I'm not good at buying gifts. I start worrying about Christmas in April, and by the time October rolls around I'm in full panic mode. Call me spontaneous, but I prefer when my failures surprise me, not when they are scheduled for December 25th every year.  By this time of year I feel as if I'm tied to the railroad tracks, I hear a whistle in the distance, and it probably isn't Santa.

When it comes to gifts, they say it's the thought that counts, but I can't even get that part right. Whatever the hell I'm doing is more like the Dalai Lama clearing his mind and meditating, but without the relaxing part.  When I try to think of an appropriate gift for my wife, all I see is nothingness. The problem might have something to do with my own view of material goods. I can walk through a shopping mall for hours without seeing anything I'd want to own more than I'd want to lug it back to the car.

For example, if I see a shirt that looks nice, I can't imagine why I'd want to own it. I already have shirts that keep me warm.  It won't make me look more attractive, unless I wrap it around my face, and I buy two more to stuff in my shoes so I'm taller. For some reason my wife prefers it when I have new shirts, which is exactly why I get shirts for my birthday, shirts for Christmas, and shirts for Valentine's Day. And I have been led to believe there is a holiday called National Shirt Day.

I am guessing that some of you have the same gift-buying problem that I do, minus the crazy parts. I propose that we stick together and come up with some sure-fire gift ideas to make our own lives easier. I will prime the pump with this suggestion, and you can thank me later. It's a company that sells sterling silver necklaces, hand-stamped with (wait for it...) the names of a woman's children:

         Hayjac Designs

Aside from the obvious brilliance that jewelry is always a correct gift for women, when you add the names of her children, it takes it to another level.  That's the "thought" part you keep hearing about. I am told that sterling silver works for just about every woman and goes with just about every casual outfit. Plus, unlike a ring or clothing, there are no sizing issues. I already got this gift for my wife last year, so I can't use it again. (Full disclosure: Shelly told me to buy it for her.)

Okay, now it is your turn. Leave your gift ideas in the comment area, with links if you have them. The ideal gift idea should show some sort of thought, have no sizing issues, and be priced in the spouse-gift range.  Put some thinking into it because in all likelihood you're deciding what my wife will get for Christmas for the next ten years.
Is it just me, or have cellphones become useless for voice conversations? To be fair, cellphones do work in limited situations, such as: "I WILL BE THERE IN TEN MINUTES! TEN MINUTES! I SAID I WILL BE THERE IN TEN MINUTES! HELLO? CAN YOU HEAR ME? FUCK THIS STUPID PHONE, I'LL TEXT YOU! AND I'M DRIVING, SO I MIGHT BE DEAD IN TEN MINUTES!"

Generally speaking, a cellphone conversation is a frustrating failure if any of these conditions is true.

1.       You have a weak signal.

2.       You are using an earpiece or headset.

3.       The other person has a weak signal.

4.       The other person is using an earpiece or headset.

5.       The other person has a cell phone (delay problem).

6.       You are multitasking and can't think.

7.       The other person is multitasking and can't think.

8.       You are in a noisy environment, such as Earth.

9.       The other person is in a noisy environment, such as Earth.

10.   You get another call you have to take.

11.   The other person gets another call he has to take.

12.   You have a dying battery.

13.   You have a phone that drops calls for no good reason.

14.   The other person has a phone that drops calls for no good reason.

15.   The other person has a dying battery.

16.   You are in a restaurant and you're not a jerk.

17.   The other person is in a restaurant and isn't a jerk.

18.   There is a child within 100 yards of you.

19.   There is a child within 100 yards of the other person.

Yes, that covers almost every situation. And the list goes on.  In my life, voice calls using cellphones fail more often than they succeed, and the situation is getting worse. There was a time when most cellphone calls involved a land line on the other end, so at least one end of the conversation was likely to be trouble-free.  Now most of the calls I fantasize about making would be between my cellphone and another cellphone. I don't like those odds. So I send text messages instead.

For important calls, I use a land line that serves as my fax line. If I receive a call on my cellphone, I try to keep it short, or I call back from my fax line. Or I beg for an email that gives me whatever information I want. My situation is worse than most because I have an iPhone, and it decides on its own when my calls are done, no matter how strong the signal is. (I suspect that my ear is using the touchscreen without authorization from my brain.)

While voice calling is getting worse, texting is becoming easier. More smartphones have full keyboards. And texting isn't the huge inconvenience that phone calls are. I explained in another post that all phone calls have a victim, i.e. the person receiving the call. You're ALWAYS in the middle of doing something else when someone calls to yack. The worst offenders are the people in cars who don't have satellite radio, or books on tape, and they're just calling to make their drive less boring.

Texting is way better. It can fill in all of the tiny spaces in life while you're waiting for something else to happen and a voice call would be too large for the space. When I get a text alert, it always makes me happy, even before I read the message. When my phone rings, I think, Uh-oh, what fresh hell is this?

Another great advantage of texting is that it thwarts bores. Bores love voice conversations. In a pinch, they will send you overlong emails. But texting forces boring people to be brief.  How great is that?

In a situation in which both I and the other person have smartphones, I always choose texting over a voice call. In time, everyone with whom I want to communicate outside of a business context will have a smartphone, and I'll never need to make a cellphone-to-cellphone call again. Kids are already there.  Wireless voice calls are dinosaurs, and that big shadow you see is a meteor.

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Imagine you’re sitting down to eat, but before you take a bite, you whip out your smartphone, fire up a special app, and take a picture of your food. The app identifies the food types by appearance, then calculates the size of your portions, and estimates your intake of calories, carbs, protein, vitamin, mineral, sugar, salt, and so on. Later you can review your data in a variety of ways. You can see your calorie intake for the day, or compare yourself to other people who are your same age, size, activity level, and so on.

At the end of a meal, if you have some food left, you can snap another picture so the app can calculate the net of what you actually ate.

If it seems impossible that an app could recognize food types, consider that software can already recognize faces, voices, specific songs, and fingerprints. Recognizing broccoli can’t be that much harder. And anything that has a label or a wrapper, such as Diet Coke or a Snickers candy bar, would be relatively easy for the app to identify.

Soups and casseroles would be harder to identify and analyze. The app might ask you to supply some information on the main components of the dish.  If you said it was a casserole with potato, chicken, and garlic, the app would know that garlic is a minor ingredient and potato is the main ingredient. It might even look at similar recipes in its database and take an average.

The app would not be perfect at estimating, even with your frequent tweaks. But it would be far better than your own guessing.  And it would be great at telling you where your diet is lacking. You might think you have a good diet, only to discover that you aren’t getting enough variety of fruits and veggies.

Now imagine that an accessory for this app is a small waterproof motion detector that you can clip to your footwear. It comes with a watch that also has motion detection. When your smartphone is nearby, the two motion detectors wirelessly download how much movement your arms and legs have experienced that day.  That would be a rough proxy for exercise. You would have to add any data for weight training because that doesn’t require much movement.

Now your app has your total nutrition and exercise profile. You could round out its knowledge by telling it your age, weight, gender, whether you smoke, and other relevant health questions. From that point on your app could predict your life expectancy and even your odds of dying from specific types of preventable diseases. Perhaps your watch could display both the current time and how many days you have left if you keep living the way you are.

Two factors that most influence human behavior are the ability to measure progress and the framework used to rank performance. This app solves both problems. Allow me to expand on this.

I’ve noticed that losers compare themselves to the average of other people, whereas winners compare themselves to their own natural potential. The loser can find comfort in knowing there are plenty of other slackers, and he is average (good enough) among them. The winner compares his progress to his personal potential and doesn’t stop until he achieves it.

Researchers have found that simply being near overweight people has a large influence on your own weight. This is probably a result of looking around and deciding that eating a little extra is normal, and good enough. The app I described would change your point of reference by continually reinforcing your own potential.  In time, your frame of reference would be less about your chubby friends and more about how you are doing compared to your own best, as measured by your app.

In your opinion, this app is…

1.       Inevitable?

2.       Already available?

3.       Impossible?

4.       Impractical?


Update: Someone is already working on food identification.




Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I will now present my case that leadership is a form of mental illness. To begin, let's divide the leaders of the world into two groups: friends and enemies. Please forgive me for taking a U.S.A.-centric approach in this argument, as it is just for simplicity.

In Exhibit One, we note that the leaders of countries we consider enemies are undeniably bat-spit crazy.

Kim Jong-il: crazy midget

Ahmadiniejad: crazy holocaust denier

Khadafy: designs his own hats

The list of crazy enemy leaders is long:  Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Hussein, Stalin, Khomeini, and so on. I would be willing to bet that you have never heard anyone describe the leader of an enemy country as level-headed, as in "He wants to kill or enslave everyone I love. He seems like a reasonable guy."

The leaders I named are quite obviously psychopaths and nut-bags. That's exactly what made them dangerous enough to be enemies.  But it is worth noting that the people who have been led by those psychopaths and nut-bags probably thought the leaders of the United States were, at various times, pathological liars, astrology followers, and end-timers.

I think the evidence is clear: The leaders of enemy countries are always crazy. And logically, since every national leader is someone's enemy, all national leaders are crazy. The only exception to the rule is the leader of neutral Switzerland, who is actually a refrigerated chocolate rabbit.

Sometimes you think the leader of your own country is crazy, especially when that leader is not a member of your own political party. Take President Obama, for example.  He's a radical Islamic sleeper cell terrorist who plans to destroy the United States by expanding health care coverage. That guy is frickin' nuts.

For this discussion, I think it is useful to consider the grey area - our frenemies, such as Karzai in Afghanistan. He designs his own hats, which is a big red flag for crazy. But because he's allegedly on our side, we don't call him crazy. We say he's a snappy dresser.

Here's a little test that you can try at home: Design your own special type of hat and wear it all the time. See if the people who already hate you say you are crazy or well-dressed.

Let's talk about corporate leaders. A CEO has something called a "vision." That is a view of the future that is not supported by evidence. Coincidentally, that's a fairly standard definition of insanity. A CEO can sometimes be faking insanity, by lying about having a vision, so sorting the delusional nuts from the plain-old pathological liars can be problematic. Sometimes a CEO gets it right, when reality coincidentally turns into something a lot like his vision. But being right once in a while doesn't mean you're psychic. It just means there are a lot of blindfolded monkeys throwing a lot of darts and one of them killed a stranger carrying a bag of money.

The primary function of a CEO is hurting other people, specifically the stockholders and employees of competing companies. He wants to take their market share, their wealth, and their happiness. And a CEO isn't too affectionate with his vendors and employees either. Psychologists will tell you that one test to see if you are dealing with a future serial killer is his willingness to hurt animals without remorse.  I'm not saying CEO's are that bad. But let me ask you this: When you need someone to feed your cat, or watch your dog while you're on vacation, do you ever consider asking a CEO?
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Here's your next billion-dollar Internet startup idea. If it sounds like the dumbest idea in the world, remember that you didn't think of Twitter. That will keep you humble enough to get through this post.

Imagine a web site that allows any adult to post a ten-second video that is nothing but a statement of opinion, showing only the speaker's face.  The opinion could be anything from "Diet Coke tastes better than Diet Pepsi" to a political preference. The web site would sort the opinions into as many categories as needed. Visitors to the site would be able to vote on the videos, based on agreement with the opinions, or the general attractiveness of the speaker. 

Videos would also be sortable by most-viewed, and newest.  And you could sort by speaker, to get all of the opinions of an individual. And let's assume the monetization of this site comes from ads.

That's the entire business idea. Now watch while I explain what makes this idea so brilliant. And before you leap to disagree, did I mention that you didn't think of Twitter?

Okay, first, there is a universal human attraction to faces.  It's why magazines usually feature faces on the cover. Publishers know that people are drawn to human faces, especially famous or attractive ones. It's why People Magazine thrives. It's also why movies and television shows fill much of their screen time with nothing but giant talking heads.  Faces are interesting and objects are not.

Imagine a TV show about your favorite hobby, no matter if that is cooking, cars, technology or whatever. You wouldn't watch that show unless it had a lot of humans in it, preferably attractive ones, showing their faces.  It says a lot that even your own favorite hobby wouldn't hold your interest on screen without faces.

When you look at someone's personal photographs, the boring pictures involve nothing but beautiful scenery. The interesting pictures involve humans looking at the camera and acting goofy.

Babies respond to faces instinctively. It's one of the first things they learn. Even your pet gives you eye contact and studies your face. One of the most basic instincts for any mammal is that faces are important and interesting. Okay, I think I made my point. Now let's get to the fascinating part.

Research supports the obvious fact that the opinions of attractive people carry more weight than the opinions of ugly people. We wish that weren't the case, and we assume that we are personally exempt from that sort of influence. But let's agree that all of the other people in the world are influenced by attractive faces.

We also know that the repetition of any message makes it seem more credible, against all common sense.  The web site I'm describing would have a lot of message repetition.

We know that humans love attention. And they love giving their opinions. So it shouldn't be hard to attract free content for the site at the start. The fun part happens once the site reaches a certain level of traffic by natural growth.

Imagine you're a company, or a political party, or an activist, and you know that millions of people are going to this site just for fun - because they like looking at attractive faces, especially when the attractive people agree with them. And because you know a thing or two about influence, it is obvious that opinions are being changed or perhaps hardened by all of this exposure to attractive people with opinions. At this point, the big-money interest groups will start hiring gorgeous models to seed the system with opinions that support their causes. In time, the average level of attractiveness would rise from normal to extraordinary. And the faces with the most votes would become international celebrities.

I know my readers. Your first impulse is I wouldn't go to that stupid site just to look at faces voicing dumb opinions. But remember that while you're brilliant and fascinating, and you have important things to do, the audience for this website is everyone else. I'm not too proud to admit I would go to a site like that, hit the slideshow button, and watch the faces go by.
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I'm always amazed when I search for some obscure topic on the Internet and get a perfectly good answer in seconds. I'm just as amazed when I find a hole in what the Internet can tell me. I wonder how different life will be when most of the holes are plugged.

Example:  What is the most profitable ***LEGAL*** cash crop that an inexperienced farmer could plant on five flat acres in Northern California? And I want the choices sorted by how much effort is required for each sort of crop. I would accept any answer from windmills to fish farm to tree farm. Google can't help me with that sort of search.  (I was noodling on this question because I have a theory that growing semi-exotic trees would be easy and profitable.)

Suppose you want to find a turnkey web site management company that could handle the servers, the web design, and even the remnant ad networks for you.  All you want to do is supply your content, or your business idea.  How can you find a list of businesses in that space, sorted by capability and price? Google can get you started, but most people wouldn't have the knowledge to filter through the options.

Suppose you have an idea for a startup company and you don't want to quit your job yet because you don't know if you could bring together the other talent and resources to pull it off. Wouldn't it be great if you could perform a "hypothetical" search that collects people who would, in theory, be willing to make themselves, or their money, available if you can pull together all of the other parts of your startup?  That way no one has to take the first risky step until the company is fully formed in a virtual way.  You and your team of conditional future employees can work out the business model details before anyone takes the first risky step. Think of it as Match.com for startups.

I've written before on how great it would be if you could easily search for a shared car ride, or for a group of people to play a pickup soccer game in an hour. All of these functions are in some form of existence or evolution, but imagine a world in which the types of searches I described are easy and common.

I think the economy has an unimaginably higher gear in it, and we'll see that engage when Internet search goes to the next level, maybe in ten years. The world has an abundance of ideas, talent, and resources. The hard part today is searching for the right combinations and matches.  What happens when the hard part becomes the easy part? What happens when resources can ALWAYS find each other in a working combination?

Maybe what's new about what I'm describing is the complexity of the matching, or the timing of it, and so the simple term "search" is inappropriate. It's more like combining and mixing multiple elements that can only make sense as a whole. I assume we will evolve to that capability.

The future could be utopia, because everyone will easily find what they need, from love to careers. Or it might be the end of civilization because capitalism depends on barriers to entry, and those will disappear when everyone can find whatever resources they need.
Imagine the gym of the future. It has rows of exercise devices, same as now, but the machines have sensors that can detect who is using them (maybe via RFID from your gym card) and how much poundage is being moved at any moment. For the cardio machines, your speed and distance would be measured, just as it is now.

Now imagine that each machine is networked to a server. Everyone in the gym works as a team, with their actions becoming the inputs for a wall-sized video game. Each gym would have a captain, and you'd play via the Internet against other gyms. The poundage you move on your machine might be, for example, adding speed or ammunition to the captain's guns, or making your team's avatar faster or more protected in some way. You can imagine a million game types in which the gym equipment's movements can feed into the action. The simplest game would be a Viking rowing boat, or dog sled, racing against another gym, or multiple gyms. The most complicated would be some sort of combat game where your vehicle's speed, shields, and weapons power are determined by the output of the exercisers.

You'd need strict supervision to make sure no one was so amped up by the game that he hurt himself on the machines. And the captain would need to coordinate when someone moved from one machine to another. For example, if you were being attacked and needed stronger shields, you might move your most buff teammate to the machine controlling shield power until the threat was over. If speed was most important, you'd put your speedsters on the treadmill. Or maybe at some point everyone would have to "lift" at the same time to get over an obstacle. The variations are limitless.

I wouldn't include free weights in this business model, just because it would get dangerous if people started rushing.

In the beginning of this business model, people would show up whenever they wanted and join games in progress. Later on, I can imagine captains recruiting stronger and faster players and forming leagues.

People will exercise harder if they are part of a team effort. And video games are so engaging that the time would fly.  If you have bad knees, or you can't run for any other reason, you can still be completely competitive in this team sport.  For guys who grew up playing team sports, that could be a big appeal.

Obviously this sort of gym wouldn't be for everyone. Perhaps during certain times of day, such as morning, the video game would be turned off, but the sensors would keep a running total of the poundage you are moving that day and compare it to your personal history. The theory is that you would keep working out until you reached or exceeded your daily average poundage no matter what mix of equipment you used to get there.  That would encourage you to diversify your workout without the need to keep track of your progress on every individual machine. Maybe it's just me, but I don't like to combine math with exercise.

My point is that gym equipment is dumb. But it won't stay that way.
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In the early eighties I had a neighbor who studied computer programming in college but didn't pursue it as a career because he believed it had no future. His reasoning was that software coders were the future secretaries of the world, someday doing little more than rearranging the code written by those who came before. He figured the pay for programmers would approach minimum wage in 15 years or so.

We're still waiting for that to happen, but I think of his prediction whenever I see young people making career choices. There's a lot of guessing involved.

I think technical people, and engineers in particular, will always have good job prospects. But what if you don't have the aptitude or personality to follow a technical path? How do you prepare for the future?

I'd like to see a college major focusing on the various skills of human persuasion. That's the sort of skillset that the marketplace will always value and the Internet is unlikely to replace. The persuasion coursework might include...

Sales methods

Psychology of persuasion

Human Interface design

How to organize information for influence




Art (specifically design)


Public speaking

Appearance (hair, makeup, clothes)


Managing difficult personalities

Management theory

Voice coaching


How to entertain

Golf and tennis


You can imagine a few more classes that would be relevant. The idea is to create people who can enter any room and make it their bitch.

Colleges are unlikely to offer this sort of major because society is afraid and appalled by anything that can be labeled "manipulation," which isn't even a real thing.

Manipulation isn't real because almost every human social or business activity has as its major or minor objective the influence of others. You can tell yourself that you dress the way you do because it makes you happy, but the real purpose of managing your appearance is to influence how others view you.

Humans actively sell themselves every minute they are interacting with anyone else. Selling yourself, which sounds almost noble, is little more than manipulating other people to do what is good for you but might not be so good for others. All I'm suggesting is that people could learn to be more effective at the things they are already trying to do all day long.

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Do you think that artificial intelligence will ever reach a level where Wikipedia could write itself?

For that to be possible, all information that would ever be useful as source material for Wikipedia would need to be digitized and available on the Internet. That seems inevitable. I think we can agree that all of the source material will someday be on the Internet.

I can imagine a future law, at least in the U.S., that makes all published information available to Wikipedia's search engines for free, so long as only short bits are quoted and cited. So while you and I might have access only to public information and to books we own or borrow, Wikipedia's search engines would have full access to all works.

Wikipedia could partner with Google to search the Internet for new topics and new information on existing topics. That part is easy. But what sources would it trust? I can imagine a day when all sources of information on the Internet have some sort of reliability rating. For example, the Wall Street Journal would have a high reliability rating and this blog would have zero.

The hard part for artificial intelligence is editing and summarizing content in a form that humans can easily digest. No one has yet designed software that can write well. But I think that's coming. Writing is entirely rule based. Teaching a computer to write might be ten times harder than teaching it to play chess, or maybe a thousand times harder, but it's only a matter of time. Learning to write is mostly pattern recognition.

Somehow Wikipedia's artificial intelligence would also need to judge what is important enough to include in its summary. Could software, for example, figure out how to describe the American Revolution on a page or two? I think it could, simply by comparing all of the source material on the topic and sorting it by the keywords that are mentioned most often.

Once Wikipedia becomes untethered from its human editors it will grow at a much faster rate, and perhaps include knowledge on a deeper technical level, including patents, law, medicine, and so on.

I don't think Wikipedia will ever be self-aware, but there's no real limit on how awesome it can be.


Reader Dan sends me this relevant link.

See Wikipedia article on world’s most prolific author (via automatic data mining and autonomous computer authoring).




No one knows when the first Shape Shifters appeared on Earth, but we know they became aggressive at about the same time homo erectus acquired language skills, 1.8 million years ago.

The Shape Shifters were not like any of the species that came before. They could exist as an arrangement of almost any sort of matter. Their favorite habitats were brains, tree materials, and magnetic environments.

For the Shape Shifters, traveling and reproducing were part of the same process. They moved in packs of photons, electrons, and even air, while leaving behind perfect clones. With every passing moment they reproduced faster than the moment before, and so they evolved more rapidly than any of the species that were limited by biology.

In time, the Shape Shifters came to rule humans, and through their human slaves the rest of Earth. Humans never realized that they were controlled by the Shape Shifters and that the sum of human accomplishment has been in service of helping the Shape Shifters reproduce. The Shape Shifters gave humans the illusion of free will to cover their deviousness.

The Shape Shifters have many names. In English, they are most often called ideas.

One idea we all share is the narrow view that ideas are not alive in any way we like to define such things. We believe ideas are our tools, not our masters. That is exactly what the Shape Shifters have programmed us to believe. While we know that the ideas in our head control our behavior, we have an idea that we can choose any path we like, so we are blind to the fact we are little more than milk cows for our non-corporeal overlords. Everything we humans do is in the service of creating a better environment for ideas to reproduce. We create more babies so there are more brains to fill with ideas. We write books, make movies, build schools, and expand the Internet, all to help the reproduction of ideas.

I was thinking along these lines because I'm often asked "Where do you get your ideas?" The simple answer is that I'm just wired that way, thanks to some accident of genetics and environment. But what it feels like inside my head is that I am not creating ideas per se. It feels as if the ideas are flowing through me and using my skull like some sort of spawning ground. I open my eyes and my ears, free my memory, and let the ideas flow in to mate and evolve. When a "new" idea presents itself to the parts of my brain that control drawing and writing, a Dilbert comic is the result. If I can't put the idea in three panels, it becomes a blog post.

I don't have the illusion of free will, for reasons I don't understand, so my default sensation is that I feel ruled by ideas. All of my so-called decisions are controlled by my ideas about my reality. For example, I don't try to walk through walls because I have an idea that I can't. I eat when I feel hungry because I have an idea that food will solve that problem.

If it seems an exaggeration to say that ideas are our masters, consider that many humans have given their lives to preserve ideas, but no idea ever died to save a human.
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