When people tell me their problems, I immediately feel like I need to solve them. I wonder if that impulse is an American cultural thing. Obviously every individual is different, but it seems as if we Americans like to get involved in other people's business.

I think about that impulse when I noodle about the North Korean situation. Realistically, is there anything the United States can do to influence North Korea that China isn't already doing in its own self interest? North Korea is dependent on China for its survival, and China's economy is dependent on avoiding nuclear wars anywhere in the world. China is smart and competent. Isn't the North Korean nuclear threat China's problem to solve?

We all agree that if North Korea sells nukes to rogue regimes, it's bad for the United States. But can we really do anything about it that China isn't already doing in pursuit of its own self interest? I doubt it.

China will use economics to move from their already strong influence over North Korea to something that will be closer to total control. And my guess is that the generals in North Korea are already the real power, with the Dear Leader as their bumbling figurehead. I doubt the country's real leadership is as crazy as it seems.

The current issue of Newsweek claims North Korea's economy is actually stable and growing, with plenty of natural materials to exploit. With China's help, North Korea's economy could be booming in a few years, mostly because of mining. For the ruling elite, that would make the selling of nuclear secrets less profitable than good ol' Russia-style domestic corruption, and far riskier.

My entire knowledge of international affairs is based on several one-day visits to Canada and four days napping on a beach in Cancun. My views on North Korea, and most other topics, can be safely ignored. I'm just curious whether our cultural bias is causing us to rationalize meddling in North Korea.
Responses to my post from yesterday seemed nearly unified in agreeing that it is immoral to kill someone who has a 5% likelihood of someday killing you in the future. Most people agreed that in order for self defense to be a moral act you need the danger to be more immediate. And if you use the 5% threshold of danger you can justify killing just about anyone now so they won't accidentally drive over you in their car later.

Most of you agree that if someone pulls a gun and says, "I'm going to shoot you after I rob you so there is no witness," you would be morally justified in killing him first if you can manage it, even if he hasn't started to pull the trigger yet. But you wouldn't be morally justified in killing people who own guns just because they might someday use them on you. That's what the consensus seems to be.

But what if your odds of being killed by one individual, one year from now, are 99%? Is it moral to kill that person now if any delay in doing so makes it less likely you could get him before he got you next year?

If you say it is moral to kill that person to save yourself, because a 99% chance is very different from a 5% chance, then I would argue that morality isn't part of your calculation. You're simply making a judgment of what is practical, both for you and for society.

If you say it's not okay to kill someone who will almost certainly kill you sometime next year unless you get him first, you are highly moral indeed.
If a guy tells you there is a 5% chance he might kill you someday in the future, do you have a moral justification to kill him today?

My answer is yes. You would have a big legal problem, but from a moral standpoint, it's close enough to self defense in my book.

But what if the guy is a bit hard to read on the subject of whether he might kill you in the future. Let's say you can't estimate the odds of it happening because you're not even sure if he means it, or maybe he has some motive in making you think he might. There's no way to know what's in his head. He's broken no laws because he speaks indirectly as in "Someone will kill you soon" as opposed to "I plan to kill you soon." Can you kill that guy and be morally (but not legally) justified?

I say yes again. You might be killing a relatively innocent man, but accidents aren't immoral.

Now let's say you know that if you kill this one guy, his brothers and sisters will hunt you down and get revenge. It's that sort of family. So killing this guy will only make things worse. But suppose you had a good opportunity to kill all of the brothers and sisters, by bombing their family reunion. You'd get all of the dangerous ones plus a bunch of total innocents. Would that be morally (but not legally) justified as self defense?

I say yes. The guy who threatened you is the one who put his family at risk. And if you misread the threat, that's a tragedy, but not immoral. Accidents are accidents, no matter how horrible.

All analogies are flawed, but that's how I see Israel looking at Iran. From my safe little chair in California, it seems highly unlikely that Iran would unleash a nuke, directly or through proxies, at Israel. But is there a 5% chance it might happen someday? Maybe. There's no way to estimate that sort of thing.

If I lived in Israel, I would feel morally (but not legally) justified in attacking Iran to reduce a hypothetical 5% risk of nuclear annihilation. But that's just the moral argument. On a practical level, I have a hard time imagining a massive attack on Iran making Israel safer in the long run. Still, if I were within Iranian missile range, a 5% risk would look exactly like a 90% risk to me. I'd treat those risks as if they were the same.

Here's an interesting view on Iran from Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. Does his argument look like something you once read elsewhere?


Sometimes I like to dredge up an argument I have made before if I think I have a new and better way of expressing it. So I apologize if this looks like a repeat.

People keep sending me links to articles about how time is an illusion and not a quality of the universe. Apparently that is the common view of physicists. Scientists prefer concepts such as warped space-time and whatnot. I won't pretend to understand any of that. The point is that science doesn't recognize time -- in the way we understand it -- as a quality of the universe.

You might say time has something in common with God. Most people have a sense that both time and God exist, and they need both concepts to understand their own existence. Atheists and dyslexics (who experience time out of order) are the minority.

Given that science can't find evidence for either God or time, it takes a leap of faith to assume either one exists. Therefore, anything in our daily life that depends on either God or time is built on a foundation of faith and not science.

As a practical matter, faith is necessary to navigate our daily existence. You need to believe without benefit of scientific evidence that the way things work today, or seem to work, will be similar to how things will work tomorrow.

Evolution is a scientific fact. It meets all the tests of science. But it also depends entirely on the common notion of time. Therefore, while evolution is not a religion per se, it is built on a foundation of faith in something that scientists recognize as an illusion.

That doesn't make the theory of evolution any less useful within the reality we imagine we are experiencing. And it doesn't make it any less a scientific fact as we commonly define such things. But as a non-believer and a dyslexic, I twitch when I hear anything being touted as truth or reality when it so clearly depends on faith.
There is a strong relationship between knowledge and money. In some situations money and knowledge are economic equivalents. If you have enough money to meet your basic expenses, you would often be willing to trade money for knowledge.

People often take low-paying jobs if there is an opportunity to gain valuable knowledge that can be translated into better opportunities down the road. And obviously people pay money to go to college and gain knowledge. It is often said that knowledge is power, but that's just another way of saying knowledge is money.

There's probably someone within a block of me right now who would gain a lot by hearing something I know about business. And there's probably something I could gain by learning some fact that one of my neighbors knows. But we might never meet. And if we do, we might never discover what valuable information the other knows.

How do you exploit that economic opportunity?
In January I wrote a post about Captain Sullenberger safely landing his plane in the Hudson River. At the end of the post I said it was a sign that the economy had reached bottom and would soon improve, thanks largely to what I predicted would be an upsurge in consumer confidence. I think people needed exactly that sort of story to regain their faith in humanity.


As you can see from this historical chart of the S&P 500, my prediction might turn out to be about right, give or take a few months. And now the latest news is that consumer confidence rose by an "unexpectedly" high number.


My real estate broker tells me that the market for homes in our part of California is white hot. Every property is getting multiple offers, and real estate hasn't been this affordable in a few decades. Prices aren't rising, but they abruptly stopped falling.

Inventories have shrunk, which is generally a good sign for the future, and the public has an unusual level of confidence in an American president for a change.

Gas prices no longer seem so high, and the war in Iraq appears to be "won" in some fashion, depending on how you define that sort of thing.

We still have high unemployment, which will dog us for some time, and a crushing debt that seems impossible to fix but probably isn't.  But for now the media is tired of reporting bad news, partly because doing so is bad news for their own bottom lines, so expect to see some new media-driven economic bubbles forming by the end of the year.

Disclaimer: Don't get your financial, legal, or medical advice from cartoonists.

Water is good for you. Unless you're at the bottom of the ocean with an anchor tied to your ankle. Teamwork is like that. It can be a good thing, but more often it's like trying to breathe underwater. Consider a brief list of reasons that teamwork will make any normal individual perform below his highest potential:

1. Your best time for thinking might be the other guy's best time to take a nap. If that's the only time you can have a meeting, one of you isn't going to be operating at peak performance.

2. Credit for success is distributed across the team. So is blame. If you believe people are motivated by a desire for credit, or a desire to avoid blame, teamwork is a blunting force.

3. In any group of three people, there's generally at least one disruptive moron.

4. People have different work styles. Some people like to do everything just right. Others like the quick and dirty approach, fixing things as they go. In a team, you spend half of your time arguing over the best philosophy for every action.

5. To mediocre minds, a brilliant idea and a dumb idea sound identical. A team will vote out the best ideas along with the worst.

6. The dominant team members will get their way over the objections of the meek, no matter how competent the meek might be.

7. In a team, you must continually explain yourself, defending every thought and every action.

8. Everyone has a different risk profile. Your appetite for risk won't be shared by the group.

9. Everyone wants to do the fun stuff and not the boring-but-necessary parts.

10. You eat when the team agrees that it's time for lunch. That means you're often hungry while trying to work, or wasting time eating when you're not hungry.

11. All meetings last longer than they should.

One of the implications of more people working for themselves, and working from home, is that people will be somewhat freed from the tyranny of teamwork. I wonder if that bodes well for the future of humanity.

Over spring break we went to Florida for some family fun. The hotel was right on the beach. Most days we divided our time between the ocean and the hotel's two huge swimming pools. Toward the end of one day, the four of us, plus a stranger or two, were relaxing in the oversized hot tub in the pool area. A 5-year old kid, I'm guessing, wearing swim goggles, came to the hot tub, took a breath, and submerged. He stayed under for awhile then surfaced with treasure: a man's wedding ring and 75 cents in change.

The kid proudly showed off his find to his sister at the edge of the hot tub. I could tell from their reactions that this wasn't their first time. I'm guessing that every hour or so, he would go diving for loose change in the hot tub. Apparently it was profitable.

Then I noticed my wedding ring was missing. The kid was still displaying his treasure to his sister. Deciding that possession was nine-tenths of the law, I snatched it out of his hand like a seagull on a cracker. I figured it would be easier to argue it was mine once it was actually on my finger. Luckily the kid didn't put up a fight. Obviously he was new to this whole treasure hunting gig. Next time he'll know to bring a spear gun.

In the nearly three years I have owned my wedding ring, it has never once fallen off my finger. And it happened on a day I was in the ocean, a huge swimming pool, and then a hot tub. It was also the one time I have ever seen a kid go treasure hunting in a hot tub. These two unlikely events conspired to return my ring to me. Or maybe it was some other guy's ring. The point is that it fit. Whatever.
I was thinking about how different our lives will be as cell phone technology continues to improve. Someday your phone will be your only computer, and your home will have a screen in every room that senses the proximity of any phone that approaches. Push a button on your phone and it will take over any nearby screen to display a movie, recorded TV show, or music video. You could browse the web on the big screen, or create a Word document. You might want a wireless keyboard in some rooms, but for most applications your phone would control the cursor and allow you to do minor typing.

If you have no nearby screen, the phone could project a larger image onto any surface. That technology is already on the market.

As you walk from room to room, your TV show or music would automatically follow you, at least in your own home, assuming no one else has control of the screens in those rooms. And your phone would be the universal remote control for everything in the home, including lights, temperature, and security.

When you go to work, you simply approach your cubicle and the phone in your pocket wakes up the screen and becomes its processor, communicating with the screen and the Internet. The phone would have massive data storage, and back itself up automatically over the Internet. If you lose your phone, all you need is your security codes and passwords to be up and running with a new phone in an hour.

Wallets will become relics. Just wave your phone near a point of sale terminal, enter your PIN code on the phone and your bank account will be debited. Or perhaps by then your phone will read your thumb print to verify your identity.

When you shop, just wave your phone over the bar code on a product and see reviews and comparisons.

As you approach your car, it senses your phone's proximity and unlocks the doors nearest you and adjusts the seats for you.

All of this technology already exists in some form, or will soon. In the future, the only computer you will ever need will be in your pocket.

I have an idea for the ultimate video game for girls. I call it What Goes With What. I haven't worked out the details of the game yet, but you could imagine lots of varieties around the core concept I will describe.

Imagine at the beginning of the game your screen is filled with images of shoes, purses, scarves, pants, blouses, and all manner of human adornments. The screen is totally packed with these images, all smallish. The computer randomly highlights any one of these images and you have 30 seconds to click on all the other things on the screen that would look good with the original item.

This combines the joy of shopping with the skill of quickly deciding on style and fashion. I believe this would be pure catnip for girls.

Another version of the game might involve furniture, carpets, window treatments and the like. Again you'd have a time limit to figure out which things went well with other things.

It's a running joke that females enjoy shopping. While there are plenty of exceptions to the stereotype, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that evolution probably wired women to find pleasure in shopping in much the same way boys are wired to enjoy blowing up stuff. The video games that work best are the ones that connect to those most basic urges.

As custom requires, several of you will tell me there is a video game that does exactly what I described. Then you will provide a link to a game that is different from what I described.
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