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Cash will eventually go away. So will checks. Someday all you will need is a retina scan and a password, or an embedded chip, or something along those lines. Imagine a world where all transactions are digital. I'm not sure we know what's ahead.

For starters, you wouldn't have to prepare your taxes. All of your transactions would be reported to the IRS as they happened. Perhaps you'd have a separate password for business-related transactions to keep things straight.

I wonder how much of the budget deficit could be closed by eliminating the ability for cash businesses to lie on their taxes. It's probably a big number. A cashless world could create a huge shift of the tax burden to lower income folks who currently get paid in cash.

When you eliminate cash, you also eliminate a lot of crime. Criminals need cash to stay off the radar. In a cashless world, drug dealers and crime syndicates could try to set up fake businesses to launder their revenues, but it wouldn't work. Imagine setting up a fake dry cleaner, for example. The government could easily determine whether that business is buying the type and quantity of dry cleaning supplies typically needed, and whether the profit margins are at industry norms. All of that information would be available through the tax records. A drug dealer could pretend to be a consultant, but even then you expect a digital trail for buying printer ink, business travel, and the like. Perhaps the drug dealer's address and educational level would be tip-offs too.

Violent crime will greatly diminish too, because so much of society's violence happens in the context of criminal enterprises that will no longer be profitable or practical.

In the cashless world, you would never need to carry a wallet. You would never need to balance a checkbook or spend an evening paying bills. Many of you have already reached that point. But you'd also never have to drive to an ATM because some caveman paid you with a check, and you'd never need to wait in line behind someone who is paying by check. I can't wait.

Everyone's fear, of course, is that a cashless society is more vulnerable to government tyranny. But realistically, moving from a 95% cashless world, where we probably are today, to 100%, probably doesn't generate that much extra tyranny, unless you're a drug dealer.

There's a privacy issue, too. But as I have argued before, privacy will someday be a quaint footnote in history. When privacy goes away completely, we'll all be freer. There's only a penalty to privacy when your asshole neighbor can look down his nose at your hobbies while secretly masturbating to Field and Stream magazine. The best two situations for society are when you have either complete privacy or complete non-privacy. It's the middle ground that creates problems. That's where we are now.

Kids already have no privacy. Their texting and browsing histories can be monitored. Their locations can be tracked. And if they have a credit card, their purchasing can be tracked. In practice, parents don't take advantage of all the ways they can monitor their teens, but everyone understands that the tools exist. That generation will never have a memory of privacy as their parents knew it.

 

 

    
 
We've lived in our new home for several months now, and I'm ready to render my verdict on what design elements worked.

Sound Baffle

My home office is designed with a sound baffle. It's a 10-foot diagonal hallway between my office door and the main office space. It's a kill zone for sound waves, and it works like a charm. The house has no carpets, so sound carries, but none of it makes it to my desk. The master bedroom has the same feature.

Home Theater Location

We put our home theater in the same general area as the kitchen and family room. It seats ten, which makes it cozy enough for general TV viewing. Now that most TV shows are HD, the big screen gets used every night. If the theater were in the basement or the far end of the home, as is often the case, it would feel lonely, and only get used for movies.

The theater has a double door with a large glass oval in the center. It doesn't let much light in, and you always feel visually connected to people in the kitchen when you're in the theater.

Being near the kitchen gives you convenient access to the microwave and refrigerator. The theater is soundproofed with acoustic wall panels, so you can be blasting a movie without interrupting conversation in the kitchen. It works in reverse too. If you want to escape the noise in the rest of the house you can leave the theater sound off and be in complete silence.

TV for Parties

The living room has its own largish standard TV. That allows us to entertain around special broadcasts such as the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards. The hardcore viewers use the theater while the chit-chatters mingle in the living room, near enough to each other that there's a flow back and forth to make you feel connected. And both rooms open to the kitchen where people inevitably congregate, so the three spaces act as one for entertaining. (There's a small TV in the kitchen too.)

One mistake you see in a lot of new homes is a fireplace and a TV on the same wall. From a design perspective, the two rectangles compete. The worst solution is putting a TV above the fireplace. You have to crane your neck for viewing, and it always looks like you couldn't make up your mind what should be on that wall.

Our TV and our fireplace in the family room are on adjacent walls, so each wall has its own focal point. The L-shaped couch has one section facing the TV and the other facing the fireplace. It's the only configuration that I can imagine looking intentional.

Intercom

Our phones double as microphones for a whole-house public address system. Hit a few keys and your voice booms through the ceiling speakers throughout the house. It gets used all the time.

Cat's Bathroom

The cat box has its own space off of the laundry room, with a bathroom fan. It's out of sight and still convenient enough for cleaning.

Kitchen Cart

We designed an under-counter space for a kitchen utility cart. When you want to clean up after dinner or entertaining, you wheel out the cart and pile on the debris for a convenient trip to the dishwasher.

Multiple Recycling Bins

Our kitchen has three separate recycling and trash drawers, forming a triangle in the kitchen space. About half of all kitchen trips are to the garbage/recycling. This way you're always near one, and you rarely have to scoot someone out of the way to get to it.

Multiple Microwaves

Relative to the cost of a kitchen, microwaves are inexpensive. So we included two in the design, plus a convection oven that doubles as a third microwave. We use two or three of them at the same time quite often. It's a great convenience, especially on movie night when popcorn is in high demand.

Multiple Dishwashers

We have two dishwashers. The new ones are so quiet that you can't tell if they are running. For the price of a second dishwasher, the extra convenience is extraordinary.

Big Kitchen

Obviously the kitchen is large. We assumed it would be the most used area, and it is. The center is an oversized island with seating at one end, stove in the middle, and a second prep sink. The design attracts people to gather around it, either chatting or helping, and the hostess is facing the guests while cooking.

Rooms Omitted

We made room for the oversized kitchen and the theater by leaving out rooms you normally find in a home. We left out the fancy foyer, formal living room, and formal dining room. Our dining table, which hasn't arrived yet, will float just off the kitchen and double as the main thoroughfare for the downstairs. That way we avoid extra walls and hallways that ruin the flow of a house.

Those are some of the design elements that worked well. (Sorry, no pictures. It's still a private space.)

Update: Several of you asked to see a sketch of what the sound baffle and an ideal living area layout would look like. This doesn't match exactly our layout, but gives you the general idea of flow and placement.


 
I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of manipulating our environment to extend our brains. I suppose it all started with early humans carving on cave walls as a way to store historical data. Now we have ebooks, computers, and cell phones to store our memories. And we have schools to program our brains. But it goes much deeper than that. Even a house is a device for storing data. Specifically, a house stores data on how it was built. A skilled builder can study a house and build another just like it.

Everything we create becomes a de facto data storage device and brain accessory. A wall can be a physical storage device for land survey data, it can be a reminder of history, and it can be a trigger of personal memories.

A business is also a way to store data. As a restaurant owner, I was fascinated at how employees came and went, but their best ideas often stayed with the business, especially in the kitchen. The restaurant was like a giant data filter. The bad ideas were tested and deleted while the good ideas stayed, most often without being written down.

When you design a flower garden, its main purpose is to influence people's minds in a positive and peaceful fashion. A flower garden is a brain reprogramming tool. It jacks into any human brain that enters its space and reprograms that brain in a predetermined way. We don't think of it in those terms, but the process is nonetheless deliberate.

My wife and I designed our new house as a brain supplement, although we never spoke of it in those words. Every element of the home is designed to reprogram the brains that enter it to feel relaxed in some of its spaces and inspired in others. The language I used at the time of the design was that every space should be an invitation. (I'll talk more on that topic in an upcoming post.) When guests walk through the house for the first time, we can watch the house change people's attitudes and emotions in real time. It's fascinating.

I suppose other creatures use their environment for storing information, or programming their brains in limited ways. But I assume humans export the highest percentage of brain function to their environment, and it grows daily. The evolution of mind from inside the creature to outside the body fascinates me. Humans are turning the entire planet into an exobrain. Our brains can't hold all of the data we produce, so we look for ways to offload to books, websites, music, and architecture, to name a few storage devices. And we manipulate the environment to reprogram our brains as needed.

Years ago I worked with a young intern at Crocker Bank who believed his first step toward success was to find a place to live in a prosperous suburb. His theory was that the external environment would program his brain for the sort of success that his neighbors would have already found. I remember mocking him for his offbeat and naïve theory. Now I think he's a genius for understanding at such an early age that his environment was a tool for programming his brain. I lost touch with him, but I'll bet he's a millionaire now.
 
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Definition of Withdumb: A quality you possess if you hold a popular and unfounded point of view.

Withdumb is different from herd instinct. A person who possesses withdumb could achieve the condition with no help whatsoever from the group . For example, if you were the only person in Mongolia who believed in astrology, you would have withdumb, but it wouldn't be because your herd influenced you.

It's easier to cling to an irrational opinion if you know that somewhere in the world there are lots of people who think the same way, especially if those other people seem smart or authoritative.

When I was a kid, my own withdumb included the idea that eating before swimming meant certain death. I assumed that someone had actually done research on that topic. I recall wondered why I had never heard of anyone dying from a sandwich-related swimming incident. But when you are young, you assume there are plenty of things happening that you don't know about. The only thing I knew for sure is that lots of people believed that eating and swimming was a dangerous combination.

As an adult, I'm a bit more tuned to recognize withdumb, especially in myself. I see withdumb most often in the field of investing. Most investment choices are based on nothing more than the knowledge that other people do similar things. Lately I have started to wonder if the science of investing is any better than the science of astrology or the science of not eating a sandwich before swimming. I have a degree in economics and an MBA from a top university and I haven't seen any convincing evidence that investing is more than a collection of elaborate scams. Am I exaggerating? No.

Clearly there are people who have special knowledge and can exploit inefficiencies in the market to make money. And clearly the nature of randomness guarantees that some people will make a killing with their investments by pure chance while telling the gullible world they are geniuses. But if you have average knowledge and average luck, is investing even a real thing? I haven't seen any evidence to support that notion. I've been an active investor for decades. During that time I have seen no correlation between my investment knowledge (aka my withdumb) and my outcomes. Nor have I seen any correlation between other people's knowledge and their investment outcomes.

I'm toying with a hypothesis that all of the major moves in investment markets are manipulations by hackers or insiders. It sounds nutty, but Enron was very real, for example, and that company was essentially a criminal enterprise that profited by manipulating energy markets. According to a recent segment on 60 Minutes, hackers have penetrated a shocking number of highly protected defense, banking, and energy systems. If that reporting is accurate, it is naïve to assume that the major investment market computer systems are not already compromised. Someday we might look back at this era and see that what looked like successful investing by individuals was nothing more than correctly guessing the direction that criminals would manipulate the market.

Oh, I'm not done yet. I'll even go so far as to say that the BP oil leak looks suspicious to me. I think we all agree that the most likely cause of the incident is shoddy (cheap) engineering. But the second best explanation is sabotage with a profit motive. My withdumb tells me the oil spill was just an accident. But my experience and common sense tell me I don't live in a world where the alternative can be ruled out.
 
In response to my previous post about storing energy, several of you mentioned pumping water to a mountain lake during the day and generating power at night as the water flows back down. Evidently that is already working in a number of places. The obvious limitation is that most people don't live near an uninhabited mountain valley that can be turned into a lake.

The question of the day for you engineers is this: How many swimming pools worth of water traveling downhill would it take to power one house for one night?

Feel free to make assumptions about the typical size of a house and a pool, and the height the water drops. I'm asking because if the answer is less than half of one swimming pool per home, you could theoretically work out an arrangement with one uphill neighbor. You pump your private reservoir (not your actual swimming pool water) uphill to the neighbor during the day, release it at night, and share the energy. I'm assuming a tiny generator for this sort of application exists or could exist.

And presumably you could have a string of homes, each higher in elevation than the last, with a generator at each level, so one swimming pool worth of water traveling downhill could get reused at each level.
 
The brain makes associations automatically. That's why aversion therapy works. For example, if you want someone to avoid watermelon, inject a foul smelling chemical into a number of slices and have your subject bite into the slices repeatedly. In time, if your subject is willing to continue the experiment, he will develop a strong aversion to watermelon, and you will have successfully programmed him to avoid that particular food in the future.

Associations don't have to be negative. People will enjoy working if they expect it will help them later experience some good feelings in the form of praise or respect. The limit on this form of positive programming is that we mistakenly believe it is a conscious phenomenon, in which people reason that a certain activity will produce a certain positive outcome. I believe rationality is overrated, and thus we miss a huge opportunity. If we could accept that humans are fundamentally irrational, we could program ourselves for higher levels of happiness and productivity than we currently enjoy. Here's how.

Take a volunteer and ask him all of his favorite sensations. This could range from the taste of his favorite food, to foot massages, to sexual stimulation, to warm baths, to his favorite song. Then spend a few weeks showing the volunteer a particular and not-too-common object whenever the positive sensations are applied. For example, you might pick a sock monkey as your object because you don't see them often, and they don't carry with them any sort of special association beyond generic fun. After two weeks of intensely associating sock monkeys with favorite sensations, the volunteer's brain would make a permanent connection. Thereafter, any time he wanted to turn a bad mood into a good mood, he would look at his sock monkey and his brain would execute its happiness subroutine. It's safer and quicker than pharmaceuticals. The only risk is that the volunteer might fall in love with his sock monkey. But I'm not judging.

People who have favorite sports teams know how powerful this sort of programming can be. If you wear the jersey of your favorite team, your brain associates the colors and the logo with the good feelings of watching a game. The rational part of your brain might tell you that you wear the team jersey because you look good in those colors, or you support the team. But I think the real reason is a simple association with the stimulation you feel when watching your team compete. It's an accidental subroutine.

Society would never accept any sort of rigorous programming of humans in the fashion I have suggested, even if the process were fully supported by science. To do so would be to accept a view of ourselves as irrational. And so we miss an easy opportunity for much greater happiness and productivity.

 
The Adams Complexity Threshold is the point at which something is so complicated it no longer works.

The Gulf oil spill is probably a case of complexity reaching the threshold. It was literally impossible for anyone to know if the oil rig was safe or not. The engineering was too complex. I'm sure management thought it was safe, or hoped it was safe, or hallucinated that it was safe. It wasn't possible to know for sure.

Maybe someday we'll learn there was one person who skipped a safety step, but that's exactly the sort of thing you can't get away with in a less complex world, where everyone understands the whole process and can notice a mistake. It's our nature to blame a specific person for a specific screw-up, but complexity is what guarantees mistakes will happen and won't be caught.

Enron is another case of complexity crossing the threshold. No one really understood what Enron was doing, except for a few crooks, and they intentionally used complexity to conceal their treachery. I lived in California when Enron literally made the lights go out, and even the Governor didn't know why.

The financial meltdown, health care, defense spending, our tax code, problems in the Middle East - you name it. They have all become unsolvable because of their complexity. We want to blame individuals for being stubborn or corrupt or even stupid. But the real enemy is complexity.

Complexity is often a natural outgrowth of success. Man-made complexity is simply a combination of things that we figured out how to do right, one layered on top of the other, until failure is achieved.

Try leaving the house with the family. It used to be as simple as getting in the car and driving away. Lately it has become more complicated than the Normandy invasion. You need cell phones, car chargers, iPods, sunglasses, address for the navigation unit, and sweaters, if not layers. Someone needs a snack, and someone needs an Advil. There's something you need to drop off along the way. Remember to stop at a mailbox, then pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, and get gas. Then remember that the iron might be plugged in, and drive back home to check. Repeat.

Recently I got a very cool Garmin watch/GPS device for running. It can do so many things that the interface is unfathomable to me when considered in the context of my busy life. To be clear, I am completely capable of figuring out how to use the device, given enough time and attention, but the complexity of the rest of my life guarantees that this happy day of understanding will never come. So I wore the watch to a party and asked a friend how to activate the distance tracking function. I'll stop my learning there, since that's the main thing I wanted the device for. I have comics to draw and blog posts to write. No more time for Garmin.

It's not an accident that the recent leaders of China have been trained engineers. They've done a great job in an immensely complicated situation. Engineers are trained to deal with complexity.

I wonder if we should start requiring in our leaders a background that shows they can deal with complexity. Lawyers and engineers have that training. I assume that doctors and economists have what it takes. Ironically, a degree in political science alone is probably a red flag that a person might not be suited for the complexities of holding office. Taking it a step further, if your elected representative majored in English, he's probably relying on reflex, polls, superstition or bribery to make his decisions. Good luck with that.

[On another topic, check out my article for the Wall Street Journal that grew out of this blog. It's getting a lot of attention.]



 
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My Google Alert recently picked up a lot of chatter on the Internet about a rumored Dilbert movie in the works. The rumor is ahead of the reality, as the project hasn't been funded, and there isn't yet a director, writer, or actor signed on. But I was fascinated by the reactions of the many movie web sites that weighed in with their opinions on whether it was a good idea to create a Dilbert movie.

What?

Evaluating whether an idea is good enough for a movie is a bit like an automobile expert saying a certain brand of car doesn't taste good. It's absurd. You can only hold the opinion that a particular movie concept is a good or bad idea if you don't understand what a movie is or what an idea is.

For example, here's the world's worst idea for a movie: Titanic. It did okay at the box office.

Movies are good or bad because of execution, not concept. Even outside of the movie realm, ideas generally have no economic value whatsoever, except in rare cases such as when a patent is issued. And even in those cases it's the patent law that creates the value, not the ideas.

The self-appointed movie critics went on to point out that Office Space was already a movie, so there was no room left in the universe for a Dilbert movie. That's a bit like saying there's no point in creating a romantic comedy because someone already did that one. It's a fundamental misunderstanding of what a movie is.

I've long been fascinated by the common human illusion that ideas can be sorted into good and bad, when all experience shows this not to be the case. We could play the game all day long where I describe a simply terrible idea and then tell you about the people who got rich implementing it just right. Let's try a few...

How about a comic strip that is literally a bunch of stick figures? It will be called XKCD and have no discernable characters. Done! It's the most viewed comic on the Internet.

How about a movie about two gay cowboys? Done! Academy Award!

How about a comedic TV show about a Nazi concentration camp? Done! It was called Hogan's Heroes and was a hit in its time.

How about a Broadway musical about a bunch of frickin' cats? Done!

You'd be hard pressed to come up with an idea so bad that it couldn't succeed with the right execution. And it would be even harder to imagine a great idea that couldn't fail if the execution were left to morons.

Ideas are worthless. Execution is everything.

 
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If you're at work, summarize the last conversation (or e-mail) you had prior to reading this post and include all relevant buzzwords. The more mundane the better. Bonus points if your last conversation was completely unintellible when taken out of context. I'll turn one of your entries (maybe more) into a comic.

Don't try to pick the funniest or most ironic conversation. Pick the most recent.

And thank you for doing half of my work today.
 
The Adams Theory of Content Value: As our ability to search for media content improves, the economic value of that content will approach zero.

I heard someplace, albeit unreliably, that 90% of all music that people own for personal use is stolen. Let's agree that the real figure is some large number, if not 90%. And you can already obtain every top-selling book, TV show, and movie on the Internet for free, assuming you don't mind mixing your shopping with your copyright crime sprees. Newspapers, magazines, and comics such as Dilbert have been freely available on the Internet for years.

At the moment, plenty of people still pay for media content. Those reasons will evaporate. Let's consider books. Most people still prefer old-timey tree-based books, but the Kindle and other ebook readers are eating into that preference quickly. I haven't yet heard of anyone buying a Kindle and later returning to a preference for regular paper books. It appears to be a one way ride. The Kindle, and similar devices, are designed for buying legal copies of books, which is a doomed attempt to forestall the inevitability of all media content becoming free.

Now comes the iPad, which is destined to become primarily a criminal tool, and it will cause a change in society the same way that widespread illegal boozing caused a change in Prohibition laws. I'm not saying the changes will be bad, just inevitable.

The iPad has a browsing capability that allows you to see any content on the Internet, legal or not, and consume it from just about anywhere. Once you have an iPad, the only reasons to ever buy physical books, magazines, or newspapers will be:
  1. You might want to read outdoors, where the iPad isn't so good.
  2. You don't want to break the law.
  3. It's still a little bit hard to search for illegal content.
  4. Kindle is cheaper than an iPad.
My guess is that the iPad will someday be easy to read in bright light, perhaps working in concert with your sunglasses of the future. And when Kindle owners begin to factor in the unnecessary cost of books, they will start to see the iPad as a bargain.

Then there's the issue of not wanting to break the law. Every kid understands that stealing is wrong. But ask the average ten-year old about copyright law and watch for the blank stare. Students are taught to freely download copyrighted content from the Internet for school reports, which I understand is legal in the context of education. And at the same time, every school kid is learning from friends that downloading music and movies from the Internet is common practice. Paying for content on the Internet is strictly a generational thing, and it will pass.

Those of you reading this blog are already savvy enough to find and download any content you want for free. But I'll bet the average 40-something user of the Internet still wouldn't know how to search the Internet for criminally free content. At some point, I assume, a Google search for any popular book title will return an illegal source at the top of the page. When that happens, Amazon.com will primarily be selling electronics, household products, and clothes.

I predict that the profession known as "author" will be retired to history in my lifetime, like blacksmith and cowboy. In the future, everyone will be a writer, and some will be better and more prolific than others. But no one will pay to read what anyone else creates. People might someday write entire books - and good ones - for the benefit of their own publicity, such as to promote themselves as consultants, lecturers, or the like. But no one born today is the next multi-best-selling author. That job won't exist.

As an author, my knee-jerk reaction is to assume that the media content of the future will suck because there will be no true professionals producing it. But I think suckiness is solved by better search capabilities. Somewhere out in the big old world are artists who are more talented than we can imagine, and willing to create content for free, for a variety of reasons. And so, as our ability to search for media content improves, the economic value of that content will approach zero.



 

 

 
 
 
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