Friday, February 17, 2012

The sort of thing I get up to at three in the morning

CAUTION: The following content almost certainly will not help you get through any part of your day. You Have Been Warned.

When living close to the edge, everything becomes about resource management. You've got this much stuff, and to get through a day you have to expend some of your stuff.  If the amount of stuff you have is greater than the amount of stuff you must expend in a day, then you're okay - for that day. If the opposite is true, you have a problem to be solved. So: Let S represent Stuff. I possess S in the amount of x, and must expend it in the amount of y.
Sx > Sy = Cool!
Sx < Sy = Ah, Shit

Of course this equation can be scaled for any desired time period, because only an idiot would plan essential resources one day at a time if he had a choice. But you get the idea.

The point is that living on the edge forces you to consider all matters on a more fundamental level than the average suburbanite is normally used to, or comfortable with. Sometimes the question is not what you'll eat for dinner, but whether you'll eat anything.

Resource management, then, is the art of avoiding that last question. Sx = 0 is not an acceptable quantity, and you will find yourself spending exceptional amounts of skull sweat making sure it doesn't happen.

Sometimes advance planning won't get you through a crisis in some resource quantity, because not everything is under your control. For example, if I note that most of my propane bottles are empty, self-reliance won't get me more propane. I can't go out and chop some propane, or dig some propane up out of the ground. The only way to get it is to buy it, and that might pose a problem. Before I can buy propane, I must have three things:

1. Money
2. Transportation
3. Somebody in a position to sell propane

My chances of acquiring propane can break down at any one of these points, and make the whole thing impossible, or just more complicated.

For example, if I need propane but don't have enough money, my alternatives are:

1. Do without propane
2. Get more money

Now, both of these are seriously possible alternatives, but each carries its own complications. If I choose a, I must find an alternate heat source. That's not optional - my food comes with some assembly required, and uses heat as a catalyst in the process. If I choose b - well, you get the idea. Making money out on the edge is never as uncomplicated as cashing the bi-weekly paycheck used to be.

We can spin this game out as far as we care to play it, as demonstrated by the following unreadable chart:

This seems really simple and obvious - or it would if you could read it. But it's never as uncomplicated as it seems. The details can be deceptive. Note that of the three requirements for obtaining propane - money, transport and availability - two are more-or-less under my control and one is not. As long as money is being used by the society around me, I can probably find ways to earn some. The means of doing so may be simple, or so complicated as to be more bothersome than finding an alternate heat source. The same is true for transport - if I need to get to town with my propane bottles, I probably can. But again, the process may carry unacceptable complications. But if propane isn't available, then propane heat is no longer an option because I have no control over availability. Now I must find an alternative heat source. Ultimately, I'm not buying propane. I'm buying heat. Propane is optional, but heat is not.

A similar decision tree exists for every single essential resource. Food, gasoline, wood, wheels, whatever. Each primary resource calls forth a need for secondary resources, which become essential in their turn.

Take wood, for example. When I started heating my living space with wood, my need for propane was greatly reduced, which was a blessing. But the process of obtaining wood turned out to be more complex than I anticipated. It seems counterintuitive - there's dead wood everywhere around here. But getting it isn't free. Look at my alternatives:

1. Break branches off by hand
2. Chop branches off w/axe
3. Cut branches off w/bucksaw
4. Cut dead trees up w/chainsaw

Each alternative involves the problem of transportation, which is a related but separate issue. Each alternative has advantages and disadvantages. The most long-term advantageous alternative is the chainsaw, but it's also easily the most complicated. To keep working, a chainsaw requires a support system I hadn't really considered before. Just in terms of supply, it needs:

1. Gasoline
2. Mix Oil
3. Bar Oil
4. Chains
5. Clean Air Filter

Without any one of these things, the saw won't run long. The first three are purely matters of supply, and we're back to decision trees similar to that of propane. Use of a chainsaw to get wood is highly desirable but still optional, but if you're going to use one these tertiary commodities become essential.

The matter of chains is more complicated, because here the problem is two-fold - supply and maintenance. A chain is not quickly expended like gasoline, but it must be regularly sharpened. There are two ways to do this:

1. Pay somebody else
2. Do it yourself

The first alternative will yield a better result, but involves the problems of money and transport. The second alternative yields an inferior result and also involves those two problems, because yet another - I think we're up to quaternary now - commodity is needed: Files and a file guide. But once those are acquired, further money and transport issues can be deferred.

Surprisingly, the most complicated of the five supply issues turns out to be the last, a clean air filter. The filter is not normally expended like fuel, lubricants or chains. But it quickly becomes foul and must be kept clean. The best way to do that is by blowing it out with compressed air. That means you need an air compressor, and you've suddenly invented a need for electricity. That decision tree could keep us here all night.

When you live close to the edge, you have to manage your resources because nobody is going to manage them for you. As we've seen, small details can unexpectedly become huge problems. Such details must be anticipated, and that's why you'll find yourself thinking about them more and more.

People who live close to the edge tend not to have hobbies. Life is their hobby.

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