Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Falling Oil Prices, Wall Street and the End of the World

We live in constant tension between the urgent and the important. - Charles E. Hummel

The #1206 “fiction” series continues ….

Paul sat in bored silence as the instructor in front of the class outlined the classic urgency vs. importance matrix.  He looked down at the matrix in front of him and wondered why his boss insisted that he go to this stupid class.  He looked at his watch and realized that he needed to bail out of the class soon anyway in order to get in the line-up at the Apple store.  “The new phone is worth waiting in line for 18 hours”, he thought as he smiled to himself.

He sighed in boredom and looked down at the grid that the instructor was referring to.

Importance versus Urgency Matrix

When the matrix failed to keep his mind occupied, he turned his attention to his phone and thumbed through the news.  The headlines in his news app screamed about the price of oil falling to $40 a barrel, Wall St. experts fearing a collapse of the financial markets and something about Russia and its ongoing issues.

Thumbing further down in the news, he grunted when he read about the top ten threats facing the world.  “The usual suspects”, he thought as he glanced over probability analysis of nuclear war, asteroid impact, global climate change, and the like.  While seeing nuclear war as the number one risk in the list came as no surprise, he chuckled with amusement when he saw alien invasion listed as a potential candidate on the list.

His attention returned to the instructor who was talking about the appropriate place in the matrix into which each task of our lives should be placed but he quickly zoned out again as he thought of his new phone.  “It will be so cool”, he thought.

The President, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and a number of advisors sat around the boardroom table discussing the latest developments in Russia.

“And so, Mr. President”, said a young analyst, “We believe that the Russian economy will collapse in a serious recession around the end of the first quarter of 2015.  The sanctions are having their desired effect.”

“This is what we wanted, is it not?”, asked the President, “Won’t this bring them back to the bargaining table as we desired?”

“Possibly”, replied the analyst, “But there is one possibility we didn’t count on.”

“And what is that?”, asked the President, frowning at the thought that a possibility existed that he had not been briefed on.

“Well”, said the analyst, his voice quavering with nervousness, “There is a possibility that Russia may come out fighting rather than begging.”

“What do you mean?”, demanded the President.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs cleared his throat and stood up as the cue for his analysis presented itself.

“It’s like this, Mr. President”, he began.

The head of SETI, the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence, glanced over the report summarizing the month’s activities.  Despite the pleas of Stephen Hawking and others, SETI had moved forward with its plan to proactively beam a radio signal into space outlining the location of Earth and asking for intelligent species elsewhere to consider visiting Earth.

“Stephen Hawking and the rest of the naysayers are wrong”, he thought, “Anyone who could travel this far would have to be friendly.”

The clerk in the National Health Institute nervously reread the email in front of her.  It contained specific directions regarding a request to begin distributing radiation and suicide pills to major hospitals across the country.  The email didn’t explain why but did stress the importance of completing the task as soon as possible and to notify the sender when the task was complete.

Years later ….

Paul walked in deep thought down a quiet street on a crisp, fall night.  It had been about four years since he had taken the course on importance versus urgency.  While he had been insulted to be forced to take the course at the time, understanding the difference between what was important and what was urgent had finally dawned upon him and he had used the information to turn his Life around.  Once he saw the positive results that the mind shift had presented, he had been aggressively recommending to others that they needed to take the time to understand the principles.  He wondered if the world would ever understand what he had learned.

He sighed in contentment and gratitude as he thought about how his Life had changed over the last four years and he looked up into the night sky to say a prayer of thanks.  He was startled as the night sky began to fill with lights, far brighter and larger than any stars in the sky.

”Multiple targets”, announced a technician deep in the bowels of NORAD headquarters in Colorado.

“Targets confirmed”, affirmed another technician as she eyed her monitors.  “Confirm DEFCON 1 status.”

“DEFCON 1 status confirmed”, announced the supervising officer.  “Prepare to launch counterattack.”

Meanwhile deep in the bowels of the Joint Strategic Command Center in Yekaterinburg in Russia, similar orders were being given.

Just outside a small village deep in the middle of Africa, the villagers approached the small metallic-looking object carefully.  It was partially buried in the ground on the outskirts of their village, having been observed to have fallen there in a blaze of fire and a roar of thunder the night before.  Its door had fallen open on impact and the village chief peered tentatively inside.

The small room he saw was empty.  Seemingly suspended in the air on the opposite side of the room, strange symbols flashed in an unknown language.  As he watched, the pattern repeated itself several times and then winked out.

Scratching his head in wonder, he suddenly felt a shiver of fear and stepped outside.  Facing his people, he could only shake his head, having no idea what this object from heaven was.

It was the second strange thing that had happened in his village.  Earlier that day, all communication with the capital city had suddenly ceased and they were unable to reach anyone by phone or radio.

A hyperspace radio signal raced across the Universe, having just been transmitted by an emergency beacon on the surface of what was left of Terra.  The message it contained was brief:

Project to recommend deactivation of Terran nuclear weapons in exchange for advanced knowledge has failed.  Advance diplomatic ships destroyed.  Nuclear defense systems on Terra have been deployed.  Message ends.

To be continued.

© 2014 – Harry Tucker – All Rights Reserved


As a long time Wall St’er, I have been watching the market with interest for some time as analysts predict that it will continue to get stronger with no end in sight.  Unfortunately, with the economies of Europe, the US and China being artificially propped up, there will be an end to the bull market and it likely won’t be gentle.  I believe this end is now on the near horizon.

The potential for $40 a barrel oil is real and the ramifications are not well understood.  Fracking, the controversial technique that has helped the US reach energy independence, has a breakeven price of $42 a barrel.  Sustained valuation below this level brings uncertainty to the US and to the world.

A Russia that faces significant financial uncertainty could possibly respond in a way that we would not anticipate.  A major recession by the end of the first quarter of 2015 has been predicted for Russia, potentially causing them to come out fighting for survival.  Then we have this little ditty in the news as explained in the NY Times article “Pentagon to Press Russia on Arms Pact Violation” where we intend to use military options to protest their military decisions.  There is plenty of room for error there.  It is also important to remember that a nuclear war can be started by accident.  Google “Russian nuclear weapon launch by accident” to read about some sobering near-accidents in our history.

Regarding radiation pills, there have been rumors for years that some governments have plans to distribute radiation and suicide pills in case of nuclear attack.  Whether this be the stuff of conspiracy or is in fact true remain to be determined.  However, there is this interesting page on the CDC website regarding radiation pills.

As for SETI, it is indeed broadcasting a signal into space with the hopes that it will attract extraterrestrials.  They believe all extraterrestrials are friendly.  Stephen Hawking is on record as saying that we should not assume this and that such efforts may produce our doom.  No one can know if they would be benevolent or malevolent until they show up – if they do.

And as for an extraterrestrial invasion, there are certain elements within our own military that have implemented plans for a defense against an alien invasion while at the same time denying that such things are possible.

By the way, understanding the Urgent vs. Important matrix that Paul was bored with provides valuable insight into what drives your Life (or how your Life drives you).

All of these things provide a tantalizing opportunity for a little fun in this story but in the story there is a warning.

Do you think the world understands the difference between that which is urgent and that which is important?

As you think about this question, understand that some analysts think that the probability of nuclear war within the next five years is very high.

Now ask yourself the same question again.

Then ask yourself if you understand the difference.

And then ask yourself how you know.

Series Origin:

This series, a departure from my usual musings, is inspired as a result of conversations with former senior advisors to multiple Presidents of the United States, senior officers in the US Military and other interesting folks as well as my own professional background as a Wall St. / Fortune 25 strategy and large-scale technology architect.

While this musing is just “fiction” and a departure from my musings on technology, strategy, politics and society, as a strategy guy, I do everything for a reason and with a measurable outcome in mind. :-)

This “fictional” musing is a continuation of the #1206 series noted here.

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