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Yesterday I asked what role the government should have in fostering alternative energy breakthroughs. The people who think the government can help a lot with this sort of thing often cite two examples:

1. Kennedy's race to the moon

2. The Manhattan Project to build a nuclear bomb

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

3. Financing for solar cell installations


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pause to digest.

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

 
As most of you know, I draw a comic featuring a guy who inexplicably has no mouth, who lives with a cartoon dog that inexplicably has no mouth. And I end up with Spasmodic Dysphonia, a condition that prevents me from speaking.

Today in the news, the author of the book "100 Things to Do Before You Die" died at the age of 47 after hitting his head at home. That probably wasn't on the list.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080826/ap_on_en_ot/obit_freeman


Also in the news, a woman accused an actor of pulling down her top in a restaurant. The actor is infamous for his crude behavior, and his name is... wait for it... Andy Dick.


http://www.popeater.com/television/article/drugs-sure-but-no-sex-charges-for-dick/146990?icid=200100397x1207963155x1200431943


And of course everyone knows the story of fitness guru Jim Fixx who died of a heart attack at age 52. He wrote a book telling people how to, in essence, not die of a heart attack at the age of 52.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Fixx


With so many famous people doing so many things, some of those things are bound to be ironic. But that might not be the full story. According to studies, people named Dennis are more likely to become dentists.


http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~cook/movabletype/archives/2005/08/dennis_the_denv.html


Being the moist robots that we are, apparently we can accidentally get programmed by tiny cues in the environment. For example, another study showed that people who have overweight friends are more likely to be overweight themselves. The things you associate with, and think about, influence who you are.

This is tricky stuff because you might decide to name your child Richard, hoping the "rich" part would take hold, only to find out he prefers to be called Dick.

 
My favorite story this month is about the hit man who was allegedly hired by a husband to kill his wife, a 51-year old nurse. The alleged hit man whacked the nurse with a hammer, which only pissed her off, so she strangled the hit man with her bare hands.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14859827/


It is all very tragic, and yet I am amused by everything in this story, starting with the fact that the husband's first choice was to reconcile with his estranged wife. His second choice was to have her killed with a hammer. That is a man who does not recognize nuance. I wonder how many people in his life have escaped close calls.


Husband: "Hey, Fred, do you have another beer?"


Fred: "All I have is some light beers."


Husband (thinking): I should kill him with a hammer.


My other favorite part of the story is that the hit man carried his alleged client's phone number in his backpack while on the job. I never attended hit man school, but I have to think they teach you on the first day not to keep your client's phone number with you on the job. And on day two they probably cover the basics of not letting yourself get strangled by the lady you are sent to kill.

I can imagine myself in the place of the nurse who did the strangling. Once you subdue a hit man, you really don't want to take the chance of him getting up no matter how much he's promising he won't do it again. It blurs the line of self-defense, but you have no real option but to finish the job once you start. And I suppose if a guy has just hit you with a hammer, you'd probably enjoy making his eyes bug out like a cartoon character. But maybe that's just me.

The other great irony is that the strangler is a nurse. I'd hate to be a future patient who recognizes her face from the news. I'd hold my pee for a week before I'd ask that nurse for a bed pan.

 
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.
 

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.

 
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.
 
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.
 
 
 
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