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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?
 
Even ugly rock stars have groupies. Kid Rock comes to mind. It's the same with famous actors and powerful politicians. The usual explanation for this phenomenon is that evolution predisposes women to seek alpha males who can produce excellent children and then protect them.

But that doesn't explain the occasional ugly guy with no job, and no ambition, who has inexplicable success with women. My hypothesis is that the common factor is a lack of fear. When women see a man who is apparently not afraid, in a situation where most people would be, that triggers the "must have your child" reaction.

If I asked you what a rock star and a cop have in common, you might say they both have power, and that is the part that attracts women. But how do you explain the appeal of firemen? Fire fighters aren't particularly powerful in society, yet they are like catnip to women. I think it has to do with their lack of fear.

Likewise, while the appeal of "bad boys" might have something to do with the fact that elevated testosterone levels are implicated in both bad behavior and sexual attraction, bad boys are also relatively unafraid of consequences. I think that is part of it.

To trigger sex appeal, being unafraid isn't limited to physical risks. Rock stars and business executives perform in front of crowds and risk only embarrassment and financial consequences. My hypothesis is that any man who has a high tolerance for risk of any sort is naturally attractive to women.

Lack of fear should not be confused with confidence. A man who is confident about things unimportant, such as his rightness of opinion, isn't exhibiting a lack of fear. Confidence only attracts women when it is applied to situations where real risk is involved.

You might wonder why evolution would favor those who take risks. Risk takers tend to die young. But when they don't die, they accomplish more for the tribe than all the cautious people combined. So I can see why nature encourages risk.

This hypothesis seems quite testable.
 
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.
 
If a guy tells you there is a 5% chance he might kill you someday in the future, do you have a moral justification to kill him today?

My answer is yes. You would have a big legal problem, but from a moral standpoint, it's close enough to self defense in my book.

But what if the guy is a bit hard to read on the subject of whether he might kill you in the future. Let's say you can't estimate the odds of it happening because you're not even sure if he means it, or maybe he has some motive in making you think he might. There's no way to know what's in his head. He's broken no laws because he speaks indirectly as in "Someone will kill you soon" as opposed to "I plan to kill you soon." Can you kill that guy and be morally (but not legally) justified?

I say yes again. You might be killing a relatively innocent man, but accidents aren't immoral.

Now let's say you know that if you kill this one guy, his brothers and sisters will hunt you down and get revenge. It's that sort of family. So killing this guy will only make things worse. But suppose you had a good opportunity to kill all of the brothers and sisters, by bombing their family reunion. You'd get all of the dangerous ones plus a bunch of total innocents. Would that be morally (but not legally) justified as self defense?

I say yes. The guy who threatened you is the one who put his family at risk. And if you misread the threat, that's a tragedy, but not immoral. Accidents are accidents, no matter how horrible.

All analogies are flawed, but that's how I see Israel looking at Iran. From my safe little chair in California, it seems highly unlikely that Iran would unleash a nuke, directly or through proxies, at Israel. But is there a 5% chance it might happen someday? Maybe. There's no way to estimate that sort of thing.

If I lived in Israel, I would feel morally (but not legally) justified in attacking Iran to reduce a hypothetical 5% risk of nuclear annihilation. But that's just the moral argument. On a practical level, I have a hard time imagining a massive attack on Iran making Israel safer in the long run. Still, if I were within Iranian missile range, a 5% risk would look exactly like a 90% risk to me. I'd treat those risks as if they were the same.

Here's an interesting view on Iran from Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. Does his argument look like something you once read elsewhere?

http://www.newsweek.com/id/199147

 
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.

 
 
 
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