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Recently I was gigantic. Or so it seemed because I was attending a school open house and sitting in a tiny chair designed either for a small child or an elf with one buttock. Context is everything.

I was thinking about context as I observed with fascination McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. The immediate response from my lefty friends was that McCain was insane to pick a running mate with such a thin resume. That's one possibility. The other explanation is more interesting.

My first response to McCain's decision was to assume that Republicans did not suddenly forget how to win elections. If selecting Palin was a brilliant strategy in disguise, how exactly was it supposed to work?

Context.

McCain had a context problem. He was an old (too old) white guy from the failed establishment running against a younger and more exotic agent of change. It was a losing context. His choice of Palin changed the context.

Since selecting Palin, the discussion in the media and in kitchens across America has shifted from "Can you be too old to be President?" to "Can you be too young and inexperienced?" McCain has cleverly put his critics in the position of arguing that experience is a good thing. And McCain has more of it than Obama. If you believe that people only vote for presidents, not vice presidents, this was a clever move.

The Democrats' other big argument against McCain was that he's a phony maverick who won't really change anything. It's hard to make that case while at the same time criticizing him for making such a surprising pick for Vice President. You can argue with Palin's credentials, but you can no longer argue with McCain's willingness to buck conventional wisdom. That book is closed.

On the more obvious side of things, picking a young woman insulates McCain from being the charter member of the Old Boy's Club. It's politically correct to say voters are smart. But clearly there are millions of exceptions. Some voters prefer candidates who look like them, end of story. Palin will increase McCain's support from female votes and hardcore conservatives.

Palin also has the benefit of making McCain look more presidential by comparison. Call it the Dan Quayle effect. By way of contrast, Obama is in the position of having a running mate who is clearly more experienced than him, just as smart, and lacks only charisma. That exacerbates Obama's problem of looking like a celebrity and not a leader.

If Palin survives all the scandals and rumors, the argument against her comes down to experience. But how important is experience for a president? Quick, name a presidential mistake that was caused by inexperience as opposed to stupidity, laziness, bad luck, or any of a dozen other reasons. I'm no historian, but I can't think of any presidential mistakes attributed to inexperience.

Palin would have been the wrong choice for just about any other presidential candidate. But in the context of McCain's campaign against Obama, it might have been a brilliant campaign strategy. Is this another example of McCain being underestimated, or was it simply a brain misfire of an old man who ran out of time?

Frankly, I can't tell.
 

A recent study found that the sound of expensive sports cars increases testosterone in both men and women, thus causing arousal. I didn’t believe it until I played the video of the Maserati, the most potent car they studied. Maybe it’s the placebo effect, but I did feel a surge of something.

http://blog.wired.com/cars/2008/09/weve-got-some-b.html 

This solved one of the great riddles of my life. Every summer a group of classic car enthusiasts gathers in my area to compare cars and whatnot. The odd thing I noticed is that the men are generally bearded, out of shape, and unattractive. But the women accompanying them are often very attractive. Now I know why. Apparently the sound of custom car engines is like catnip to hot chicks.

The great thing about the testosterone study is that you don’t need to buy an expensive car to get the benefits. You can just play a recording of the engine sounds and your partner will be ready for action. The problem is figuring out how to introduce a sports car engine noise into your romantic evening.

The sneakiest method I can think of would be to have some recorded street sounds on your home music system turned down low, so it sounds like it is coming from outside. Every once in awhile you could mutter something like “damn kids need to slow down” and then return your attention to your date, who by this time is shedding clothes like a trailer park in a tornado.

I also wonder what other sights, sounds, smells, and textures boost testosterone. Someone needs to study this more thoroughly. Obviously porn does the trick for men, and the smell of pumpkin pie, according to other studies. Women are more mysterious. I once saw a study where sensors were attached to shoppers. For men, there was no special change in their bodies except boredom. For women, the stereotype held, and the instrument panel lit up like a Christmas tree as soon as they entered a store. So I think the sound of shopping would boost the happy feeling for many women. I realize how sexist that sounds, but you can’t argue with junk science.

The perfect montage of sounds for a woman might be something along the lines of ocean waves, followed by the Maserati, expensive shoes on fine marble, mall noise, credit card swiping, ruffling of a shopping bag, and then the sound of wine pouring into a glass, with a fireplace crackling in the background. I’d also add the sound of a chainsaw somewhere in the distance, so the woman can imagine her personal lumberjack getting wood for the fire.


What do you think?

 
One of my favorite thoughts, and I think it came from a movie, is that the reason to get married is to have a witness to your life. It's the sort of idea that might not strike you immediately as brilliant, but over time it unfolds.

Another great quote along those same lines - and I wish I knew who said it - goes something like "You're not a writer until a writer tells you you're a writer." I had that experience when Dilbert was first accepted for syndication, and my editor told me I was a cartoonist. Until that moment, I wasn't. Literally the moment she told me I was a cartoonist, the quality of my drawing improved about 30%.

I think this is the same reason little kids continuously chirp "Mommy, look at me! Look at me!" They are struggling to get a witness, to know they exist.

It's nice to think that you can be your own person, true and accountable to no one but yourself, but I don't think life works that way. We are what other people allow us to be. We exist more in their perceptions than in our own, if you had some way to add it all up and compare.

I was thinking of this as I finished a first draft of my survey of economists. (Yes, you will see it. I need to get it right.) I sent it to my friend whose opinion I value, asking for some comments.  As I sent it, I realized my writing doesn't fully exist until he comments. It lives in some sort of Schroedinger's cat half-state. If he likes it, then it becomes real. If not, it will quickly seem as though it never existed. I will rewrite from scratch.

The key to life is picking the right witnesses. Thanks for being mine.

 
I have a theory that everyone is born with the same amount of luck, but it gets distributed unevenly. Some people have their best lucky days in childhood and run out of good fortune by the time they enter the job market. Others struggle early on and strike it rich later in life. Call it the Magic Johnson Effect. He had the perfect life and then contracted HIV. Or take most famous politicians or celebrities; their highs are almost perfectly matched by their lows. Even lottery winners tend to attract tragedy. It is as if the universe is trying to smooth out things.

You also know people who have never had a truly great year or a truly horrible one. They coast along at average.

There is no science to support my theory of luck distribution, but the anecdotal evidence is abundant. Take for example all the world leaders who spent some time in jail, either before or after hitting the big time. Or consider all the musicians who had lines of groupies and then died in a plane crash. Is it all a coincidence?

Yes. Or else our so-called reality really is a computer program.
 
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.
 
 
 
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