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Europe's Large Hadron Collider just fired up. It's a $10 billion particle accelerator designed to probe the mysteries of the universe. I think it is worth the money if we can find just one unicorn. But I would also settle for an elf, or free will, or Jimmy Hoffa's body. I'm just saying I'm not fussy when it comes to discovering stuff.

The downside of this project is the small chance it will create a black hole and annihilate the galaxy. It will take months for the machine to be fully functional, and during that time it gives nerds the ultimate seduction opportunity. It's the classic end-of-the-world gambit, as in "The universe could end any moment. Do you really want to take the chance of waiting another ten minutes to find a more suitable partner?"

Obviously this scheme depends on finding a potential lover who isn't good at physics and doesn't read much, also known as "the best kind."

As a public service to my readers, allow me to rule out some pickup lines suggested by the particle accelerator that are unlikely to be effective. For example, avoid any version of these:

"Let's make like particles and collide."

"Have you heard of the Big Bang theory?"

"Once you've had dark matter, you'll never get fatter."

"You'd better jump me now. The last time I was available a quark lepton."

"I like your bosons."

"Want to come back to my tunnel and see my Hadron Collider? It's huge."

Any one of those lines will make your potential lover prefer annihilation.
 
Recently I was gigantic. Or so it seemed because I was attending a school open house and sitting in a tiny chair designed either for a small child or an elf with one buttock. Context is everything.

I was thinking about context as I observed with fascination McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. The immediate response from my lefty friends was that McCain was insane to pick a running mate with such a thin resume. That's one possibility. The other explanation is more interesting.

My first response to McCain's decision was to assume that Republicans did not suddenly forget how to win elections. If selecting Palin was a brilliant strategy in disguise, how exactly was it supposed to work?

Context.

McCain had a context problem. He was an old (too old) white guy from the failed establishment running against a younger and more exotic agent of change. It was a losing context. His choice of Palin changed the context.

Since selecting Palin, the discussion in the media and in kitchens across America has shifted from "Can you be too old to be President?" to "Can you be too young and inexperienced?" McCain has cleverly put his critics in the position of arguing that experience is a good thing. And McCain has more of it than Obama. If you believe that people only vote for presidents, not vice presidents, this was a clever move.

The Democrats' other big argument against McCain was that he's a phony maverick who won't really change anything. It's hard to make that case while at the same time criticizing him for making such a surprising pick for Vice President. You can argue with Palin's credentials, but you can no longer argue with McCain's willingness to buck conventional wisdom. That book is closed.

On the more obvious side of things, picking a young woman insulates McCain from being the charter member of the Old Boy's Club. It's politically correct to say voters are smart. But clearly there are millions of exceptions. Some voters prefer candidates who look like them, end of story. Palin will increase McCain's support from female votes and hardcore conservatives.

Palin also has the benefit of making McCain look more presidential by comparison. Call it the Dan Quayle effect. By way of contrast, Obama is in the position of having a running mate who is clearly more experienced than him, just as smart, and lacks only charisma. That exacerbates Obama's problem of looking like a celebrity and not a leader.

If Palin survives all the scandals and rumors, the argument against her comes down to experience. But how important is experience for a president? Quick, name a presidential mistake that was caused by inexperience as opposed to stupidity, laziness, bad luck, or any of a dozen other reasons. I'm no historian, but I can't think of any presidential mistakes attributed to inexperience.

Palin would have been the wrong choice for just about any other presidential candidate. But in the context of McCain's campaign against Obama, it might have been a brilliant campaign strategy. Is this another example of McCain being underestimated, or was it simply a brain misfire of an old man who ran out of time?

Frankly, I can't tell.
 

A recent study found that the sound of expensive sports cars increases testosterone in both men and women, thus causing arousal. I didn’t believe it until I played the video of the Maserati, the most potent car they studied. Maybe it’s the placebo effect, but I did feel a surge of something.

http://blog.wired.com/cars/2008/09/weve-got-some-b.html 

This solved one of the great riddles of my life. Every summer a group of classic car enthusiasts gathers in my area to compare cars and whatnot. The odd thing I noticed is that the men are generally bearded, out of shape, and unattractive. But the women accompanying them are often very attractive. Now I know why. Apparently the sound of custom car engines is like catnip to hot chicks.

The great thing about the testosterone study is that you don’t need to buy an expensive car to get the benefits. You can just play a recording of the engine sounds and your partner will be ready for action. The problem is figuring out how to introduce a sports car engine noise into your romantic evening.

The sneakiest method I can think of would be to have some recorded street sounds on your home music system turned down low, so it sounds like it is coming from outside. Every once in awhile you could mutter something like “damn kids need to slow down” and then return your attention to your date, who by this time is shedding clothes like a trailer park in a tornado.

I also wonder what other sights, sounds, smells, and textures boost testosterone. Someone needs to study this more thoroughly. Obviously porn does the trick for men, and the smell of pumpkin pie, according to other studies. Women are more mysterious. I once saw a study where sensors were attached to shoppers. For men, there was no special change in their bodies except boredom. For women, the stereotype held, and the instrument panel lit up like a Christmas tree as soon as they entered a store. So I think the sound of shopping would boost the happy feeling for many women. I realize how sexist that sounds, but you can’t argue with junk science.

The perfect montage of sounds for a woman might be something along the lines of ocean waves, followed by the Maserati, expensive shoes on fine marble, mall noise, credit card swiping, ruffling of a shopping bag, and then the sound of wine pouring into a glass, with a fireplace crackling in the background. I’d also add the sound of a chainsaw somewhere in the distance, so the woman can imagine her personal lumberjack getting wood for the fire.


What do you think?

 
One of my favorite thoughts, and I think it came from a movie, is that the reason to get married is to have a witness to your life. It's the sort of idea that might not strike you immediately as brilliant, but over time it unfolds.

Another great quote along those same lines - and I wish I knew who said it - goes something like "You're not a writer until a writer tells you you're a writer." I had that experience when Dilbert was first accepted for syndication, and my editor told me I was a cartoonist. Until that moment, I wasn't. Literally the moment she told me I was a cartoonist, the quality of my drawing improved about 30%.

I think this is the same reason little kids continuously chirp "Mommy, look at me! Look at me!" They are struggling to get a witness, to know they exist.

It's nice to think that you can be your own person, true and accountable to no one but yourself, but I don't think life works that way. We are what other people allow us to be. We exist more in their perceptions than in our own, if you had some way to add it all up and compare.

I was thinking of this as I finished a first draft of my survey of economists. (Yes, you will see it. I need to get it right.) I sent it to my friend whose opinion I value, asking for some comments.  As I sent it, I realized my writing doesn't fully exist until he comments. It lives in some sort of Schroedinger's cat half-state. If he likes it, then it becomes real. If not, it will quickly seem as though it never existed. I will rewrite from scratch.

The key to life is picking the right witnesses. Thanks for being mine.

 
I have a theory that everyone is born with the same amount of luck, but it gets distributed unevenly. Some people have their best lucky days in childhood and run out of good fortune by the time they enter the job market. Others struggle early on and strike it rich later in life. Call it the Magic Johnson Effect. He had the perfect life and then contracted HIV. Or take most famous politicians or celebrities; their highs are almost perfectly matched by their lows. Even lottery winners tend to attract tragedy. It is as if the universe is trying to smooth out things.

You also know people who have never had a truly great year or a truly horrible one. They coast along at average.

There is no science to support my theory of luck distribution, but the anecdotal evidence is abundant. Take for example all the world leaders who spent some time in jail, either before or after hitting the big time. Or consider all the musicians who had lines of groupies and then died in a plane crash. Is it all a coincidence?

Yes. Or else our so-called reality really is a computer program.
 
Yesterday I asked what role the government should have in fostering alternative energy breakthroughs. The people who think the government can help a lot with this sort of thing often cite two examples:

1. Kennedy's race to the moon

2. The Manhattan Project to build a nuclear bomb

What do those two efforts have in common? Answer: no profit.

That's entirely different from the energy situation. Whoever figures out a way to cheaply turn seawater into fuel is going to be very rich. I would be surprised if there are any good ideas in the energy field going unfunded at the moment. My guess is that the energy investment environment has already become like the Dotcom era where venture capitalists were (figuratively) randomly knocking on dorm rooms and asking if anyone had any Internet ideas.

Someone said government can help remove red tape, or twist the arms of big companies where that needs to happen. But isn't that the reverse of how our system works? It seems to me that big companies are twisting the arms of government. So while we might wish it were the other way, reality is stubborn. And realistically, can we expect government to remove red tape?

Every now and then I have hunches about the future that feel both real and inevitable. My current hunch is that individual homes will become their own energy sources. This won't require any help from the government. All you need are three components that seem like they are creeping up on us:


1. More efficient solar cells (breakthroughs are coming daily)

2. Energy storage technology for the home, perhaps based on this:

     http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2008/oxygen-0731.html

3. Financing for solar cell installations


If you finance your installation of solar cells with a loan that costs you $300 a month, and save $400 a month in energy costs, you are cash positive on day one. At that point it also makes sense to have an electric car. There won't be much red tape to worry about in this model because every house is an island, and private companies can manufacture all of the parts.

I don't see the government having much of a role in creating that new world.

 
High oil prices have unleashed a flood of venture capital and creative genius on the problems of energy and global warming. Hardly a day goes by without another credible breakthrough in turning sun, wind, waves, water and who-knows-what into useful energy. Even if the vast majority of those ideas don't pan out, the surviving ideas will probably be enough to make oil obsolete. That's my guess anyway. And I think it will happen at Internet speed when it finally ramps up, not the usual fifty year horizons you always hear about.

The thing I wonder is whether the government has any useful role in fostering these advances, other than staying out of the way. You hear the candidates for president talking about encouraging this, or incenting that, or catalyzing whatever. But when billions of dollars of profit are on the line, does anyone need any extra incentive? I doubt it. The market should be taking care of that stuff, and seems to be moving in the right direction.

What can a president do to make any difference in the energy situation? Be specific. Discuss.
 
 

I once worked with a guy who referred to his older brother as the "white sheep of the family." The older brother was a CEO of a Fortune 500 company while his siblings had no ambitions that extended beyond lunch. That sort of thing makes me wonder about the whole nature versus nurture question. I assume all the kids in this fellow's family had a similar upbringing, but only one had ambition.

When I was a kid, adults often told me I would be rich and famous some day. Apparently I was giving off some sort of ambition vibe early on. I think ambition is a genetic defect. You can't have ambition unless you think there is something wrong with the way you are. Ambition is a state of feeling perpetually flawed.

By most objective standards, my career has gone well. By my internal standards, I am in a continuous state of not doing enough. A couple of years before he passed, Charles Schulz called me at home to see if I would be interested in a charitable activity he was passionate about. We chatted for awhile, and I don't remember how it came up, but he mentioned that Peanuts greeting cards had just passed the billion cards sold mark.

Pause to digest.

A billion greeting cards. I wonder if any other artist has ever sold a billion of anything. Unfortunately for me, that instantly became my new yardstick. So if you will excuse me now, I have a lot of work to do because apparently there is something wrong with me.

 
As most of you know, I own and manage a restaurant called Stacey's at Waterford, in Dublin, California.

http://www.staceysatwaterford.com/


This is a particularly bad time to be in the restaurant business. So we're always looking for clever ways to compete against the big chain restaurants. Recently I came up with an idea to improve how our customers enjoyed our food at lunch, on average, without changing any of these things that were already excellent, such as...


  • food
  • presentation
  • prices
  • selection
  • service
  • ambiance

Can you figure out what I changed? What else is left?

I borrowed a trick from the Internet. I love sites such as Digg.com and Reddit.com where users rank their favorite web stories. I rearranged our lunch menu the same way, ranking our dishes by popularity and calling out the ranking with the menu format.

There are several ways this improves the experience of diners. Most people easily narrow down their choices to two or three on the menu. The ranking will nudge them toward the higher ranked items, which are indeed the tastiest, so more people will choose our best dishes, on average. Servers already perform this function, but only when asked.

There's often a discrepancy between how good something tastes and how well you can describe it in words. The dishes that look a bit scary in print are often the most delicious if you can get someone to try them. The ranking should help get past that.

Some people hate making decisions. The ranking will help there too. Just order whatever is on the top of the list, so long as it isn't objectionable for some specific reason.

I also started Game Night every Monday. That's the slowest night for most restaurants, so we have plenty of table space. On Monday you can bring a board game, or borrow one of ours, and play at your table. Stay as long as you want. It's especially good if you have kids with you and want to keep them amused. On the big screen TV at the bar we run a loop of trivia questions so the bar patrons can compete if they like. That concept has been working. Business is up on Mondays.

We also started a Networking Lunch concept. You can sign up on our web site to have lunch with five randomly selected strangers. The web site takes your available times and matches you when there are enough people for your table. You automatically get an e-mail with the invitation and an option to decline. It sounds crazy, but you'd be surprised how many people sign up to have lunch with strangers. Some people do it to increase business contacts. Some people just like meeting new folks in a relaxed way that has no expectations.

If you are a real estate broker, or interior designer, or own a spa, the more people you know personally, the better your odds of getting referrals. By the end of lunch, you know five new people.


http://www.staceyscafe.com/staceys-waterford/networking-lunch.php


We also have an iPod DJ system. For groups that want an instant party, we can provide food, a dance floor, and a sound system. All they need to bring is an iPod with their own dance music mix (or use ours) and it's an instant party in our private banquet room or on the main floor. We can even run an embarrassing loop of old photos on our big screen TV that has a laptop connected.

Those are a few of our new ideas. I thought you might like to know what happens when a cartoonist manages a restaurant.


 
The results of my survey of economists will be published in mid September. It's going to take longer than I thought to swim through the data and pull out the good stuff. And I have been advised by smart people that this week is a bad one to compete for attention in the news.  I can tell you that I've seen the raw results and there will be surprises.

Let's do a little experiment here. I asked economists to rank issues by how important they are to the economy. I'm asking you the same thing now. In the comments, tell us what you think is the number one issue for the United States from an ECONOMIC perspective.

I'm guessing your answers will be all over the place, and that says a lot about the challenge of democracy. If you don't know which issue is most important to the economy, it's hard to know which candidate would do the best job.

In your view, what is the most important issue for the economy?
 
 
 
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