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I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of manipulating our environment to extend our brains. I suppose it all started with early humans carving on cave walls as a way to store historical data. Now we have ebooks, computers, and cell phones to store our memories. And we have schools to program our brains. But it goes much deeper than that. Even a house is a device for storing data. Specifically, a house stores data on how it was built. A skilled builder can study a house and build another just like it.

Everything we create becomes a de facto data storage device and brain accessory. A wall can be a physical storage device for land survey data, it can be a reminder of history, and it can be a trigger of personal memories.

A business is also a way to store data. As a restaurant owner, I was fascinated at how employees came and went, but their best ideas often stayed with the business, especially in the kitchen. The restaurant was like a giant data filter. The bad ideas were tested and deleted while the good ideas stayed, most often without being written down.

When you design a flower garden, its main purpose is to influence people's minds in a positive and peaceful fashion. A flower garden is a brain reprogramming tool. It jacks into any human brain that enters its space and reprograms that brain in a predetermined way. We don't think of it in those terms, but the process is nonetheless deliberate.

My wife and I designed our new house as a brain supplement, although we never spoke of it in those words. Every element of the home is designed to reprogram the brains that enter it to feel relaxed in some of its spaces and inspired in others. The language I used at the time of the design was that every space should be an invitation. (I'll talk more on that topic in an upcoming post.) When guests walk through the house for the first time, we can watch the house change people's attitudes and emotions in real time. It's fascinating.

I suppose other creatures use their environment for storing information, or programming their brains in limited ways. But I assume humans export the highest percentage of brain function to their environment, and it grows daily. The evolution of mind from inside the creature to outside the body fascinates me. Humans are turning the entire planet into an exobrain. Our brains can't hold all of the data we produce, so we look for ways to offload to books, websites, music, and architecture, to name a few storage devices. And we manipulate the environment to reprogram our brains as needed.

Years ago I worked with a young intern at Crocker Bank who believed his first step toward success was to find a place to live in a prosperous suburb. His theory was that the external environment would program his brain for the sort of success that his neighbors would have already found. I remember mocking him for his offbeat and naïve theory. Now I think he's a genius for understanding at such an early age that his environment was a tool for programming his brain. I lost touch with him, but I'll bet he's a millionaire now.
 
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Definition of Withdumb: A quality you possess if you hold a popular and unfounded point of view.

Withdumb is different from herd instinct. A person who possesses withdumb could achieve the condition with no help whatsoever from the group . For example, if you were the only person in Mongolia who believed in astrology, you would have withdumb, but it wouldn't be because your herd influenced you.

It's easier to cling to an irrational opinion if you know that somewhere in the world there are lots of people who think the same way, especially if those other people seem smart or authoritative.

When I was a kid, my own withdumb included the idea that eating before swimming meant certain death. I assumed that someone had actually done research on that topic. I recall wondered why I had never heard of anyone dying from a sandwich-related swimming incident. But when you are young, you assume there are plenty of things happening that you don't know about. The only thing I knew for sure is that lots of people believed that eating and swimming was a dangerous combination.

As an adult, I'm a bit more tuned to recognize withdumb, especially in myself. I see withdumb most often in the field of investing. Most investment choices are based on nothing more than the knowledge that other people do similar things. Lately I have started to wonder if the science of investing is any better than the science of astrology or the science of not eating a sandwich before swimming. I have a degree in economics and an MBA from a top university and I haven't seen any convincing evidence that investing is more than a collection of elaborate scams. Am I exaggerating? No.

Clearly there are people who have special knowledge and can exploit inefficiencies in the market to make money. And clearly the nature of randomness guarantees that some people will make a killing with their investments by pure chance while telling the gullible world they are geniuses. But if you have average knowledge and average luck, is investing even a real thing? I haven't seen any evidence to support that notion. I've been an active investor for decades. During that time I have seen no correlation between my investment knowledge (aka my withdumb) and my outcomes. Nor have I seen any correlation between other people's knowledge and their investment outcomes.

I'm toying with a hypothesis that all of the major moves in investment markets are manipulations by hackers or insiders. It sounds nutty, but Enron was very real, for example, and that company was essentially a criminal enterprise that profited by manipulating energy markets. According to a recent segment on 60 Minutes, hackers have penetrated a shocking number of highly protected defense, banking, and energy systems. If that reporting is accurate, it is naïve to assume that the major investment market computer systems are not already compromised. Someday we might look back at this era and see that what looked like successful investing by individuals was nothing more than correctly guessing the direction that criminals would manipulate the market.

Oh, I'm not done yet. I'll even go so far as to say that the BP oil leak looks suspicious to me. I think we all agree that the most likely cause of the incident is shoddy (cheap) engineering. But the second best explanation is sabotage with a profit motive. My withdumb tells me the oil spill was just an accident. But my experience and common sense tell me I don't live in a world where the alternative can be ruled out.
 
In response to my previous post about storing energy, several of you mentioned pumping water to a mountain lake during the day and generating power at night as the water flows back down. Evidently that is already working in a number of places. The obvious limitation is that most people don't live near an uninhabited mountain valley that can be turned into a lake.

The question of the day for you engineers is this: How many swimming pools worth of water traveling downhill would it take to power one house for one night?

Feel free to make assumptions about the typical size of a house and a pool, and the height the water drops. I'm asking because if the answer is less than half of one swimming pool per home, you could theoretically work out an arrangement with one uphill neighbor. You pump your private reservoir (not your actual swimming pool water) uphill to the neighbor during the day, release it at night, and share the energy. I'm assuming a tiny generator for this sort of application exists or could exist.

And presumably you could have a string of homes, each higher in elevation than the last, with a generator at each level, so one swimming pool worth of water traveling downhill could get reused at each level.
 
Unreliable Energy
Jun 17, 2010 | Permalink
Experts like to tell us that solar and wind power can never be our main sources of energy because they are "unreliable." Solar doesn't help you at night, and wind power is useless on still days. That problem could be solved if large scale batteries were inexpensive. My question is this: What is so expensive about making batteries.

Consider our existing battery technologies. Do most of the costs of existing batteries come from the raw materials in them? Is making batteries an especially difficult manufacturing process? Is the real cost from the fact that batteries don't last long and there's no cheap way to recycle? Are batteries expensive to ship because of their weight? Would they simply take up too much room? Or is it all of those things?

What would it take to drive down the cost of existing battery technology until mass storage of solar and wind energy was economical? I'm fascinated by the fact that I don't know the answer to that question.

Here are some batteries that you can buy today to live off the grid with solar power. It's not clear to me how many of these you'd need to string together for a typical home. I'm guessing it would take up the equivalent of one parking bay in your garage.

http://www.wholesalesolar.com/products.folder/battery-folder/concorde.html

Do any of you know why existing batteries are so expensive?

 

 
Q. What is the new definition of "Taliban"?

A. Anyone who lives above a lithium deposit

On Monday we learned something that the Pentagon has known for years: Afghanistan is sitting on a trillion dollars worth of valuable minerals.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/14/world/asia/14minerals.html?ref=world

I have literally never seen a news story more interesting than this one. I barely know where to begin. For starters, why were Americans looking for mineral resources in Afghanistan in 2007? I try so hard to NOT become a conspiracy theorist, but COME ON! Give me a frickin' chance!!!

If you're wondering when the U.S. will withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, you now have your answer: Never. Our worst case scenario is peace. If war ends in Afghanistan, some subset of the Taliban would eventually become fantastically wealthy with the help of foreign mining operations. Nothing good can come from Taliban billionaires. That's the strategic risk that will keep us there forever.

Of all the mineral riches that Afghanistan could have, why oh why did it have to include lithium? Just when I was getting all hopeful about electric cars, which require batteries, which will probably require lithium, we find out that lithium is located where the Taliban poop. What were the odds of that? It's like the plot of a poorly written movie. Meanwhile, the friendly Swiss are being completely useless and producing nothing but chocolate and lederhosen. I will only say this once: I CAN'T RUN MY CAR ON CHOCOLATE!

Strategy-wise, these valuable deposits in Afghanistan are a major problem for U.S. defense. It makes leaving impossible and staying even harder. Any sense of military legitimacy will soon be smothered by talk of economics. If there's one argument that you can be sure will never fly with the American voting public, it goes like this: "Those vast mineral deposits are a total coincidence."

The moral questions in Afghanistan are fascinating. If a country harbors terrorists that attack your country, creating the necessity of invasion at great expense, do you get to keep some of the minerals you find? Or is it fairer that some goat herder or war lord who happens to live above a copper deposit by pure chance gets to become a billionaire while his neighbors starve? Is it moral to establish a thoroughly corrupt Afghan government, which might be the only kind possible, and then leave? I contend that all paths are thoroughly immoral.

If every option is equally immoral, maybe the next filter should be practicality. I say we turn Afghanistan into a corporation, with all of the citizens owning equal shares after the U.S. Treasury carves out its 25% stake of preferred stock. Our military would stay there in a paid security arrangement, transitioning over time to a private operation. The corporate bylaws would require American security personnel for at least 100 years. Sort of like the Swiss Guard and the Vatican.

Afghanistan might never work as a country, but maybe it could work as a corporation. Arguably, the corporate model is what makes China work so well. The Chinese Communist Party reminds me of a corporate structure, where the CEO serves at the pleasure of the board of directors, and building wealth is the main goal. In China, the head guy doesn't have dictator powers. He serves at the pleasure of the Communist Party leaders, and he needs to perform well or they replace him. Some version of that model would probably work a lot better than democracy for Afghanistan.

Yes, I do realize that nothing I write in this blog is factually accurate or remotely practical. Thank you in advance for pointing that out.

 
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What is the most widely read ebook in the world? Interestingly, no one knows the answer to that question. You can find best seller lists for ebooks, which are generally limited to one distributor's numbers for a limited time window. The best seller lists ignore all of the illegal ebook downloads, the free ebooks, the books from the past, and the books from distributors that don't report their numbers. In other words, no one has any way to determine which ebook has been the most widely read in the world. In the future, book best seller lists could become meaningless because the numbers will be too unreliable.

A good guess is that The Bible is the most widely read ebook in the world, and The Book of Mormon is second. Things get tricky when you try to figure out who comes in third. I think there's a good chance that I hold the third position with my book God's Debris.

Yes, I did compare myself to God. But if it makes you feel any better, God won this round.

God's Debris was an ebook before it was a traditional book, and during that time it was a #1 best seller. But that's not the basis for my estimate, because in those days few people bought ebooks. Ten thousand ebook sales would have been considered a blockbuster.

A few years ago I released God's Debris on the Internet for free. Anyone with a computer or smart phone can still download and read it at no cost. The book is designed to be viral, in the sense that it's most fun when passed along to a friend for later discussions.

Here's one free source: http://nowscape.com/godsdebris.pdf

Stephen King got a lot of attention for releasing the "first mass market ebook" called Riding The Bullet. Exact download numbers are sketchy because of a computer crash, but more than 500,000 copies were downloaded. It currently sells for $3.99 for the Kindle. My best guess is that God's Debris has been downloaded and read ten to twenty times more than that number because free is a good price, God's Debris has no DRM, it is a generic PDF file, and it's a viral book by design. Also, the topic in God's Debris tends to appeal to people who have access to the Internet. I think you would download a Stephen King novel if you liked his work, but you would download God's Debris just because it was free and you were mildly curious. Free is a good price.

When you're an author, people like to tell you when they have read your books. The number of times that happens, including email, for a particular book, generally tracks with the sales volume of the book, at least for the books for which I have sales numbers. In other words, the Dilbert book with the highest sales was The Dilbert Principle, and more people have commented to me about that book than any other Dilbert book. And so on down the line. The interesting thing is that I get more comments on God's Debris, both in person and by email, than I get for all of the Dilbert books ever written. That's what makes me suspect that God's Debris could be the most widely read ebook of all time, not counting books authored by The Lord Almighty.

God's Debris is allegedly available on iTunes now as an audiobook. I can't confirm that because iTunes gives me an error when I try to search for it. I don't have much luck with Apple products. Let me know if you can find it.

 

 
The brain makes associations automatically. That's why aversion therapy works. For example, if you want someone to avoid watermelon, inject a foul smelling chemical into a number of slices and have your subject bite into the slices repeatedly. In time, if your subject is willing to continue the experiment, he will develop a strong aversion to watermelon, and you will have successfully programmed him to avoid that particular food in the future.

Associations don't have to be negative. People will enjoy working if they expect it will help them later experience some good feelings in the form of praise or respect. The limit on this form of positive programming is that we mistakenly believe it is a conscious phenomenon, in which people reason that a certain activity will produce a certain positive outcome. I believe rationality is overrated, and thus we miss a huge opportunity. If we could accept that humans are fundamentally irrational, we could program ourselves for higher levels of happiness and productivity than we currently enjoy. Here's how.

Take a volunteer and ask him all of his favorite sensations. This could range from the taste of his favorite food, to foot massages, to sexual stimulation, to warm baths, to his favorite song. Then spend a few weeks showing the volunteer a particular and not-too-common object whenever the positive sensations are applied. For example, you might pick a sock monkey as your object because you don't see them often, and they don't carry with them any sort of special association beyond generic fun. After two weeks of intensely associating sock monkeys with favorite sensations, the volunteer's brain would make a permanent connection. Thereafter, any time he wanted to turn a bad mood into a good mood, he would look at his sock monkey and his brain would execute its happiness subroutine. It's safer and quicker than pharmaceuticals. The only risk is that the volunteer might fall in love with his sock monkey. But I'm not judging.

People who have favorite sports teams know how powerful this sort of programming can be. If you wear the jersey of your favorite team, your brain associates the colors and the logo with the good feelings of watching a game. The rational part of your brain might tell you that you wear the team jersey because you look good in those colors, or you support the team. But I think the real reason is a simple association with the stimulation you feel when watching your team compete. It's an accidental subroutine.

Society would never accept any sort of rigorous programming of humans in the fashion I have suggested, even if the process were fully supported by science. To do so would be to accept a view of ourselves as irrational. And so we miss an easy opportunity for much greater happiness and productivity.

 
The Adams Complexity Threshold is the point at which something is so complicated it no longer works.

The Gulf oil spill is probably a case of complexity reaching the threshold. It was literally impossible for anyone to know if the oil rig was safe or not. The engineering was too complex. I'm sure management thought it was safe, or hoped it was safe, or hallucinated that it was safe. It wasn't possible to know for sure.

Maybe someday we'll learn there was one person who skipped a safety step, but that's exactly the sort of thing you can't get away with in a less complex world, where everyone understands the whole process and can notice a mistake. It's our nature to blame a specific person for a specific screw-up, but complexity is what guarantees mistakes will happen and won't be caught.

Enron is another case of complexity crossing the threshold. No one really understood what Enron was doing, except for a few crooks, and they intentionally used complexity to conceal their treachery. I lived in California when Enron literally made the lights go out, and even the Governor didn't know why.

The financial meltdown, health care, defense spending, our tax code, problems in the Middle East - you name it. They have all become unsolvable because of their complexity. We want to blame individuals for being stubborn or corrupt or even stupid. But the real enemy is complexity.

Complexity is often a natural outgrowth of success. Man-made complexity is simply a combination of things that we figured out how to do right, one layered on top of the other, until failure is achieved.

Try leaving the house with the family. It used to be as simple as getting in the car and driving away. Lately it has become more complicated than the Normandy invasion. You need cell phones, car chargers, iPods, sunglasses, address for the navigation unit, and sweaters, if not layers. Someone needs a snack, and someone needs an Advil. There's something you need to drop off along the way. Remember to stop at a mailbox, then pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, and get gas. Then remember that the iron might be plugged in, and drive back home to check. Repeat.

Recently I got a very cool Garmin watch/GPS device for running. It can do so many things that the interface is unfathomable to me when considered in the context of my busy life. To be clear, I am completely capable of figuring out how to use the device, given enough time and attention, but the complexity of the rest of my life guarantees that this happy day of understanding will never come. So I wore the watch to a party and asked a friend how to activate the distance tracking function. I'll stop my learning there, since that's the main thing I wanted the device for. I have comics to draw and blog posts to write. No more time for Garmin.

It's not an accident that the recent leaders of China have been trained engineers. They've done a great job in an immensely complicated situation. Engineers are trained to deal with complexity.

I wonder if we should start requiring in our leaders a background that shows they can deal with complexity. Lawyers and engineers have that training. I assume that doctors and economists have what it takes. Ironically, a degree in political science alone is probably a red flag that a person might not be suited for the complexities of holding office. Taking it a step further, if your elected representative majored in English, he's probably relying on reflex, polls, superstition or bribery to make his decisions. Good luck with that.

[On another topic, check out my article for the Wall Street Journal that grew out of this blog. It's getting a lot of attention.]



 
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My Google Alert recently picked up a lot of chatter on the Internet about a rumored Dilbert movie in the works. The rumor is ahead of the reality, as the project hasn't been funded, and there isn't yet a director, writer, or actor signed on. But I was fascinated by the reactions of the many movie web sites that weighed in with their opinions on whether it was a good idea to create a Dilbert movie.

What?

Evaluating whether an idea is good enough for a movie is a bit like an automobile expert saying a certain brand of car doesn't taste good. It's absurd. You can only hold the opinion that a particular movie concept is a good or bad idea if you don't understand what a movie is or what an idea is.

For example, here's the world's worst idea for a movie: Titanic. It did okay at the box office.

Movies are good or bad because of execution, not concept. Even outside of the movie realm, ideas generally have no economic value whatsoever, except in rare cases such as when a patent is issued. And even in those cases it's the patent law that creates the value, not the ideas.

The self-appointed movie critics went on to point out that Office Space was already a movie, so there was no room left in the universe for a Dilbert movie. That's a bit like saying there's no point in creating a romantic comedy because someone already did that one. It's a fundamental misunderstanding of what a movie is.

I've long been fascinated by the common human illusion that ideas can be sorted into good and bad, when all experience shows this not to be the case. We could play the game all day long where I describe a simply terrible idea and then tell you about the people who got rich implementing it just right. Let's try a few...

How about a comic strip that is literally a bunch of stick figures? It will be called XKCD and have no discernable characters. Done! It's the most viewed comic on the Internet.

How about a movie about two gay cowboys? Done! Academy Award!

How about a comedic TV show about a Nazi concentration camp? Done! It was called Hogan's Heroes and was a hit in its time.

How about a Broadway musical about a bunch of frickin' cats? Done!

You'd be hard pressed to come up with an idea so bad that it couldn't succeed with the right execution. And it would be even harder to imagine a great idea that couldn't fail if the execution were left to morons.

Ideas are worthless. Execution is everything.

 
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If you're at work, summarize the last conversation (or e-mail) you had prior to reading this post and include all relevant buzzwords. The more mundane the better. Bonus points if your last conversation was completely unintellible when taken out of context. I'll turn one of your entries (maybe more) into a comic.

Don't try to pick the funniest or most ironic conversation. Pick the most recent.

And thank you for doing half of my work today.
 
 
 
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