Sometimes there are benefits of being That Dilbert Guy. After I mentioned the brain reading technology from Neurosky (Neurosky.com) one of their headsets and some software showed up at my office. You slap on the headset and control what happens on screen by either concentrating or relaxing. The headset reads your brain waves and communicates via Bluetooth to the game.

The sample games are limited, designed just for demonstrating the technology. I understand that some cooler things are in the pipeline from third party companies. This got me wondering what would be the coolest game you could develop with this technology. I think I came up with the best game ever.

Imagine an online multiplayer game where you control an avatar that is a wizard in this imaginary world. So far, that sort of thing exists. Now imagine that when you encounter an enemy wizard, you do battle, Harry Potter style, with an assortment of spells. So far, I imagine this already exists too. (I'm not a gamer.)

The new part involves integrating voice recognition and the Neurosky headset with the game play. Imagine that you speak the name of your chosen spell, and the game recognizes it and raises the magic wand of your avatar. But to actually apply the spell, you have to concentrate, and the Neurosky headset picks up that brain wave and translates it into the power of your spell.

Imagine that the available spells in this online world are an elaborate form of paper-rocks-scissors, meaning that every spell has a spell it can best and one that can best it. And even those results would depend on how effectively you concentrated to empower your spell. So a weak spell with good concentration could beat a powerful spell poorly done.

And perhaps you can escape from a spell through relaxation, becoming like a vapor to avoid chains, for example. The headset would pick up relaxation brain waves too.

I probably just pissed off some game developer who is working on this exact idea in a top secret lab somewhere. Sorry.
I hear a lot of complaints about big companies donating money to politicians and getting favorable legislation in return. Obviously these companies make donations because they believe it works. I decry this perversion of our democracy (okay, our republic). On the other hand, I wonder how I can invest in those companies.

Has anyone tracked the stocks of companies that donate to politicians to see if those companies beat the market averages? I'd like to see a stock fund comprised of companies that are donating the most money to politicians. If those companies do indeed outperform the market, I want in. Realistically, I don't see this practice ever subsiding, so complaining does no good. Even voting for politicians who say they will fight it does no good. But making money from the companies who corrupt the system seems to make good sense to me. I see no reason that you and I shouldn't get a taste of that action.

I couldn't find a list of the biggest political donors, which is worrisome on its own. Can someone Google me up one and put it in the comments?
What is the most amazing house one could build at the lowest cost? You'd think someone already built that house, but I don't think so.

When you build a custom house, you generally default to "things I like that I can also afford." That will give you a terrific house, but you'll never really know if you could have had a different house that would make you just as happy at half the cost.

For example, when you decide what rooms are near other rooms, it's usually based on lifestyle, not on minimizing the length of plumbing runs. And when you pick the bathroom shower size, you're not considering the optimal size for tiling it without wasted tile, even if that means just an inch or two of adjustment.

The subcontractor who has to run your ductwork often finds he can't get from one end of the house to the other without running through unconditioned space, because ducts are not always part of the architect's plans. That stuff is "engineered in the field." That's another way of saying too late to optimize.

A big developer might take the time to design homes with short plumbing runs and efficient duct paths, but he cares about making the sale more than he cares about livability. After you move in, you realize there's no closet space, and the two car garage only allows a few inches between cars. And forget about any extra green features in your home that can't be seen, because those don't help the sale price.

Big developers also tend to create homes with traditional spaces, because I'm sure those sell the best. So you often get the "museum" type rooms, such as a formal living room that gets no use.

I contend that no one has both the expertise and the interest in designing the ultimate home (or set of homes for various lifestyles), that provides the best living and wow factor at the lowest price.

This got me thinking that the ultimate inexpensive home would have what I will call a wet side and a dry side. The wet side would have your bathrooms, laundry, and kitchen. That consolidates your plumbing, but it has another advantage: Those rooms have few windows. So in a warm climate such as California, you put those rooms on the hot side, which is west in this case.

Homes use a lot of energy heating water, for everything from "Warm Floors TM" to bathwater. I've seen an experimental design that puts a huge water tank on the sunny side of the house inside a glass room that acts like a hot house, capturing the sun and heating the water. I imagine the heating could be magnified with reflective material around the tank. And the beauty of the huge tank is that once heated, it has enough thermal mass to stay warm through the evening. So I'd put one of those bad boys on the west side too. Obviously one side of your home would be unattractive, but you can make up for that on the other sides.

To keep costs low, I'd have one great room and no formal living room or dining room. The dining table would be rustic and casual, so it can be part of the great room for eating or game playing. And instead of a home theater, I would include a powered screen that comes down over the fireplace and is viewable from the kitchen, dining table, and family room that are all part of one larger area. If you entertain, that area can also take advantage of the home theater speaker system and become your dance floor.

This home would also include dog doors, with a fenced dog run area that has a porch to keep Fido cool and dry as he does his business, and a cat's litter box area, perhaps near the garage door so they are near the trash bins. Most people have pets, but few homes are designed for them.

These homes would also have a huge covered porch for entertaining. Make that a screened porch if it makes sense in your climate. It would be the least expensive room of the house to build, and have the most entertainment value.

Likewise, the garage would be oversized because it is another space that is inexpensive to build and requires no heating or cooling. Make it big enough for your ping pong table or even pool table, your shop, or your bike storage. If it opens up to the large covered porch, it becomes part of your entertainment space.

For green building, I would include in the home the features that are free or at least inexpensive. You start by orienting your house to the best direction of the sun, and shading key windows. That's huge. And you could add a big thermal mass to the center of your home, such as an attractive rock wall; that wouldn't be expensive but it would help regulate interior temperatures. You could also design the home to take advantage of the chimney effect, where a tower on the hot side of the home heats up in the sun, causing its air to rise, sucking cooler air into the home from the cool side of the home that might, for example, have lots of greenery. And you would have a light colored roof. That's a big deal for cooling, and costs no extra. I think a good architect could make the white roof seem like it belongs with the house.

Depending on your location, some sort of geothermal heating and cooling solution might make sense, which involves running pipes underground to take advantage of the Earth's continuous moderate temperature. A lot of the expense is in the digging of the ditches to lay pipe, which I'm assuming could be reduced by digging common ditches for several neighbors at once. So these homes probably cost the least when built in clumps of several. That way they can have their own shared park in the center. Maybe they would have a shared tool shed too, with video security to keep the honor system honorable.

For interior building materials, there is generally an inexpensive solution that looks nearly as impressive as high end solutions. For example, painted kitchen cabinets are much less expensive than high end stained cabinets, yet you see both types in the most expensive homes. So you might as well go for painted.

For flooring, carpet is the least expensive, but it also has the least wow effect. I'm no expert in this area, but I'll bet an experienced designer could find porcelain, concrete, or laminate floor materials that look incredible, cost relatively little, last forever, and are easy to clean.

This would be a good project for students of architecture. Better yet, a CAD system should have these sort of considerations built in. Push one button and the system finds the best duct and plumbing runs. It should also be able to calculate estimated energy costs on the fly, with each change to the house design.

Think of the last person to whom you spoke and describe that person's most annoying personality trait. One of them might become a Dilbert comic.

I like looking out of windows. I like opening them to let in the fresh air. But windows are also a big bother. I need to close them when it rains, or when it is too hot or too cold, which is most of the time, or when the neighbors are noisy, which is all of the time. Windows get dirty. They cause glare on my computer screen. And if you have nearby neighbors, you end up keeping the shades down all the time anyway. And you might worry about bad people crawling in your windows.

Now suppose you had an underground house. This house isn't too far underground - just enough to get the benefits of insulation and never having to paint the outside walls. And instead of windows, imagine that the cost of flat screen TVs keeps dropping, so you can have a vivid video of, for example, the ocean, on 100-inch screens on as many walls as you like. You could even have the muted sounds of the waves and seagulls.

You could bring in the natural light using light tubes. That would be an improvement over windows that are only on one side of the house.

As for fresh air, a properly built home with low VOC paints and finishes, and a whole house filter, would have much cleaner air than the outdoors. I can imagine the systems of the future being outfitted with artificial scents to correspond to the views on the TV walls.

Obviously if you have a home with a great natural view, you prefer your home to be above ground, even if it costs more. But most people don't have a great view. You might be looking at the side of your neighbor's house, or the street. For you, TV views and filtered air could be a big improvement. At least until your house catches on fire and you try to escape through the TV.
I've blogged before about how great it would be to have a city with underground bike paths, replacing cars for most purposes. Almost everyone would ride a bike if they didn't need to worry about weather and traffic and hills. Even senior citizens would tool around in 3-wheelers with little effort.

It would also be great to have underground package delivery to your home via robots. Just order your groceries and whatnot via the Internet, then get an e-mail alert when the robot has delivered your goods beneath your home, in a sort of basement area that connects to the vast underground grid.

As you know, underground spaces stay at a consistent temperature, which allows you to put pipes in the ground and use the difference in air temperature compared to the surface for cheap heating and cooling.

In other words, there's a gold mine to be had underground. The big problem is that tunneling is expensive and dangerous and takes a long time. But what if we went at it another way. Instead of tunneling, we build our tunnel structures above ground and then pile mountains of garbage on top of them, for years, until the tunnels are totally buried. Then we build our city on top. No tunneling or ditch-digging needed. And that garbage had to go someplace anyway.

I'm assuming we have the know-how to keep the garbage smell and poisonous gas seepage from being a problem to the city dwellers above.

Worst idea ever?
Is it economical to install a solar power system (photovoltaic) for a new home?

Assume you will live in this home for the next 30 years, you're in California where the sunlight is plentiful, energy costs are high, and the government is offering rebates. You run the numbers, and as long as the cost of the system is wrapped into your mortgage, you are saving cash from day one. Ta-da! It's good economics, right?

Not so fast. Economists consider all alternatives, and one of the alternatives is to wait a few years and then add solar power to your home, when the systems are likely to be far more efficient and much less expensive. If you wait, you run the risk of losing any government rebates, and there's an economic penalty for not wrapping the cost into your original mortgage. But waiting still makes sense if the new system is twice as efficient.

If you add those considerations to the uncertainty of living in the same place for 30 years, the possibility of energy costs from the grid coming down (it could happen) and the weekly maintenance of the solar panels (you need to hose them down if it hasn't rained lately), it's hard to justify installing solar power.

My new home will have solar power. It was a city requirement. I plan to brag about it to people who are passionate about the environment and bad at math.
There's an interesting article in TIME that says exercise doesn't do much for weight loss.


I've been a member of the same health club for over 15 years, so I've observed lots of regulars and how their bodies change. One thing I rarely see is people losing weight, no matter how often they go to the gym. Personally, I've never heard of anyone losing significant weight by eating the same as they always did and exercising more. But I know plenty of people who have lost weight by eating less, regardless of how much they exercised.

Today's question: Did you already know that exercise is nearly useless for weight loss? And if not, what kept you from noticing the obvious?

(Note: Experts still agree that exercise is vital for good health, but not because of weight loss.)

Recently I had an idea that seemed patentable. I've been through the patent process a few times, once successfully, but it has been a number of years. So I wondered what it would cost to run my new idea through the system.

What do you think it costs to use attorneys to work through the patent system and obtain patents for the U.S., Europe, and let's say 16 more of the bigger countries?

Answer: Over $100K.

Sure, I could do the work myself, but who has that kind of time? And what are the chances that I could imitate the tortured language of a patent description well enough to make the patent office happy? Attempting that on my own seems like a big waste of time.

Worst of all, you have to wade into the process before knowing if anyone has already applied for the same patent. It takes about 3-4 years to get a patent, because the patent office is so backed up, and there is an 18-month opaque period in which you can't view any ideas that are in the pipeline ahead of you. I went through this entire process once and in the end the patent office decided that someone else's patent, that had no obvious correlation to my idea, was broad enough to include it.

So what would a small inventor with limited resources do in a situation like this? You could find an investor to go in with you, but I imagine the investor would take half, or more, of whatever the upside was. And where do you go to find such an investor anyway?

This made me wonder if some sort of investment market for patent ideas could be created. Suppose that after the inventor files a provisional application, which is the first part of the process, and not outrageously expensive, perhaps investors could have a chance to fund the rest of the patent process in return for some stake in the outcome.

As things stand, investors can't view provisional patent applications. I assume there is a good reason for that. My guess is that it prevents claim jumpers from leaping into the patent process with a slightly better or broader version of your idea that you hadn't described well enough in the provisional application. I'm not sure that's a good enough reason to keep things secret. Perhaps inventors could have an option of remaining secret and funding things themselves or going public and attracting investors from an early stage.

This would serve as sort of a pre-patent filter for ideas. If an idea is patentable, but investors see little economic value in it, that's good to know before you spend a bundle for a patent. And if investors see great potential, they would bid down the percent of equity they require in return for funding it. In other words, someone might be willing to fund a great patent idea for a 10% equity stake whereas a merely good idea might require 50%.

I'm sure there's a problem with this scheme, or it is already being done in some fashion. Let me know.
Let's say you have a goal in life, but you don't know what steps will be required to get there. The only step you are sure you can accomplish is the very first one. Maybe that first step involves quitting your job, or moving, or doing something else that is hard to reverse.

Do you take the first step and hope you can figure out the rest later? Or do you try to figure out all of the steps, at least in a general way, before you take the first step?

Every situation is different, so generalizing is risky. I'm a big proponent of keeping your day job while you try to get something else going on the side. But when the risk of taking the first step is relatively small, I say take it and then figure out how to do the next step later.

In my experience, you rarely see the second step clearly until you take the first. Taking the first step causes knowledge to come to you. For example, prior to launching Dilbert I didn't know how to be a professional cartoonist, but I did know how to submit my samples for syndication, having read a book that described that process. It was as simple as sending copies of my comics to a half-dozen addresses. Once United Media became interested in my work, they essentially taught me the rest of the steps required. The rest of my job I learned by trial and error and observation.

How about you? Do you take the first step if you don't know where the second will be?
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