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There's a lot of chatter on the Internet about how much land is required to feed one person. You will not be surprised to learn that the answer is "It depends."  It's somewhere in the neighborhood of "a few acres."

On a related note, I wonder how large of a greenhouse you would need to feed a family of four. Could you optimize a greenhouse to the point where it would only take a few hundred square feet?

Greenhouses have a number of benefits. You have a longer growing season, and good control over pests and weeds. You can optimize your water use, and you can use the structure's height to grow vertically where that makes sense.

I suppose you would want to get a few dozen neighbors in on the plan, so each of you can specialize on one crop per year then share the bounty. Rotating the crops across neighbors will help your soil, and it would diversify against problems in any one greenhouse. Plus it's easier on the home grower if he only needs to concentrate on beans this year and corn next year.

Obviously growing your own food only makes sense in a region where water isn't scarce. So let's say these homes with attached greenhouses are in Canada and have their own wells or other water source. And also imagine the homes are built for optimum energy efficiency, perhaps producing more power than they consume. If you have low ongoing expenses for energy, food, and water, your biggest expense is health care. And you're in Canada so the government takes care of that.

And imagine you mulch and recycle, so you have minimal garbage removal costs.

And let's say it's a community where everyone works at home and has high speed Internet connections. When you need a car, which is rare, you rent one. When you need tools, you borrow them from the shared tool shed.

I already know that none of my readers would want to live in the commie world I just described. I'm just curious how inexpensive you could make modern life for a family of four if you planned everything just right.

 
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People warned me, but I didn't believe that picking paint colors would be the hardest part of building a home. For the exterior color, we drove around until we found a new home that was exactly the color we wanted. We queried the owner about what paint he used and asked our builder to duplicate it.

Easy, right?

That's when we learned that paint changes color if you put it on an "imperfect smooth" stucco versus the original home's bumpy stucco. With the bumps, the color becomes subtle and textured and beautiful, albeit different, in every light. On our home it turned canary yellow. When darkened slightly to get the harsh out, it turned green. On the fifth try, we got something that didn't look so much like a practical joke on the neighbors and decided to go with it. Five tries isn't so bad, right?

Tragically, our house also has an interior, and apparently it's a tradition to paint those walls too. I have been informed that many of our room colors need to be different from the others for reasons that my boybrain cannot comprehend. And maybe we need some accent walls. And it all has to match the baseboards, counter tops, cabinets, floors, drapes, area rugs, and furniture. Okay, that seems doable, sort of, until you toss in a few more
variables:

1.    The paint has to be zero VOC (little or no off-gassing). It's my own requirement. That severely limits choices, and faux glazing is impossible.
2.    We don't have furniture picked out. Or drapes. Or rugs.
3.    We have only tiny non-representative samples of counter tops.
4.    The paint color changes dramatically in every type of light.
5.    The paint color changes dramatically depending on what it is near.
6.    Every family member has a different opinion.

Does it sound impossible yet? Wait, there's more.

The city doesn't allow builders to hook up to both gas and electricity prior to government approval to move in. You have to pick one or the other, to keep you from moving in before the home is deemed safe and ready. We needed the gas hooked up first, to test some other systems, so that means we will never see the interior walls in any light approximating our future normal light until after the walls are painted.

It gets better.

When you see a color on a tiny swatch, it might look tan, for example. But when you paint it on a wall it turns yellow or green or red. And not just a little. The wall color will have almost no correlation to the sample you picked. It is pure randomness.

In a few minutes I will call the paint store for my 25th paint sample. (Not an exaggeration.) Some of the choices are colors that are clearly grey on the sample but have names like "Flaming Orange." WTF????

So it's a bit like the game Battleship, where you drop random depth charges on the color chart and see if you can narrow down a zone where the good color is hiding. Except in this case the person you are playing against is both blind and lying.

All I know is that if we find even one color that doesn't look like a jaundiced albino rat when applied to the wall, I'll be lobbying hard to paint all the rooms that color and buy only black furniture, black drapes, and black rugs. I hear black goes with everything. Wish me luck.

 
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You're probably aware of the Long Tail concept. The idea is that technology makes it economical for companies to sell items for which there are only a handful of buyers in the known universe. The trick is to sell lots of different items to lots of different buyers. And if those items are manufactured with special features for each buyer, it's called mass customization.

The new Dilbert Store is a good example of both the long tail and mass customization. You can search for any Dilbert comic ever made, find the one that speaks to your own bizarre sensibilities, and in a few days a package arrives at your door with that comic on a coffee cup, or water bottle, whatever. This solved a big problem for us because if you asked a hundred people what was their favorite Dilbert comic, you'd get about hundred different answers. It isn't practical for us to guess which comics would be most popular.

Now a similar thing is happening with price and co-branding. We're starting a test of corporate discounts at The Dilbert store so that you and your co-workers can, if you play your cards right, pay 20% less than the cubeless masses, in return for some exposure within your company.

If the test works out, we'll expand it to include co-branded products and other company focused offers. For example, suppose your company wants to internally promote network security, or disaster recovery, or safety, or some other message. The appropriate department could order Dilbert goods that include your company logo and the on-topic Dilbert comic, all for 20% off. If you play your cards right, that means "free shirt" for you.

If you want to get in on the 20% off test, send an email to dilbert@ordering.com with "corporate discount program" in the subject.  Include the contact info of the person at your company that handles this sort of thing.
 
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Now that I'm married, one of the questions I fear the most is "Can you look in the X and see if you can find the Y?" Oh, I try. But my wife refuses to learn that I will never succeed.

X and Y might represent, for example, the special cheese hiding in the fridge, or the "good pillow" hiding in the bedroom, or the yellow folder hiding in the kitchen. There are a variety of reasons I will not succeed in finding the desired item. About 25% of the time the item is not in the room, or pile, or container where it should be. Another 25% of the time the item is inadequately described, as in "the light brown socks in the drawer with the other brown socks, but not camel colored or reddish brown, and not the old ones."

But the biggest reason for my seek-and-find failures can be attributed to Transdimensional Materialization Phenomena (TMP). This involves items not being where they belong when I look for them, but tunneling through a wormhole and materializing right where they belong when my wife looks in the same place two minutes later. Apparently this phenomenon is triggered by just the right coupling of exasperation and sarcasm.

As a stepdad, I often get the find-and-drive request. This one is worse than most because the penalty for getting the wrong item involves driving across town a second time. And this brings me to my story. It began with a request for a specific bathing suit that was allegedly in a particular drawer, and needed to be across town within an hour for a 12-year old girl's birthday party.

Allow me to digress and explain that getting the wrong bathing suit for a 12-year old girl's pool party might be the very worst mistake one can make.
I had a full day planned, and I decided I wasn't going to make the trip twice. This time, damn it, I was going to get it right, no matter what it took.

The task was made harder by not really listening to the description of the bathing suit in the first place. I recalled that it had more than one color, and there was something about brown, pink, and blue. And it was in the bottom drawer of the dresser. Allegedly.

I soon found the only candidate that fit the description, or so I thought.
But my spider sense told me something was wrong. Maybe there was an accessory that I would later learn was something I should "obviously" bring along. Or maybe, as is often the case, what looks brown to me is actually blue or even green, and I have the wrong item entirely.

But this time I was determined. I weighed my options. I decided to take the entire drawer out of the dresser and load it into the back of the minivan.
Later, when it became clear that I had the wrong item, I could push the button to open the back hatch of the minivan and say, "Maybe the item you want is in the drawer." I planned to be all smug about it.

But would one drawer be enough? The other drawers had ancillary and peripheral items that might have been in the "obvious" category for use with a swimming suit. Does a swim suit imply that one also needs a particular t-shirt to wear over it? I was in way over my head.

I figured I could fit the contents of the entire dresser in the minivan. All I had to do was take out one drawer at a time, walk each one down three flights of stairs to the garage, load the minivan, then reverse the process after my triumphant delivery.

The only catch is that I couldn't get the drawers out of the dresser. They have a latch thingy, but apparently it was only designed for people who have both fingers and screwdrivers as parts of their hands. I pushed and pulled and jiggled and cursed. Nothing.

So I called the 12-year old and asked for a complete verification of the item I was about to bring. This wouldn't indemnify me from the inevitable error I was about to make, but at least it would look like a good effort. So I described the item I had selected, and was informed that although it matched all the colors of the target item, flowers are not the same things as stripes, so it was not the right one. I was sent to look harder.

I unloaded the drawer on the bed, spread out all of the items and spoke aloud as I eliminated all the not-the-right-bathing-suit items. As I neared completion of this task, and it was clear I would not be finding the desired item, I was overwhelmed with a sense of dread. History was consistent.
Failure was inevitable.

Then my phone rang. The 12-year old voice said, "Maybe it's in the closet in the purple thing." And.it.was. I verified the target item by bead straps, color, size, pattern, and location. I did it!

Like a champion, I drove across town with my successfully found item tucked in a used Safeway bag. As I pulled up to the house, the 12-year-old's future potential stepmom was outside. I handed her the bag and she asked, "Do you want to wait until I make sure this is the right item?"

I rolled up my window and gunned the minivan toward freedom. I turned off my cell phone and hid for the rest of the day. That's a little thing I like to call success.




 
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Shopping is broken. In the fifties, if you wanted to buy a toaster, you only had a few practical choices. Maybe you went to the nearest department store and selected from the three models available. Or maybe you found your toaster in the Sears catalog. In a way, you were the hunter, and the toaster was the prey. You knew approximately where it was located, and you tracked it down and bagged it. Toasters couldn't hide from you.

Now you shop on the Internet, and you can buy from anywhere on the planet.
The options for any particular purchase approach infinity, or so it seems.
Google is nearly worthless when shopping for items that don't involve technology. It is as if the Internet has become a dense forest where your desired purchases can easily hide.

Advertising is broken too, because there are too many products battling for too little consumer attention. So ads can't hope to close the can't-find-what-I-want gap.

The standard shopping model needs to be reversed. Instead of the shopper acting as hunter, and the product hiding as prey, you should be able to describe in your own words what sort of thing you are looking for, and the vendors should use those footprints to hunt you down and make their pitch.

For example, let's say you're looking for new patio furniture. The words you might use to describe your needs would be useless for Google. You might say, for example, "I want something that goes with a Mediterranean home. It will be sitting on stained concrete that is sort of amber colored. It needs to be easy to clean because the birds will be all over it. And I'm on a budget."
Your description would be broadcast to all patio furniture makers, and those who believe they have good solutions could contact you, preferably by leaving comments on the web page where you posted your needs. You could easily ignore any robotic spam responses and consider only the personalized responses that include pictures.

You can imagine this service as a web site. The consumer goes to the section that best fits his needs (furniture, cars, computers, etc.) and describes what he wants, in his own words. Vendors could set key word alerts via e-mail or text for any products in their general category. Once they read the customer's needs online, they have the option of posting their solution, publicly, which gives other vendors and consumers an opportunity to offer counterpoints.

I assume this service already exists in some weaker form.
www.answers.yahoo.com is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't broadcast your needs to vendors. My prediction is that Broadcast Shopping (as I just decided to name it) will become the normal way to shop.

(Note: I am not using this blog post to solicit suggestions for patio furniture and toasters. Those were just examples.)



 
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Suppose a genie appears and gives you two choices. The first option is that he will give you $10 million dollars, but everyone else you know will get $20 million apiece.

Choice two: You get $5 million, but no one else gets anything.

As a bonus, the genie offers to erase your memory of having made the choice, so guilt will never be a factor. You will simply wake up the next day in the new situation.

Which option do you choose to maximize your personal happiness?

This might seem like an easy choice. You take the $10 million and your friends will get $20 million each. Everyone wins. Unfortunately, I don't think humans are wired that way. Happiness is based on the direction your life is heading (better or worse), and what you have compared to what you think you should have.

If you take the genie's $10 million option, over time you will start feeling like the poorest person you know, since everyone else has $20 million apiece. You will wonder what you did in a past life to deserve this shabby treatment from the universe. The ugly truth about humans is that your happiness might be maximized by screwing everyone you know while screwing yourself half as much.

If you buy this premise, it has interesting implications for personal relationships. For example, it means that one way to cheer up an unhappy friend is to put yourself in a bad situation, thus resetting the reference point. The splinter in your finger only makes you unhappy when you're not talking to someone who has a railroad spike through his head.


 
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I wonder if you could make money by investing in whatever companies make you angriest. For example, when oil prices were climbing to the sky, it was popular to hate oil companies. It also would have been a good time to buy their stock.

Before any war, a lot of people start hating defense companies more than usual. And that's the best time to own defense stocks.

During Microsoft's long run to dominance, the company was widely hated. It also would have been a good stock to own for most of that time. Now it feels as if the white hot hatred of Microsoft has reached some sort of plateau, and so has the stock.

We generally hate companies when we think they have too much power. And that correlates with profits. So suppose you took a survey of people's opinions of various industries today, then did another survey every six months, and tracked the anger levels. If you invested in any industry where the average public hatred was increasing, and sold stock when the average hatred started to level off, would you prosper?

Can you think of any industry where the public's hatred was increasing while the companies' stock prices were stagnate or dropping?

Remember, it's not the absolute amount of hatred that matters, just the direction of the intensity. There is plenty of hatred toward cigarette companies, but thanks to the success of anti-smoking laws, that hatred has leveled off. So according to my hypothesis, this wouldn't be a good time to own cigarette stocks.

What do you think?

 
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I saw in the news today that The United States is going to withdraw most of its military forces from Afghanistan. Okay, the news didn't say that in so many words. But they did say, "The cat is on the roof," which means the same thing.

Allow me to explain "The cat is on the roof" to those of you who are unfamiliar with the joke. It goes like this: Bob goes on vacation. He asks his moron brother to take care of his cat. After a few days on vacation, Bob calls to say hi. The moron brother blurts out "Your cat is dead."

Bob is beside himself with grief. And he chastises his moron brother for breaking the news to him in such an abrupt manner. The moron brother asks how he could have done it better.

Bob explains "Well, for example, you could have told me the cat was on the roof. The next time we talked, you could say the Fire Department is trying to get him down. The next time, you could say the cat fell during the rescue and was in the veterinarian hospital. The next time I called, you could say the cat succumbed to his injuries and passed away. That way I would be prepared for the bad news."

The moron brother says he understands. Then he adds, "Oh, by the way. Mom is on the roof."

With that in mind, I saw in the news that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is warning Karzai to clean up the corruption in the Afghan government or else Great Britain will withdraw its forces.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gEBlJJibsvBmFQK5iQvBXDIIJRQAD9BQ3BQG0

That's the "cat is on the roof," as clear as I have ever seen it. Obviously Afghanistan isn't going to get rid of corruption. That gives Great Britain an honorable reason for withdrawing, which I assume they have already decided to do. Once that happens, Obama will be forced by public opinion to do the same, leaving behind some terrorist-hunting forces only.

 
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Suppose a genie appeared and offered to give you regular access to all the things you desire. Let's say that in your case it includes golfing, exotic traveling, eating ice cream, and having a great career. The genie's only catch is that he gets to control your schedule.

Your first reaction might be to take the deal, since all of the activities on the menu are better than the things you do now. And maybe having a genie do all of your scheduling would be convenient.

But if you're smart, you'll decline the offer. No matter how fun or fulfilling are the activities on your list, you can only enjoy them if you have control over WHEN and HOW LONG you do each one. On day one of the genie's deal, you might find that he has allocated nine hours for eating ice cream, and twelve minutes for golf. And your tee time is midnight, after you work twelve hours.

I'm exaggerating the genie's cruelty, but in general it's true that doing the thing you want at the time when you are most in the mood for it makes a gigantic difference in your overall happiness. If you eat when you're hungry, nap when you're sleepy, and work when you're feeling productive, life can be pretty great.

So let's test this concept. Tell me in the comments how much flexibility you have over your own schedule then rate your own happiness. Use a scale of 1-10, as in:

Schedule Flexibility: 8

Happiness: 7

 

 
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Yesterday I blogged that beauty is nothing more than our recognition of functions that are related to current or past survival. Many of you chimed in with counterexamples and arguments. I will address them here.

Q. Music is beautiful. Where's the survival benefit there? 

 A. Even the most famous musicians are generally only enjoyed by 10% of the population. Someone mentioned Miles Davis. I can't stand listening to him. But every person reading this blog would agree that a lush forest is beautiful. So while music in general is universally enjoyed, any given song does not register as beautiful to the public at large. 

Q. What about art?

A. We speak of "appreciating" art, and I think that's a good word. Most art wouldn't be described as beautiful. The Mona Lisa, for example, is skillfully done, but the subject is homely. If other people hadn't told you it was worth a fortune, you wouldn't hang it in your living room. And like music, there is no universal standard for beauty in art.

But there's still a correlation between art and survival impulses. It's probably no coincidence that so much art includes food, babies, and well-fed women during childbearing years.

Q. You can concoct an argument that ANYTHING has a survival benefit.

A. What's the survival benefit of a spider or a human turd? If you break down either of them for their color and form, you'd find the elements that would be considered beauty in some other context. But since spiders and turds have no survival benefit, they don't appear beautiful to the public at large.

Q. What about an ocean? Or a sunset?

A. The ocean is full of food. That one is easy. And if you are an early human living outdoors, sunset and sunrise are probably the best times for hunting and gathering. Midday is too hot. After dark, you're more prey than predator.

Q. Why does a Corvette or a Porsche look more beautiful than an Edsel?

A. Fast cars have more function than slow ones. Most of the beautiful ones are fast. You need speed to catch prey and avoid predators.

 
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