shocking as this may sound to some of you who think I wear the same dark blue, short-sleeved, collared shirt every single day, I own a couple gray shirts as well. Actually, it’s not just clothes, which are a significant weight percentage of my possessions, but a need to really examine what I keep lugging around with me and asking if it is both necessary and if there is an equivalent product that is “better, faster, stronger” if you will allow me to borrow a line from Daft Punk. (No, Kanye is not orginal).

A part of me feels like I should invest in some quality travel gear. Another (more miserly) portion of me thinks that my kit has made it through five moves so far so it can’t be all bad. The more miserly portion could also argue that until these things break, I am somehow helping save the planet be owning less stuff. (This is rather delusional as the significant air travel I do more than offsets the minimal gain of keeping my stuff.) The real question is if I am at a point in my life where I should start acquiring nice things that will last me for many years. These are not purchases as much as they are investments. Investments in my comfort, convenience, sense of style (or lack thereof), or general desire of want. There are no material desires of need that are unfulfilled at this point, because if that was the case, I would go and fulfill that need. Plus, there are precious few true needs. Regardless of that, how much stuff do I really want at this point in my life.

Let’s say that all the things you own get you through 95% of all days. In that sense, about every three weeks, you have to go and purchase something that you either need or feel will noticeably improve the quality of your life. If you are reading this, then you are likely somewhere where such purchases are possible. So, the question becomes how much more stuff do you need to get to 98% or 99% or 99.9% keeping in mind that there is no such thing as having 100% of all your needs fulfilled since needs change. Now, imagine you’re me and you’re in a place where the acquisition of many material goods is not possible. What percentage should I be try to get to before I come here if you imagine that I can struggle through the days that fall on the wrong side of the ‘stuff percentage’.

Actually, let’s speak in terms of normal distributions and sigma to give ourselves a nice visual. (If you cannot visualize the normal distribution of a bell curve, then fine, here’s a link, but just know that I am very disappointed you didn't take a class on statistics.) Imagine the most typical day in terms of how much stuff you need (that’s not food) is the middle of the distribution. On any day where you need less stuff than average, that is to the left of center. On any day where you need more than average, we look to the right. Of course, everything left of center is covered so we really only need to focus on the right side. How many standard deviations, or sigma, do I want to cover? Three sigma would be quite a bit of coverage. But I definitely don’t have that much stuff and neither do you once you realize everything to the left of three standard deviations on the right is nearly 99.9% which means the acquisition of something new less than once a year.

Let’s be serious. I don’t even own an umbrella which should speak to either how little it rains here (not true) or how little I care about rain (mostly true). The tools I used to have (and still do but away in storage) just can’t make the cut to bring here due to their poor weight-to-usefulness ratio. Let’s keep boiling this down. What do I plan to take with me on my next move? Clothes? Of course, but there are a lot of things (mostly dress shirts and pants) that I rarely wear. Furniture, household goods, kitchenware? Not needed, will be provided. Toiletries? Yes, but what do I need versus what do I want to pamper myself. Books? Perhaps it is time for an e-reader or something else. Personal electronics? I think the laptop won’t survive the next move and I will go for something smaller and more suitable to what I need from a computing device, which is very little. I'd fancy myself somewhere like a 1.6 sigma guy, maybe more, maybe less. If you are here reading this, then you might be in the 2.0 sigma range. It's just a guess after all since I don't assiduously track the days I say, "golly, I really wish I had X today because that would make my life a lot better."

In the end, the real answer to how much stuff I need is very simple. Less than what I have right now.

Friday, February 25, 2011

libya as a probability

If you've been following the news, then you are likely already familiar with the situation in Libya. It has been possible for people to get out of the country and many expatriates are getting out.

Libya, in some ways feels like Macondo to me. Superficially, this are hardly comparable events as one involves the change of power in a nation and the other a well control situation gone wrong. Deeper than that is the difficulty with truly robust emergency response plans. How do you properly plan for and respond to crises that have never been seen before? Related to this, but going still slightly deeper is how do you properly predict and plan for very low probability events?

By low probability, I only mean that on any given day or week or month these incidents (radical government change, catastrophic well control failure) are unlikely to occur. However, given enough time, activity, and repetition, these events actually become almost inevitable.

What happened at Macondo to Deepwater Horizon is our generation's Piper Alpha. Drill enough wells, take enough risks, skirt enough safety protocols and this will happen. I previously discussed this concept and still stand by the assertion that while Macondo was a low probability event, it was almost certain that it was going to happen eventually. It is only the exact when and where that cannot be foreseen.

Similarly, the continually slipping control of power for Gaddafi and its implications for Libya seem like they should have been viewed as inevitable. Obviously, hindsight makes this assertion seem easy but let's review the options. The removal from power of a 40+ year leader of a country creates a huge vacuum within a nation's structure and leadership. Regardless of this occurring due to natural causes, military coup, or popular uprising, the resulting loss of structure is what can be predicted. Yes, the nature of the change strongly dictates how the transition will go and what the end-state will be (democracy, military rule, chaos, protracted civil war etc), but at the very least short-term instability is almost certain. (Related question: What happens in North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, or large portions of this list when power changes hands? Bonus question: What do the leaders of those countries think about what is happening in Libya?)

When a loss of structure occurs, the question is how prepared are we/you/others prepared for the change. If we can assert that this was inevitable and say so with a degree of confidence that is not strictly induced by hindsight, how could this have been planned for? Timing is crucial. However, timing is not something we can predict as accurately, though in the case of Libya, the precursors were in Tunisia and Egypt. Sure, some thought Gaddafi had tighter control and popular protests would not spill-over into Libya, but that's not important. Timing is still hard to predict and a robust emergency response plan needs to work regardless of timing because emergencies, by their very nature, are not planned and scheduled activities.

Timing, if known, would make things much easier. Planning for the unknown and an unknown time is difficult because it is really a question of resources and having them available when you need them. And when you need them is all the time if the timing is unknown and all the time is usually quite expensive. We cannot pretend to keep a helicopter/plane/boat on perpetual standby for evacuation that may never occur. This makes availability of resources directly related to robustness of a plan and brings the acknowledgment that all plans are limited and that adaptation is critical.

I am not proposing any specific emergency response plan since they need to be tailored to the circumstances relevant to your situation. Any such plan needs to be stress-tested and reviewed and updated to reflect the fact that plans get made, then the overall situation can shift and gradually change to a point where the plan no longer works. Perhaps no plan would have done perfectly in Libya, but this is why we adapt and learn and figure out a new plan. (Rather random science fiction analogy not likely to be gotten by most readers: The presence of the Mule in Asimov's Foundation series as an example of a disruptor of a very grand plan that then had to be steered back on course.)

Low probability now can often mean nearly guaranteed probability eventually. This is why we must plan.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

paycheck to paycheck

I recently found out one of my field supervisors essentially lives paycheck to paycheck. In light of how much I know he makes, I find this interesting.

Edit Feb 26: Comments sent directly to me have been noted, but there is no way to properly identify who this person is as many people fit the description I have provided. Also, more likely than not, his situation is not unique, but he was the first to come to me and express it as a problem (the origins of which lie in receiving a paycheck early and thus running out of funds before the next one arrived).

This is not the first time I have met someone at work in this situation. What I find so odd is that anyone who makes that much should be compelled to live that way. Good in the field and at his job? Yes. Good with money? Meh.

Last night, I was discussing this phenomenon with a colleague. He was telling me he knows people who make more than us who live paycheck to paycheck and manage to burn through several thousand dollars every month, even in a profession and lifestyle where many major expenses are taken care of. Work hard, play hard. That is a common saying amongst employees, especially those in the field to reflect the nature of the work/play balance. Perhaps it should be updated to work hard, play harder, spend hardest.


Ugh, my taxes are likely to be some sort of unmitigated disaster. I think I'll be starting my cover letter to the IRS now. In 2010, I lived in three different countries and could claim about nine different addresses if I count all three bases as business addresses and then the six different places I have slept during this time. Of course, I don't have a proper address for any of those domiciles except the one I had in Hungary. Everything here and in Congo seemingly has no name or street or number. They are just places, you know, behind that other thing, down the street from there, 3 turns past that one place.

Actually, it should be reasonably straightforward from here on out since others (read: Deloitte) are responsible for my non-US taxes assuming they understand the form I spent 4 hours filling out on Saturday. Assuming I get all my 1099s (or I'll just login to my accounts and add up interest myself), even my US taxes should be ok. Of course, there is the whole gray zone of non-cash compensation. How much was that place in Congo costing? Meh. This will be fun.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

libya thing, very serious

It is rather alarming how quickly the situation in Libya regressed. Our own situation with no running operations should not be surprising given the lawlessness that has broken out in much of the country, not just the protests in Tripoli. And of course efforts are being made to evacuate expatriate employees.

People are getting out of the country, but it is an ongoing process. There has been a very candid thread available internally on the company website about the situation that is very interesting to say the least. As usual, no details, but the comments reveal a lot about how people respond to adversity. With hindsight, things are very easy to claim now, but plans don't get that luxury. (I want to discuss this more in a couple days, the concept of hindsight and compare Libya to another event from last year.)

In a crisis, I feel like noting two things:
1. Mental well-being is almost as important as physical well-being during a crisis. This is not about false delusions of hope or things like that, but staying positive is very important as a source of strength. It can provide the resolve to keep moving through an otherwise desperate or seemingly hopeless situation and that can mean the difference between life and death for some.
2. I have seen many well wishes and prayers sent out in the comments section to this internal company post, and I realize this can help with point 1 about mental well-being, but it does seem rather awkward. I'm stuck in a sort of a catch-22 about this, since I know hopes and prayers don't actually do anything in a direct tangible way, but they are important for bolstering point 1. Myself, if I was in that situation, I'd rather not get hopes and prayers, but some assurance that a plan was being worked on.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

winds of change, part deux

Well, perhaps I spoke too soon earlier when I said that the winds of change would not move me. As with all things, nothing is final until it actually happens, but it seems I will soon be moving again. Business needs and all.

Friday, February 18, 2011

this north africa thing, pretty serious

Mubarak stepped down right as we were getting out of our last day of class last Friday. I had a couple Libyan classmates who were very excited about this because of what it might mean for Libya and Gaddafi. Right now, that struggle isn't going so well in Libya, but it's a start. Algeria, same thing. Maybe there will be no popular revolution now, but this is a big deal for the region and the people.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

idea of america

A couple weeks ago, I had a long conversation with a fellow employee and once again found someone who strongly dislikes American foreign policy but is seemingly in love with the idea of America. As some of you know, I was in Paris, or more accurately, La Defense, for a training course last week. One of my 110,000 co-workers was also going there before flying off to his final destination in Algiers. (No, it was not my now-former boss). Anyway, the vagaries of the flight schedule necessitate a several hour wait in Libreville after coming up from Port Gentil so we talked shop and politics and what had happened in Tunisia and what was still going on in Egypt at that time. I did ask him about Algeria and he indicated it could never happen there, but of course we're here now and there are protests in Algiers now.

We got to talking about America's role in these protests and he generally had a very negative view of American foreign policy and the meddling about in other countries. Perhaps everything should be taken with a grain of salt as he also thought Wikileaks was a CIA and Mossad conspiracy to make Obama look bad. I suppose that could be true, though it's likelihood seems rather low. He was just so down on U.S. politics and policy-meddling about the rest of the world and that's an understandable view to me. As you would expect, I have met plenty of non-Americans in the last two years while living overseas. By and large, they dislike U.S. foreign policy which is generally seen as meddlesome and supportive of causes that lack popular support where they occur. However, this person I spoke with was so passionate about the idea of America. For him, it was a place where hard work meant success. Where people had opportunities. It contained freedoms not found in most of the rest of the world. A nation of immigrants but united by ethic and freedom.

This is perhaps a bit maudlin, but I think you can only get an appreciation for this, especially if you are yourself an immigrant or have traveled enough outside the U.S. to meet people from less opportunity-laden nations. And this is what I find so frustrating about our foreign policy. It sometimes feels like we have done nothing but try to sabotage our reputation abroad with questionable wars and support of dubious governments. And yet, people still think this is a great place of opportunity.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

boss gone/replaced

Well, that was sudden. Upon my return form Paris, my boss has been transferred and his replacement has arrived. While I knew this was a highly likely way for it to occur, the actualization of it all was still surprising. This has somewhat significant implications for myself which will be discussed in a few days. For now, I am the calm center of the ever-revolving universe that is the rapidity of how quickly everything occurred. (Does that sentence not make sense? Too bad because I like it so it stays.) Perhaps some things will be a little off-the-cuff while we organize neat little piles of paperwork, but it's all good.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

just haven't felt like writing much

That should be a rather unsatisfying explanation for why I haven't been blogging for the last two weeks. Or replying to e-mails, though that is more standard. Indeed, as prerviously mentioned, I have been in Paris for the last week for some in-house work training. It was a good class as they usually are. I have done little in the way of sight-seeing and I don't care for it either.

It's not that I don't like Paris or that I don't want to see what it has to offer. I simply do not care to see it right now. I'm not good at the whole vacation thing and unless I'm actually on vacation, it's hard for me to make the time to tour about. In my mind, this is still a work week and there's much to be done back at the ranch that is on my mind. Plus, touring about by oneself is rather boring and lonely. Surrounded by people, none of whom are your friends.