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What do these crises have in common:

Economic crisis
Water shortages
Global warming
Healthcare
Energy

Okay, they probably have lots of things in common. But the answer I was looking for is "food."

Imagine for a minute that everyone in the United States stopped overeating and became vegetarians, perhaps with some fish thrown in the mix for protein and Omega-3. We all know that situation can never happen, so this is just a thought experiment.

Healthy eating would have a huge impact on healthcare costs. It would be partially offset by people living longer, but I have to think multiple sports injuries cost less than one heart bypass operation. And I read somewhere that 40% of mortgage foreclosures are caused by health problems. (Anyone have a link for that?) So in the short run, until the world is overrun by 200-year old marathoners collecting Social Security, the economy would be better off if people ate right. And that would free up money to insure the uninsured.

Now imagine that cattle are taken out of the food chain. Suddenly you don't need to cut down the rain forests to create new pastures, and the cost of food would drop because veggies are much cheaper than cows. Preserving trees would help the environment, which is also good for the economy. Beef suppliers wouldn't be too happy about this situation, so that is one offset to consider. But your food bill would be substantially lower.

Two-thirds of the world's fresh water supply goes to agriculture, and some sources claim that half of that water is wasted because of inefficient irrigation methods. Once again, food is the culprit. If we irrigated more efficiently we'd have plenty of water.

Now consider how much energy is expended in the pursuit of food. The typical American eats twice as many calories as needed. And most families are making multiple car trips to the grocery store, or to get take-out, every week. If we cut our calories in half, we could enjoy more leftovers and reduce all the driving we do for food. Plus we'd weigh less, so our cars would use less fuel hauling us around.

Therefore, food-related inefficiency is a big contributor to most other crises. Unfortunately, food is somewhat sacred, so political solutions around food are not practical. And our cigarette-smoking President isn't in a position to tell people they should eat less. So don't expect anything to change.
 
I just invented a new holiday. It's called Negative Christmas. On this day, rather than giving gifts, you can force a family member or friend to discard one item that he or she already owns. The selected item might be a hideous shirt that you consider an abomination, or that pair of bedroom slippers that are an insult to all footwear. The idea is that the unrecipient should be better off without the item you ungift.

For example, let's say you have a single friend who has a collection of Star Wars memorabilia and also complains that he can't get a woman to stay the night. You could help by making him give away the full-sized wookie that he keeps next to his dresser. When the next Negative Christmas rolls around you could go after the collection of light sabers he keeps over his mantle. It might take you a few years to make any difference in his love life, but think of it as a project.

For real Christmas, people often give gifts of clothing or accessories so the recipient will look attractive. For Negative Christmas you could pay a crazy guy with tattoos to punch your friend in his soft tissue every time he eats a Big Mac or skips going to the gym. In the long run it will help your friend more than a new necktie.

During Negative Christmas there will be no need for vacuous greeting cards or festive salutations. For the entire month leading up to Negative Christmas you are expected to avoid eye contact and mumble insults about everyone you encounter. Ask yourself what would make you happier: 1. Getting a cheap greeting card or, 2. Calling someone a trout-faced bastard under your breath.

Negative Christmas would be every June 25th, on the opposite side of the calendar from Christmas. You would celebrate by planting a tree instead of killing one, and saving your money for yourself instead of blowing it on worthless crap for others.

Who's with me?
 
If you're familiar with Star Trek, you know that a young Star Fleet cadet named James T. Kirk had an innovative approach to a training exercise that no one had ever beaten. (I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that most Dilbert Blog readers are familiar with Star Trek.)

That Star Fleet training exercise essentially asked young Kirk, "What would you do if this happened to you?" In my post from earlier this week, I asked readers if it was moral to kill a guy who was 99% likely to kill you in a year. The most common response was something along the lines of "You can't calculate the odds of that sort of thing."

This is a fascinating response, and it's the sort of response I often get when asking a hypothetical question on any topic. It leaves me wondering if the person is unclear on the concept of hypothetical questions, or if he's pulling a James T. Kirk maneuver to avoid exposing some flaw in his reasoning.

Do any of you James T. Kirks want to try answering the hypothetical question again, this time without cheating?

If it makes it easier, I will stipulate that in the real world, people are notoriously bad at predicting the future. You could never have 99% certainty that some guy was going to kill you within a year. But in a hypothetical world where you COULD know that the odds were 99%, is it moral to kill that guy in order to probably save yourself?

 
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.
 
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.

http://dilbert.com/blog/?Search=Sullenberger


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.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090526/ap_on_bi_ge/us_economy


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.
 
 
 
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