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My wife and I are doing our part to stimulate the economy by building a house. The construction will take about a year, but the planning, design, and approval process took about three.

Financially, it's the worst timing in the world because buying an existing house is getting cheaper every day. But we wanted some specific things in a house that just weren't available, notably my studio.

Arguably, this process started back when I designed what was known as the Dilbert Ultimate House. That home only existed as a computer simulation that the user could "walk" through, and it included lots of features that had been suggested to me by readers. I thought you might be interested in some of the ideas that made it from the Dilbert Ultimate House into our own house design.

First, we're building the greenest home in the area, at least for its size. Obviously the greenest home would the tiniest house you could build. But my definition of green isn't about giving up what you want so much as finding the greenest way to do it. Some of the energy-saving features include:

- Solar panels

- Clay roof with lighter colors for best reflective properties

- Thermal barrier in roof

- Windows minimized and shaded on the hot West side

- Lots of thermal mass inside house

- Argon filled windows

- Chimney effect airflow (warmer air goes up and out)

- AC unit on the shady side of the house

- Efficient lighting

- Energy Star appliances

- Heat and AC ducts inside the house envelope


The list goes on. Our goal was to get our use of AC use down to a few days per summer. This design should get us there. (For comparison, my current office is in a townhouse that is only 5-years old and I have to run the AC full-blast for about 9 months a year.)

As far as the living spaces, we did some interesting things there too. We built a small cat's bathroom for the litter boxes.  And we have a Christmas tree storage closet just off the room where the tree will be displayed in December. Now I just need to talk my wife into using an artificial tree and we're all set.

We don't have a fancy foyer inside the house. That would be a waste to heat and cool. No one lives in a foyer. Instead we have a turret around the front door, so the initial visual appeal comes before you enter the conditioned part of the house.

We didn't want a formal dining room that only gets used twice a year. Our dining area will be relatively informal and just off the kitchen, serving as both the everyday table and where we entertain. I don't want any visitors who feel they are too fancy to eat where we eat.

My office will be in the house. I won't be driving to work every day and adding to the carbon overload.

The back yard will be artificial turf. Water is a big issue in California. The newer artificial grasses are impressive.

Those are a few of the features. Maybe someday you'll see the rest on Cribs.

 
The idea of keeping immigrants out of your country is starting to seem outdated. In many cases you need them more than they need you. Obviously you can't let people cross borders all willy-nilly, but the immigration policy in the United States seems a hodgepodge. I say this not because I have studied our immigration policy but because I wanted to use willy-nilly and hodgepodge in the same sentence.

A better immigration policy would be to make the U.S. as inviting as possible so everyone wants in. Then choose the most worthy applicants based on how much they would contribute to the economy, or how attractive they are. And obviously all applicants would have to pass a physical exam so they don't burden the healthcare system.

I know, I know, it smacks of eugenics. The Nazis gave it a bad name. But every corporation hires employees based on some sense of economic worthiness, or in some cases hotness. Why should a country settle for less. Technically we wouldn't be practicing eugenics if our selectivity was based on what a person can contribute today. Improving the gene pool would simply be a bonus. So get over it.

With this sort of immigration policy our competitive advantage would include anything that made living in the U.S. more enjoyable than living elsewhere. We would focus all of our energy on cleaning the environment and keeping crime low while giving people as much freedom as practical. And of course we would want a top school system and lots of entertainment options to keep our new immigrants happy. Everything we did to attract the cream of the immigrant crop would be good for the current residents. It's a win-win.

Canada is already doing something along these lines. They welcome immigrants who have valuable skills. The U.S. can't match Canada in friendliness, crime rates, personal freedom, or the environment. But no immigrant wants to walk around in a snow suit trying to understand French either. So I think we can be competitive with our buddies to the North.

Game on!
 
Did you hear about the racism controversy over this editorial comic in the NY Post?

http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/02/19/chimp.cartoon.react/index.html


The cartoonist fell into a trap I call a "remindsmeof." His comic was clearly about Congress, since President Obama didn't "write" the stimulus package. But the comic reminds the reader of racism and the risk of presidential assassination even though the cartoonist clearly wasn't addressing either topic. That was enough to get him into trouble.

In my early years of cartooning my editor rejected a few Dilbert comics because they were remindsmeofs. I thought it was overprotective and ridiculous. But I've since learned that you can't underestimate the public's ability to find offense where none is written. Now I recognize (usually) when I am about to blunder into a remindsmeof and I edit the comic myself. It saves time and trouble. When I offend, I prefer it to be intentional.

 
Democracy requires a healthy news media to keep it in check. A healthy news media requires money to pay its top reporters to go investigate stories. The Internet is sucking money away from TV news organizations and traditional newspapers and news magazines.

Unfortunately the free news distributed on the Internet doesn't make much revenue for any individual company. The ad-supported model is too weak, and growing weaker as the amount of content grows faster than the number of advertisers. So eventually there will be no funds to pay investigative reporters. The so-called "news" will be whatever information is cheapest to gather, such as lies from the people in charge. That will doom democracy. Obviously we're more than halfway there already.

Once democracy is completely broken, crazy dictators will find it easier to get nukes and then it's a slippery slope to total nuclear annihilation.

A recent cover story in Time suggested that the solution for creating a profitable news media, and thus saving the world (I added that part), was a generally accepted system for micropayments on the Internet, so news could be purchased as easily as music on iTunes. The technology part is doable, but in my opinion most of the public will prefer free news sources over paid news even if the quality is vastly different. So the Wall Street Journal, for example, could continue doing great reporting as a subscription service but too few regular citizens would read it to make a difference.

The other way things could go is that news media companies will merge until a few moguls control all of it. That would solve the profitability problem. But at that point it won't matter if the few moguls have the money to pay investigative reporters or not because the moguls will effectively control the world. The last thing they'll want is accurate reporting. With any luck the media moguls will back puppet leaders who are benevolent dictators. That's our best hope.
 
I'm learning to train my dog. According to the experts, it all comes down to food. Nothing works as well as food rewards when it comes to getting an animal to do a trick. I assume that's because food is closely associated with survival, so over time you can create an association in the animal's brain between doing a trick and survival itself.

This made me wonder if humans can be similarly trained with food rewards. And it made me wonder if we do it inadvertently all the time. It seems to me that human brains must associate food with survival the same way a dog does. And like most other animals, we don't need to be starving to want a food treat.

When I grew up, my family ate dinner at 5:00 pm every night. If a kid was late, there was some risk that the best stuff was gone. So there was a food reward every day of my life that was associated with punctuality. My hypothesis predicts that I would be a punctual person, and that is very much the case. When I feel even the possibility of being late for any event or deadline, I experience an intensely unpleasant physical reaction. It is as if my very survival is at risk and I want the feeling to stop. My brother and sister, who are in other ways very different from me, are just as punctual. Were we all trained by food?

I start work earlier than most people and always have. But I didn't always like it. I grew to enjoy it over time. I realized recently that I developed a habit long ago of eating something within minutes of waking, such as a banana. Did I train myself with food to become a morning person?

If my hypothesis about training humans holds true, it has huge implications. You could easily mold human behavior over time by associating good habits with food. And you wouldn't have to starve a person to make the plan work, any more than you need to starve a dog to make him do tricks for tasty treats. It's a bit frightening to think about the power this method might hold.

This hypothesis might explain why movie theaters are popular even though most movies are bad. I will drive across town and watch a movie with bad reviews if there is some popcorn in the deal, even though I have a home theater and all the food I want at home. I tell myself that some movies are better with the crowd experience, or that it feels good to get out of the house. But I can't rule out the possibility that I am simply trained by food treats to go to the movie theater.

Is there anything to the hypothesis that humans are easily trained by food? Let's do an unscientific survey right here. Think of your own eating habits and consider when there has been a consistent pattern of a specific activity followed by a food reward. Then ask yourself if you are addicted to the activity that generally preceded the reward.

For example, if you have a habit of reading a physical newspaper every morning, do you generally eat something or have coffee while doing it? If so, my hypothesis predicts that it's the treats that make you love the routine more than the newspaper itself.

Any other examples from your life?
 
The common notion about entertainment is that the better the quality, the bigger the audience. There's some truth to that. But what I find more interesting is that it works the other way too: You need popularity before you have the luxury of developing quality.

There are plenty of examples of popularity creating quality. The first season of The Simpsons, for example, was awful in terms of quality. The writing and animation were primitive. The voice actors hadn't found their groove yet. But because it was so different - an adult cartoon with an edge - it gained an immediate huge audience, mostly from curiosity and buzz. This audience allowed them to stay on the air, develop their show through practice, and hire highly talented writers. Within a few seasons The Simpsons became arguably one of the best TV shows ever aired.

The TV show Friends had a similar path. The first few episodes were awful in terms of writing and acting. But because the actors had charisma, and the concept of young, single friends was appealing, the ratings were immediately high and the cast and creators had time and money to develop it into a phenomenon. Quality followed popularity.

Dilbert was a bit like that too. The first few years of Dilbert were so poorly drawn and written it seems a miracle it found a home in any newspapers at all. But there was something different about it, and people saw just enough potential that I was given the luxury of years to learn how to draw (better) and learn how to write for my audience.

You can see this phenomenon work the other way too. Lately I've been watching on Hulu.com a cancelled TV series called Firefly. The show is part science fiction, part western, part action, part comedy. That makes it nearly impossible to explain, and evidently harder to market. When it originally aired on TV, I never saw a commercial for it or a mention of it. Yet in my opinion it was one of the best TV shows aired, and that was its first season right out of the gate. Quality wasn't enough to find a mass audience. It needed the curiosity factor, or some other appeal to get an audience.

Entertainment gets a chance to find an audience only if the concept is so simple it can be understood in a few words. Examples:


Friends: It's about some young, single friends


The Simpsons: cartoon about a dysfunctional family


Dilbert: Comic about a nerd and his dog


Garfield: About a cat


When you find an exception to the simplicity rule, it often proves the point. For example, Seinfeld was famously "about nothing." That should have been a recipe for failure, and indeed it had poor ratings for the first few dozen shows. I forget the details, but somehow it ran below the radar at the network because it was financed or produced in a different division than usual. That difference allowed it to stay on the air and develop quality, and an audience, while other shows with low ratings came and went.

So here is the key learning. If you are planning to create some business or other form of entertainment, you will need quality at some point to succeed. But what is more important than quality in the beginning is some intangible element that makes your project inherently interesting before anyone has even sampled it. That initial audience will give you the luxury of time to create quality.

I have a twofold test for whether something can obtain instant popularity and thus have time to achieve quality:


1. You must be able to describe it in a few words.


2. When people hear about it, they ask questions.


I saw this at work with my restaurant. We recently started what we call after hours dancing. (See how easily explained it is?) And as soon as we started talking about the idea, everyone had lots of questions. Was it live music or a DJ? What kind of music? What time does it end? Is there a cover charge? And so on. Rarely did anyone say, "That's nice. Good luck with it." Something about the idea makes people curious. And sure enough, it has been a solid success with no advertising, just word of mouth. And this immediate audience has allowed us to improve on it every week. Quality followed popularity.

 
As regular readers know, I can mention any idea whatsoever and a dozen of you will leave comments telling me who already thought of it, or who wrote the fascinating scifi book with that plot. This post is a test of that phenomenon.

Today's hypothesis is that the evolution of sentient creatures is influenced by their aspirations. In the simplest example, if a creature wishes its entire life that it could reach tasty fruit that is higher in the trees, it slightly increases the likelihood that its offspring will be taller, or have longer necks, or be able to leap higher, or climb better. In other words, the longings of the parents affect how their genes get passed on.

I'm not saying the hypothesis is true or false, just verifiable. And it doesn't conflict with the fact that some traits improve survivability of the species.

Who already thought of that hypothesis, and who wrote the book? (Don't say Lamarck.)
 
Suppose President Obama asked citizens to exercise more, smoke less, and eat healthier foods to reduce healthcare costs. And let's say he was frank about telling us we have no choice because there isn't enough money to keep going the way things are going. Would citizens respond?

I think so. One of the frustrations people have with the current economic downturn is feeling they are helpless to do anything about it. We are told by the media that only the government is big enough to fix our problems. I think people would feel happier knowing that exercising and eating broccoli was part of something larger than their own health.

Or suppose the president asked the citizens who still have money to spend a bit more freely to stimulate the economy. Suppose Obama explained that our only two choices are that the government taxes us and spends the money inefficiently or citizens spend more of their own money than they would normally spend, buying things they actually want, and it adds up to the same thing. Would the citizens who still have extra money respond?

I think they would. Again, it would feel like you were doing something patriotic to help the country, and as a bonus you would get some new stuff.

Suppose President Obama ordered the power companies to make one change in policy. Not only would they credit the bills of customers who have solar panels on the roof when they generate more power than they use, as is the current situation, but they would actually pay customers cash for any energy created beyond the limit of their own monthly bill. That would make any home with a Southern exposure a potential generator of electricity. The President could ask citizens to invest in solar panels, as an act of patriotism, knowing the payoff would take years, but the collective benefit to the country would be great. It would stimulate the economy, create jobs, and drive down the cost of solar panels. And your neighbors could see your new solar panels and know you were doing your part.

What would stop Obama from asking the citizens to contribute in these ways?
 
Online simulated worlds such as Second Life are growing in popularity. Lately I have been wondering where that trend ends.

Today the little avatars that represent you in the simulated world look like cartoon dolls. It has all the realism of a puppet show. And yet many people still find that addictive. What happens when the technology arrives at a point where your avatar looks and acts just like you, or at least just like a real human?

We humans are so influenced by visual cues that the power of the online world to influence our real world emotions will jump to a new level. Pair that with the fact that you will have more control over events in your simulated world than in your real world, and fewer problems, and you have a recipe for a society-shifting phenomenon. There will be mass addiction to online virtual living via avatar. You will be able to transact real world business and do all of your socializing online via your avatar.

In the real world, going outdoors and doing real things will become increasingly unpleasant, thanks to global warming, pollution, expense, crime, etc. In my community, for example, no one has a front or back yard. If I want to go outside, for any reason other than walking the dog, I plan a trip and drive there. It's hardly worth it.

Humans are wired to fall in love with babies and puppies because of the immediate visual impact. I think we will form the same emotional bond with our avatars once they look more like ourselves, or like a human that attracts us on some level. People will literally come to love their avatars in the same way they love their own children and themselves.

At some point your avatar will become a combination of artificial intelligence plus the commands you give it. While you sleep it will wander the online world and acquire new knowledge and even new relationships. I wonder how stimulating it will be in the real world once your avatar can form a loving or sexual relationship with another avatar. You will still prefer sex in the real world to sex in the online world, but you might only have regular access to the online version. And online you will never worry how you look naked.

I also imagine that the scenery and environments of the online world will become so visually captivating that the drabness of your real world experience will pale in comparison. Once that happens, no one will ever mow his lawn again, if he even has one. Beauty will be something you see on a computer. It will stop making sense to beautify the real world because it can never keep up.

Eventually, as I have written before, and futurists predict, you will be able to scan your brain with such precision you can port your personality into a computer. The obvious place to store that personality will be in the avatar you used while you were alive. So over time the online world will be populated with a combination of avatars controlled by the living plus online "ghosts" that are the personalities of the deceased, operating independent of any living human.

Eventually humanity will die from some mutant strain of virus, but the online world will live on, maintained by robots. Inside the simulation you will live a full life, die, and reincarnate into a new avatar to experience the breadth of life all over again.

You're way ahead of me and you know the punch line here is that the future already happened and you are already an avatar. And god is the robot that maintains the system.
 
Our government is preparing to pass something called a stimulus package. According to the experts, this stimulus package won't directly stimulate much of anything in the short term, when we need it. But with any luck it will bamboozle a hundred million morons into thinking their government did something useful, and that in turn will cause them to become more confident and spend additional money on cigarettes and lottery tickets, thus stimulating the economy.

The funny thing about this scheme is that it might work. The other funny thing is that no one is trying to hide the fact that the entire plan depends on bamboozling the aggressively ignorant portion of the population. We need to get those bozos spending again, and if it requires a fraudulent stimulus package to get it done, most people seem okay with that.

This is yet another situation where smart people are ironically incompetent if left to their own devices. If the world were populated only with the smart and well-informed, we'd all sit around waiting for someone else to spend money first, so they can take the highest risk. Eventually society would crumble and all of us geniuses would be eaten by rats. But if you throw a bunch of clueless bastards into the mix, suddenly the economy is supercharged. Money is flying everywhere, confidence becomes warranted, and the economy flourishes.

Our past economic booms depended heavily on morons. Those wonderful stimulators of the economy had to buy stock in perpetually unprofitable tech companies, or invest in real estate after it was clearly overpriced. Every economic boom is powered by the clueless. I see no reason why the next one should be different, except that the government is doing the bamboozling this time.

I plan to do my patriotic duty by no longer following the news coverage of the economic stimulus plan. This will allow me to imagine that all of the pork and special interest garbage will be removed from the final bill that gets approved. I will blissfully assume that the economic stimulation will be short term and effective. Oh, and long term and effective too. And then I, and my fellow ignorami, will spend, spend, spend our way out of this slump.

You're welcome.
 
 
 
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