Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Buy Jupiter! (And Beyond the Infinite)

This week has been one of those rare periods in time when many frames of reference overlap. I don’t often comment here on issues concerning economics, global markets or financial management.

Today is an exception.

Unless you’ve been clinically dead for tax purposes, the imminent meltdown of the global financial system has been in your face, on your mind, and very close to bringing your way of life to a sudden and irrevocable stop. (Think your profitable small company could make payroll if all bank transactions were suddenly halted for 90 days?) I doubt there are many people around (let alone who might be reading this) who were alive as adults during the 1929 crash and the events leading up to and after it, and could put this week’s crisis in perspective. For the rest of us, go read Manias, Panics and Crashes. (Ideally, you should have read this two years ago.)

On this day when AIG has been suspended on the precipice of bankruptcy by a tenuous Federal bailout, and we’re just beginning to understand how close the world has come to a global financial seizure, questions on how we got here (and where we have yet to go) are only now being considered by the general population. I find myself looking at Jupiter.

As an innovation practitioner, I see futures – all futures that my clients consider as they move to achieve their goals in new product and business development. This week is particularly apropos as I am working with one of the premier rocket design companies in the world, who support engine systems ranging from the Space Shuttle, to a return to the Moon, to interplanetary transports. This was the stuff of hard and pulpy science-fiction back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The kings of that era were authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (both of whom I’ve been fortunate to meet and talk with when they were alive). They didn’t limit their writings to rockets and ray-guns – they often looked at the complex (and often darker) sides of human nature.

Buy Jupiter! is an Asimov short story about future humans channeling creative greed by outsmarting natives in overseas emerging markets through option derivatives trading. (The story really involves selling Jupiter’s atmosphere to aliens for energy who then try to use the atmosphere for advertising, only to find the humans outsmarted them by selling options to other atmospheres to competing aliens.) Over half a century ago, Asimov pretty much called the future we are living today – people in their own greed are willing to come up with more and more creative (and poorly understood) financial vehicles to try and capitalize on other people’s greed – and all is well until the system falls apart. Arthur C. Clarke is of course most known for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and since I’m willing to bet more of you know Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of it (i.e. the film) and possibly haven’t read the book in a while, I’ll stick to what you probably know as the last act of the film, 'Jupiter, and Beyond the Infinite'. Astronaut David Bowman is seen leaving Discovery in an EVA pod, heading towards the mysterious monolith in orbit around Jupiter, and crosses what can only be thought of as a transitional and transformational gateway. We see glimpses of Bowman as he is hurtled through the dizzying gateway, pained with expressions of absolute, stark terror.

This same expression has been spotted on many faces at the NYSE, NASDAQ and other trading floors around the world every day this week. You (and as of next week, the American taxpayer) may soon be seeing this face in the mirror.

We are rapidly and irrevocably going through a period of great change that is completely out of control. We haven’t yet emerged on the other side of the gateway, and the trip ahead will be dark, dizzying and absolutely terrifying. The next few days and weeks will dramatically affect how we re-define wealth, money, and qualities of life for decades to come.

Somewhere in my library should be a story from not so long ago that tells me how this will all work out. Very likely, it was written by Philip K. Dick.

Monday, September 01, 2008

A Republican Localvore, A Mini Ice Age and An Angry God

I've been away through most of August, on vacation and catching up on a number of local tasks while the weather has been cooperative. With September upon us, the change of seasons is impossible to ignore. The leaves are begin to turn as the air begins to chill, and the harvest is well underway. In recent years, several of my friends have transformed into localvores, sharing their experiences with me along the way. In the face of uncertain economic and societal times, producing a small fraction of the food (and fuel) I consume is not a bad set of skills to master.

This spring I added a garden basket to the three I cultivated last year. I'm still growing primarily tomatoes, with a mix of herbs. This year, I tried an experiment and varied the types of tomatoes I planted in each garden basket. Returning from vacation, I expected to find most of my baskets in the peak of production. Instead, I found in place of three of my four tomato baskets, baskets full of extremely fat and happy Tomato Hornworms. These critters are easily over four inches in length, and eat four times their weight each day. Its worth noting that my fourth tomato basket is actual free of Mothra's stunt doubles. I've actually seen them leave this basket, without stripping the leaves or fruit, and head to the other three for dinner and a movie. What's different about the lone basket which spares it from the green death? Its the only one in which I planted Roma (Plum) tomatoes. I'm not sure yet if there's an actual correlation between the plant variety and the infestation, simply based on observational evidence.

Speaking of the value of conclusions based solely on observational evidence, this year marks a special turn of the seasons as we (in the United States) will be selecting a new president in just over sixty days. To make sure every vote (at least the ones that matter) is harvested early and often, we, the electorate, are under siege by every conceivable media outlet with facts and figures to help us make our decision a more informed one. In recent days, the ratio of scientific, economic and political conclusions to seconds of critical thought per conclusion has grown exponentially. One is a lapse in judgment echoed by several highly visible politicos including Don Fowler, former head of the Democratic National Committee. In brief, the disruption of the opposing party's national convention by a potentially devastating hurricane was clearly a favor from God. (I was reminded by one of my localvore friends that this is not the first time such a controversial conclusion has been drawn, and in the past, has at least been backed up by multiple observations.)

Drawing specific conclusions about the effects (or causes) of large-scale chaotic systems is tricky business at best. One needs only to look at some of the arguments both for and against human-powered climate change to see that both camps are riddled with controversy and and ill-fitted curves. Just recently I read an article that adds yet another puzzle to the pieces. The sun has gone an entire month without producing a single sunspot - something it hasn't done (or not done as it were) in 100 years. The potential implication of this and related data concludes that we may be on the verge of rapid global cooling, or even a mini ice-age. This type of event has happened several times in the last 1,000 years, independent of human population. Our Mr. Sun, it seems, has a history of not wanting to be forgotten.

So what am I to conclude from recent events? Are my decimated tomatoes and my impending deep freeze the expressions of an angry God who is punishing me for my right of center leanings heading into November? Probably not. (Although if God is angry with me, it would seem that I've pissed Her off twice).

Regardless, I think I may need to be flexible as to this year's menu of local produce.