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If a weather expert tells you what the weather will be on a specific day next year, you can safely ignore him. If he tells you a hurricane is heading your way, it's a good idea to get out of the way, even if the storm ends up turning. That's playing the odds.

Likewise, if an economist tries to tell you where the stock market will be in a year, you can safely ignore that. But if he tells you a gas tax holiday is an unambiguously bad idea, that's worth listening to, especially if economists on both sides of the aisle agree.

If you think it is okay to ignore economists because they are so often wrong, you're looking at the wrong questions. Economists are generally wrong with complicated models but right about concepts. For example, they know that additional domestic drilling won't make much of a dent in the energy problem. And they know that free trade is generally good for all economies. (You can argue with my examples, but the point is that some things are generally known by economists while not being understood by the general public.)

By analogy, a mechanic knows that changing your oil is good for your engine, but he can't tell you what problems you will have with your car next year. You shouldn't ignore the mechanic's advice on changing oil just because he doesn't know when your battery will die, or because he didn't personally perform any scientific studies on oil changes.

Doctors are often wrong, but you are still better off going to the doctor than diagnosing problems yourself. And when you get the opinions of several doctors, your odds improve, even if those several doctors aren't a scientific sample. The important thing is that following a doctor's advice, or the consensus of several doctors, increases your odds compared to the alternative. And the more doctors the better.

Some of you noted that the candidates have top economists on their payrolls, so voters can be assured any president is getting good advice. But realistically, an economist involved in a political process has to support the candidate's ideas or he's off the team. At best, one of the candidates obviously has bad economists advising him because they disagree with the other guy's economists.

Some of you noted that most economists are Democrats. Prior to doing the survey, I expected it would be the other way around. But indeed, most of the economists we surveyed are registered Democrats. But there are plenty of Republicans and independent voters in the survey so you can see how each group weighs in separately. Personally, I will be most interested in the independent voters and the economists who cross party lines.

After the results are announced I'll tell you how we cleverly found over 500 economists. There's a clear limit to how scientific you can get with your sample when it is a bunch of people who chose economics as a profession and were easily findable. But again, you have that same problem when you pick your doctor, or when you get second opinions. You're not dealing with scientific sampling.

You're going to wonder what my own political bias is. In the interest of full disclosure, I think I registered Independent the last time I voted, but frankly I don't remember. I'm not superstitious, which leads me to be socially liberal. Economically, I'm conservative. I'm closest in philosophy to an Arnold Schwarzenegger Republican. He seems to be interested in keeping the government out of people's private lives and managing things based on data as opposed to faith. Neither presidential candidate floats my boat. One wants to transfer my money to other people and the other is a lukewarm corpse. I think both candidates would be indistinguishable in foreign affairs because their options will be so constrained. Those are my biases.
 
As regular readers know, I funded a survey of over 500 economists to see which candidate for President of the United States has the most support from economic experts. I will publish the results in a press release and in this blog late next week unless something slows me down, such as getting assassinated.

Voters say the economy is the most important issue to them. Foreign affairs will keep dropping down the list of importance now that the current administration supports a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. So how does a voter decide which candidate would be best for the economy?

Yesterday Reuters/Zogby announced a poll that showed, among other things, which candidate the voters think would manage the economy better. This is like asking people who have hemorrhoids the best way to treat a brain tumor. Shouldn't we be asking brain surgeons?

Forgive me for not caring what your grandma thinks of NAFTA. I want to know which economic policies seem best according to the majority of economists. I got tired of waiting for someone else to give me some useful information and decided to go get it myself. Democracy without useful information is random. This isn't a good time in history to be making random decisions.

I woke up this morning with the strange feeling that I might own the most important information in the world. Although 90% of voters have made up their mind, the race is so tight that the remaining 10% will settle things. If the media reports the results of my survey of economists, will it influence independent voters and thus the arrow of history? Probably not. But you can't rule it out.

When I announce the results I will include all the disclaimers about its accuracy and usefulness, and there will be plenty. But if you ignore the opinions of 500 economists you are either a well-informed genius who needs no advice, or an idiot who doesn't realize it would be helpful. (Those two conditions feel exactly the same.) For those in the middle, I would think you'd care what the experts think.
 
Yesterday I posted on this blog a heads-up to watch ABC's show Medical Mysteries last night, where I was one of the mysteries. My stupid piece of crap blog software decided you wouldn't see that post even though it shows up to me as posted.

Here's the text version of what you missed: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/MedicalMysteries/story?id=5480171&page=1

Because a number of people who saw the episode have spasmodic dysphonia and wonder what treatments I tried (all of them), here's a breakdown of what I know:

Botox injections: They work for many people, but are unpleasant, inconvenient, and wear off after a month or three. Everyone is different, so getting the right dose in the right spot each time is a bit of an art. Botox didn't work too well for me, and I found out later it was because my nerves are in an unusual location in my neck, so the shots probably missed on one side.

Direct Voice Rehabilitation with Dr. Cooper: I spent a week with Dr. Cooper in LA, humming and learning to speak with what is called the "mask of your face" and using the right tone, which is higher than I would normally use to speak. I spoke with several people who had complete recoveries with this method. One got results in a week. Another had to practice a few hours a day at home for a year. For some people it clearly works. When I returned home after my week, people said my voice was substantially improved. I think the experience helped a lot in teaching me how to manipulate my voice to get the best out of it although I was nowhere near cured and the benefits faded with my lack of practice.

Unfortunately, my job involves being silent for most of the day, so it was impractical to put in the sort of practice time necessary for better results. The other three people in my group with Dr. Cooper that week didn't get much improvement the last I knew, but neither did they keep up the practice. I don't think any two people have exactly the same condition, and everyone puts in a different level of effort, so it isn't surprising that it works for some and not others.

Surgery: I got what is called nerve denervation/enervation surgery a month ago with Dr. Berke at UCLA. I won't know if it worked for another 2 -3 months when the nerves have regenerated. Until then I can only whisper, but there is no discomfort. The first week or two after the surgery are highly unpleasant. But if it works, obviously it is worth it. I spoke with a number of people who had the surgery and now have normal voices on the phone. They all enthusiastically recommended the surgery. Dr. Berke pioneered the method and has refined it over the years with a few hundred patients. My odds of an improved voice are somewhere in the 85% range or better. The odds of it being worse are very small.

My philosophy is that everyone gets something. If you're lucky, doctors will know how to fix the particular things you get. So I feel lucky. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Ha ha! My blog software tried to eat this entry but I had cleverly saved a copy.
 

Just seeing if I can see this post. Yesterday's post is apparently viewable by a few people, but not by me. And based on the few comments, not by most people I think.

Okay, now look BELOW this entry to find the post I did AFTER this entry. Apparently the blog software has gone totally random.

 
Tonight (8/19/08) on ABC's series Medical Mysteries, airing at 10 pm EST in the US, I'll be included for about ten seconds. The segment is about people who have my bizarre speech problem called spasmodic dysphonia.

With spasmodic dysphonia your voice functions differently in every speaking context. People who have this condition generally can't order a pizza over the telephone but can speak perfectly to their cat. Ironically, the context in which I can speak best is while being interviewed about how I can't speak. So depending on how they edit the piece, I might come off as a fraud with no problem at all.

A month ago I had surgery to try and correct the problem once and for all. I won't know if it worked for 2-3 more months, after the nerves regenerate. I made a video of my pre-surgery voice so I would have a "before" version to compare to my post-surgery voice that I hoped would be normal. This exercise was wasted because as soon as the camera came on and I started talking about how I couldn't talk, I could talk perfectly. There wasn't a trace of a problem.

So you'll have to take my word for it that when the camera crews left, I couldn't talk well enough to pronounce my own name on the telephone. That's literally true.

Anyway, check it out.
 
I've written about this before, but it's interesting to see the technology coming together to make it feasible. The idea is that people will start living on barge-like boats and slowly motor or sail around the ocean to stay in the best weather.

You'd need a number of technologies to make this feasible, and all of them either exist or soon will. Obviously you want solar power, and some method of storing the energy for night, such as this: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2008/oxygen-0731.html

You'd need a desalinization device, GPS, and some sort of satellite Internet service. And you'd probably need some serious waste treatment gear.

The reason I think the future will be barges instead of standard boats is that you can start small and add real estate as you can afford it. Just connect a new barge and presto. And you can dock to other barges to create temporary or permanent communities. If the barges are designed to be connected, according to some common standard, the entire city can move around to the best weather and fishing spots as needed.

The reason I think this will be a compelling lifestyle is that you won't have to pay much in taxes if you live and work in international waters. And there will be no government to squelch your freedoms, unless you choose to form one. Big countries will have no compelling reason to conquer your barge, or even your barge city, because it will have no strategic value.

With scale, you get floating hospitals and schools and all the other services you need. The big problem would be pirates. But there is a theoretical amount of firepower that makes that risk manageable too. You could have your own surveillance drones that warn you well in advance of any company.

I think it will happen.
 
The humor that makes me laugh hardest is the material I know would offend or insult someone else. Apparently I am not alone in this view because my entire career is based on that universal law. The Dilbert comics that work best are the ones you can imagine your boss or coworker looking at and saying, "Uh-oh. I think that's me."

But offending isn't enough. The audience gets more out of humor if the messenger is putting himself in danger. When Dilbert first launched, I was still working my day job. Readers loved knowing that I was on the verge of getting fired every day. The order to fire me was actually given at one point, but in the end my employer decided to give me hopeless assignments and wait for me to quit. They figured it would look better.

Dilbert is still a dangerous job. This week I got a bunch of angry letters because of a comic where Alice says she realized her job was like a dung beetle trying to mate with an epileptic cow. I think I was added to a few extra death lists. If you laughed at that comic, it's probably at least partly because you knew I was taking a risk in creating it.

You also imagine that it must be awkward for me to publicly mock managers and executives and then bump into them socially, which happens daily. It probably would be awkward if I cared about that sort of thing. So while it isn't particularly scary for me, as a reader you can imagine what it might be like for you, and it probably translates as more dangerous that it is.

I think something similar is true with other performers. We enjoy jugglers more when they use chainsaws and torches. And no matter how much you hate it when a musician grabs his crotch while dancing, on some level it still works because you know other people hate it way more than you do, and you know the artist is getting complaints. He's paying a price for the crotch-grabbing, even if the rewards are greater.

Movie stars have inherently dangerous jobs, in terms of potential embarrassment for movie flops, or getting caught on film doing something odious. And even the most seasoned professionals get scared to death when performing live. Most people couldn't handle that sort of pressure and know it. I think it is partly the perceived danger that makes celebrities exciting to us.

If art doesn't seem dangerous for the artist, it probably isn't relevant.
 
Photos
Aug 14, 2008 | General Nonsense | Permalink
I just saw the photos from my recent vacation. There were photos of me looking hungry while desperately wishing I were eating instead of posing in front of a table full of delicious food as it got cold and the flies attacked it. There were pictures of me looking at the camera instead of gazing at the breathtaking views behind me. There were pictures of me thirstily posing with my drink instead of drinking it. And there were pictures of me standing in unnatural positions while wishing I could be slouching or sitting. Ironically, we managed to capture all of the moments of the vacation that I wish hadn't happened. Everything that happened just before and just after the camera started flashing was great.

Being the only one in my marriage who dresses for efficiency over fashion, I usually get nominated to carry the camera and the cell phone in my voluminous pockets of my shorts. Add to that my wallet, keys, and maybe some sea shells and you can see the issue. The merchandise bangs against my leg every step. I feel like Rodney King jogging through LA during a hail storm.

For me, posing for pictures is the opposite of being on vacation because getting photographed is part of my job. This afternoon, for example, a photographer will be at my office taking pictures for several hours. When a lawyer goes on vacation he doesn't have to sue someone every time he walks past an interesting landmark. A dental hygienist doesn't have to clean any teeth every time the sunset looks pretty. But I have to pose for a picture, sometimes three. It doesn't seem fair.

One thing you don't want on your vacation is anyone telling you what to do, as in "Stand over there" and "Smile" and "Straighten your shirt so it doesn't look like a food baby." It's more than even Pinocchio would put up with.

I like having photos of my vacations, but there has to be a better way. My proposed solution involves buying stock photos of landmarks and using Photoshop to superimpose stock photos of me looking happy. It's not dishonest if I was actually at those landmarks, and both the landmark and I look exactly the way the photos suggest.

Am I wrong?
 

I like to spot sentences that have probably never been uttered. This hobby is like bird watching but without the inconvenience of the outdoors. The trick is that the unique sentences have to be natural, not just a bunch of random words strung together. Take for example the following question: Did you hear about the inflatable Swiss dog turd that attacked an orphanage? That sentence qualifies even though I wrote it myself, because the event actually happened.

http://www.cbc.ca/arts/artdesign/story/2008/08/12/poo-sculpture-escape.html?ref=rss

Luckily no orphans were injured in the attack. And no one is more relieved, so to speak, than the artist who squeezed out that masterpiece. I mean, if just once in your entire life you create a huge inflatable turd that injures an orphan, it sort of erases anything else you might do. You'll always be that guy.

I wonder how you get rid of a huge inflatable turd when you no longer want it. Do you take it to the dump just to be ironic? Or do you rent it on weekends for kid parties?

I'd probably put stucco on it and make it my home. That way when company came over, and I hadn't bothered to clean up, I would just say, "I'm sorry our house looks like crap." Everyone would laugh and laugh, and not even care that the floor is seven layers of toys, clothing, and miscellaneous remote controls. Anyway, if you accept a dinner invitation inside a giant turd, you probably started out with low expectations.

And what if the inflatable dog turd gets punctured? Would the first person to notice exclaim "Holy crap!"? And if not, would that person regret the missed opportunity for the rest of his natural life? I know I would. I have trouble releasing that sort of thing. For me, it would be like training all my life for the Olympics and forgetting to set my alarm on the day of my event. It would haunt me.

 
I spent the past week in Fiji with my wife, on Turtle Island. http://www.turtlefiji.com/, for what was our extremely belated honeymoon. It's a 500 acre island with about 100 staff and generally no more than 20 guests. At one point last week there were only eight guests, but that was unusual.

The experience is indescribable. There is no TV, no BlackBerry signal on most of the island, and no Internet unless you borrow some time on the gift shop computer. Each couple can book an entire private beach, complete with picnic lunch, almost any day you want. And these are no ordinary beaches. Any one of the several choices is the best beach you have ever seen. In fact, the movie Blue Lagoon was shot on this island. By the second day, your regular life becomes a faint memory. You are completely immersed.

The temperature hovered about 80 degrees and it was sunny every day. Apparently that is normal. The water was warm, clear and blue, and you could walk a hundred yards into the ocean before the water level was over your head. The sand was perfect, and never too hot on your feet. You can go barefoot from the minute the seaplane lands to the minute you head home. I am not exaggerating when I say it felt like I was in some sort of "Total Recall" simulated vacation where everything was too good to be real.

The staff memorizes the names of all guests, and you are on a first name basis from the moment you arrive. Every time we saw one of the Turtle Island staff, from any distance, they greeted us with the traditional "bula," huge smiles, and often our first names. The first day it seems freaky. By the end of the week you feel like family.

The guests eat most meals at a common table, on the beach, feet in the sand.  Everyone is extra friendly because there are so few of you in this shared experience, and you are all relaxed and happy. Somehow the physical beauty of the island makes everyone a better person. And the staff is so genuinely happy and warm that it rubs off on you. No kids are allowed on the island, except for a few "family weeks" each year. Our week was mostly honeymooners, anniversary celebrants, and couples who hoped to be married soon.

Each guest cabin (called a bure) has a dedicated "mama" who literally acts as your mom while you are on the island. She answers all your questions, arranges your picnic lunches on the beach, does your laundry every night, and cleans your room. If you want something, you just ask your mama. Our mama, Adi, was amazing. She made sure I got my vegetarian meals, and was our personal paparazzi. At the end she gave us a scrapbook she made with the photos she took during the week.

One of the guests reported seeing a couple that was about to leave the island, sitting on the beach weeping. I didn't understand that until it was our turn to leave. We wept too.

Best vacation ever. Now back to work.
 
 
 
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