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Today's blog is for science nerds only. I provide you with three media data points and turn you loose to connect or reject them.

First, the New York Times is reporting that a respected string theorist is saying gravity is an illusion emerging from the mechanics of atoms. Another respected physicist says gravity is an illusion caused by the differences in entropy.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/13/science/13gravity.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1&ref=homepage&src=me

In other recent news, physicists working with the Large Hadron Collider are rumored to have found evidence of the so-called God Particle (Higgs boson) that would theoretically explain why other particles have mass.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/large-hadron-collider/7885997/Large-Hadron-Collider-rival-Tevatron-has-found-Higgs-boson-say-rumours.html

Thirdly, I point you to page 55 of my book God's Debris, written ten years ago. It's the chapter titled Physics of God Dust. (It only makes sense if you read the entire book, but most of you have, so this is just to jog your memory of that chapter.) The free pdf download is here:  http://nowscape.com/godsdebris.pdf

Years ago I read a fascinating book (I can't recall the title) that described how throughout history the great discoveries of science were preceded by art. In other words, if you looked at the paintings and fiction that were becoming popular just before the scientific breakthroughs of the times, you would see that the styles of thinking necessary for specific scientific breakthroughs had recently begun to permeate society at large. Or to put it in more poetic terms, humanity gains knowledge about its own reality when it is collectively ready for it. That readiness is reflected in art.

Skeptics will rightly point out that you can find any pattern in history if you try. True enough. But it's still such an interesting notion that it's worth considering, even if only for fun.

My discussion of physics in God's Debris isn't an exact match to what the physicists are discussing in the links I provided. But if someday the idea is validated that gravity is an illusion caused by probability and entropy, it will seem as though art, including but not limited to God's Debris, predicted humanity was ready for that knowledge.

Update: Thanks to reader Alanc for correctly identifying the book about art preceding science.   The more relevant sequel is Art and Physics by Leonard Shlain.

http://www.amazon.com/Art-Physics-Parallel-Visions-Space/dp/0688123058



 
The other day I bought an iPad for the house. Yes, I know, when the iPad was first announced, I predicted that few people would want a crippled laptop. Allow me to say I was obviously and totally wrong.

By far, the iPad's most wonderful feature, compared to laptops, is the fact that it turns on instantly. There's no boot-up sequence. That one advantage makes the iPad an entirely different product from a laptop. Once powered on, the iPad doesn't start begging me to update things nor force me to make decisions. It doesn't remind me of all the ways it is protecting me. It doesn't tell me to order printer ink or ask me to fill out a survey. A regular laptop is like your boss: always making you wait before giving you busy-work assignments. The iPad is more like a punctual lover. It's always ready for fun. And if you are tempted to do some work on the iPad, its non-keyboard quickly changes your mind. You wouldn't say a lover is a crippled version of a boss. (Insert your own inappropriate humor here.) So any comparison of an iPad to a laptop simply doesn't work.

Our new iPad's permanent home is in the kitchen. I've discovered that 90% of its usefulness comes from the fact that it's speedy. Yesterday a fox walked by the window, and I was the only witness. Someone asked what type it was, and I was able to point to a picture on the iPad in less than 30 seconds. Some version of that situation happens continuously. Life comes at us in sub-minute chunks, especially in the kitchen. That's a lot of iPad opportunities. I wouldn't have bothered waiting for my laptop to snap out of its energy saving mode.

[Full disclosure: The 30 seconds to locate a fox picture on the Internet does not count the full minute of looking at Megan Fox images that Google was kind enough to offer up at the top of the search.]

Interestingly, I don't recall the instant-on feature being a prominent element of Apple's advertisements for the iPad. Perhaps at this point they could sell laminated turds if they put the Apple logo on them. Obviously whatever Apple is doing is working, marketing-wise.

Another interesting phenomenon of the iPhone and iPad era is that we are being transformed from producers of content into consumers. With my BlackBerry, I probably created as much data as I consumed. It was easy to thumb-type long explanations, directions, and even jokes and observations. With my iPhone, I try to avoid creating any message that are over one sentence long. But I use the iPhone browser to consume information a hundred times more than I did with the BlackBerry. I wonder if this will change people over time, in some subtle way that isn't predictable. What happens when people become trained to think of information and entertainment as something they receive and not something they create? I think this could be a fork in the road for human evolution. Perhaps in a million years, humans will feel no conversational obligation to entertain or provide useful information. That will be the function of the Internet. Someday a scientist will identify the introduction of the iPhone as the point where evolution began to remove conversation from the list of human capabilities. And when the scientist forms this realization, he won't tell his spouse because conversation won't exist. He'll put it on the Internet.

 
I like problems. Where there are problems there are opportunities. I don't think it can work any other way. No one wishes for problems, but when a bus goes into a ravine, the undertaker gets more business. That's just the way the world is wired.

I credit the problems I had in the corporate world for my cartooning career. Had my path been smoother I wouldn't have tried something new. And I wouldn't have had so much fodder to work with.

Tell me your career-related problems. I will happily translate those problems into Dilbert's world, thus transforming your problems into your entertainment. If you can't solve a problem, the next best thing is to squeeze some laughs out of it.

Please answer any one of these...

What problem does your company's product try to solve?

What is the biggest problem for people in your profession?

What is the biggest problem in your industry?

What is the biggest problem/constraint in your current project?

 

 
Did you notice on the Dilbert.com home page that there's a new search box above the strip? You can now search the entire Dilbert archive by key word. Once you find the strip you like, you can easily have it put on a mug, t-shirt, mouse pad, or water bottle.

You can also order the strip for your PowerPoint presentation or other business use, all online.

Or you can just read, for example, all of the Ratbert strips at once. Or all of the strips that mention Mission Statements, or sales, or Unix, or whatever. I just spent about an hour looking for my own favorites.

I've waited 15 years for this capability. It took a huge effort to manually enter all of the keywords. I have to say the result is quite awesome.

 
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My assignment was to pick up a few items from the grocery store. You should understand in advance that I'm not the designated shopper in our family. I suffer from a condition called CFS (Can't Find Shit). If you ask me, for example, to open the crisper and take out the bowling ball and the severed human hand, I would come back with, at best, one of those items and a bag of small carrots.

So you can imagine the panic that sets in when I'm handed a shopping list. I hope and I hope and I hope that the list will contain only familiar and easy-to-locate objects. For example, cucumbers are a good choice for me. I know where to find them, and when I come home with one that is spongy and inedible, I can say, "It was the best one they had."

I scan the shopping list: six items. I feel good about five of them. The sixth is coconut milk. Oh, God. I do not ask Shelly where in the grocery store I might find coconut milk. That is announcing failure in advance. I vow to find it on my own.

As I drive toward the store, I consider the possible hiding places for coconut milk. I'm sure it's not in the dairy section. And they probably don't have an "all things coconut" section. It's not a fruit juice. It's not a soda. My only hope is that a thirsty monkey is in the store at the same time, so I can follow him.

I soon realized that I don't have any of the qualities necessary for finding coconut milk. I'm not a good shopper. I'm not experienced at cooking, which might give me a clue as to what section the coconut milk would be in. I have no knowledge of the store. I have no patience. I'm not a good guesser. If there's a choice that is correct and a choice that will go horribly wrong, my instincts always lead me in the direction that will be comically catastrophic. It's often not good to be me.

I was willing to ask someone for help, but all of the store employees were in their secret hiding places, and the other shoppers all seemed angry. If I had a different type of personality, I might impose on the other shoppers and not care about their angry reactions. Or I might have interrupted a checker during a transaction. But as I'm trying to tell you here, I have NONE OF THE QUALITIES NECESSARY FOR FINDING COCONUT MILK. I don't know how many more ways I can say that.

I decide to do a shelf-by-shelf search, leaving out no section of the store, no matter how unlikely. I search through the donuts and the tortillas. I rifle through the radishes. "It might be frozen" I think to myself before opening every door of every refrigerated section. After searching most of the store, I was near exhaustion - and starvation, ironically. I reached the Asian food section. I never knew that my grocery store was a racist, but there it was. My eyes gazed upon a can on the bottom shelf with mostly Japanese or possibly Chinese characters and an English title "Coconut Milk." Now I have a new problem. I wonder if any of those words mean anything I should know, such as "Not intended for use in any of the ways your wife would like," or "99% Panda urine." There were a lot of ways this could go wrong. Worse yet, there were two brands side by side. Was one of them the "right" kind and one of them the sort of thing you only buy if you have a severe case of CFS?

I choose one brand randomly and grab four cans, semi-triumphantly. I quickly locate the other items on the list and sprint for the checkout. As a precaution, I double-check my shopping list. It said FIVE cans of coconut milk, not four. Damn! I hurried back to where I found the first four, only to discover that in the past five minutes the store employees had scampered out of their hidey holes and rearranged the entire store without anyone noticing. It was like a bad dream. The Asian food section was now nothing but pickles and mayonnaise. Or maybe I am bad at retracing my steps. The point is that I have NONE OF THE QUALITIES NECESSARY FOR FINDING COCONUT MILK TWICE.

Eventually I find where the Asian food section has been hidden. I pay for my items and stride triumphantly out of the store, across the parking lot, only to discover that someone has stolen my minivan. Or maybe I forgot where I parked. Or maybe the friggin' thing was on the bottom shelf of the ever-moving Asian food section. The point is that I couldn't find it.

In past situations like this, when I needed to distract myself so I wouldn't spontaneously transform from Bruce Banner into something green, I used to check my BlackBerry to see if I had any interesting messages. But I got rid of my BlackBerry, and now I have something called an iPhone. It operates differently, in the sense that instead of being a device for communicating, it is more like carrying disappointment in your pocket. On this day, despite having both the ringer and vibration setting on, my iPhone had failed to warn me of two incoming texts and one voice call from Shelly. The first text message read "Also get lemon juice."

The items I had already purchased would have melted in the car, should I ever find it, because temperatures hovered around 100 degrees. And I couldn't take my groceries back into the store because I fear being arrested for shoplifting. Once I buy something, I spend the next six months driving in wide arcs around the store whenever I'm in the area just so no one will falsely accuse me of running out the door without paying. This is one more way in which I'm not normal. I know I had a receipt. Shut up.

Eventually I found the minivan. I drove home and tried to convince Shelly that the lack of lemon juice was Steve Jobs' fault. She didn't say anything, but judging from the way she shook her head in disgust, I think she really hates that guy.
 
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Two concepts that are exceptionally hard to define are consciousness and free will. Any attempt to define them becomes a murky soup of other words that are themselves hard to define. So I offer you a practical definition for both.

Suppose we define a creature to have consciousness and free will if it demonstrates the ability to use the external world to reprogram its own brain toward specific ends. By this definition, reading a book in order to change one's mood or gain data would be an example of both consciousness and free will. But a monkey using a stick as a tool to get bugs would be nothing more than eating. The monkey is not trying to become a smarter or happier monkey; he's just feeding his body.

My problem with free will has always been that brains are subject to the same cause and effect as all other matter. Even if you allow for some randomness at the subatomic level, and even if you allow that randomness to bubble up to the big world, it's still barely different from a lawnmower hitting a rock. A lack of predictability is different from being free to choose.

By my new definition, humans are truly different from the animals in terms of consciousness and free will because we make the most use of our surroundings as an interface for reprogramming ourselves. No animal has the equivalent of a gym or a school or a barber shop.

Some animals use their environment for playing. A dolphin might surf the waves behind a cruise ship for no other reason than to have fun and reprogram its own mind into a good mood. I'm willing to call that a limited example of both consciousness and free will.

I started thinking along these lines because I view all of my own activities in the context of how they will reprogram my moist robot brain. I ask myself how any action I might take will change either my mood or my knowledge. That's my most basic filter. I include any health-related or career-related of family-related choices to be part of reprogramming my brain. I rearrange matter in the external world in order to program my own brain.

It made me wonder if other people see the world the same way. If you look at a stack of weights in a gym, do you see heavy objects that would be unpleasant to lift, or an interface for reprogramming your own mood?

 
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.
 
 
 
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