In the category of clever ideas that are unlikely to be implemented on a wide scale, I like this one:


The idea of putting special solar panels on top of roads sounds appealing, but I can't imagine the panels being sturdy enough. And I can't imagine the costs being low enough. But evidently at least one engineer thinks those problems are solvable.

This got me thinking about doing something similar with houses. And by similar I mean impractical, costly, and unattractive. I call it a house saddle. The house saddle would be something you put over your roof like a saddle on a horse, and have embedded solar cells to produce electricity. The House saddle would have little feet on the shingle side, so it sits up a few inches. In effect, it shades your house. It could even have a radiant barrier built into its bottom side to further block the heat. Air would flow between the house and the saddle, but only from low to high. The side edges would be snug to the roof so the wind wouldn't lift the house saddle like a kite. The saddle would be weighted appropriately for your house type. You want it heavy enough to stay put in the wind, but light enough so it doesn't damage the roof.

If the solar electronics are embedded in the saddle, all you need to do is run an electric cable from the saddle to the point in your home where the power grid meets your home's wiring. An electrician could wire it in an hour. The installation would be relatively inexpensive.

I can imagine the house saddle having a built-in LED display, visible from the street, showing how much power it is putting into the grid, or how much money the homeowner is saving. When you put numbers to things, it influences behavior. The neighbors would choke a little harder every time they paid a power bill, knowing they were, in effect, buying their overprice electricity from the guy next door. Soon they would want their own house saddle. And the LED display would clue you when to hose off the system to boost efficiency.

A big saddle on a roof would be ugly, obviously. You'd want artists to be involved in the design, to make it as inoffensive as possible. Remember that solar water heaters and photovoltaic panels on roofs are also ugly, and you see plenty of them, so ugliness wouldn't entirely kill this idea. Perhaps we'd get used to these house saddles the same way we got used to wearing seat belts in cars. In time, a naked roof would look wrong.

Before you say, "We already have this. It's called photovoltaic panels," remember that I'm adding some elements to the mix:
  • - Easier to install.
  • - Airflow between shingles and saddle.
  • - Radiant barrier
  • - Saddle is intentionally large to shade as much roof as possible.
  • - Digital display to influence neighbors
  • - Artist design so it is less boring than standard solar cells.
Have you ever wondered if big swings in financial markets are being orchestrated by a small group of individuals? Let's call this hypothetical group of people the Illuminati.

Your first instinct might be that the financial markets are so vast and diversified that it would be impossible for a small group of individuals to have any real control over it. Think again. Physicists have discovered that a relatively few companies have unexpected influence on markets. And the top name on the list is a privately held company that you probably never heard of.


The same math holds true for the media. As a general rule, news doesn't become real news until the New York Times or the Washington Post report on it. After that, television and local news jump all over the story. (The exception is celebrity and gossip stories that have little importance.)

The government would be easy to control if you and your buddies controlled both the economy and the news. I don't see any elected officials being part of the illuminati. They would be puppets just like you and me.

My best guess is that 20 individuals could control the United States behind the scenes if they were the same people who controlled the financial markets and the media. And when I say control, I don't mean micromanaging things. They wouldn't care who was on the Supreme Court, for example, or whether abortion is legal. All they would care about is increasing their power and wealth, which are two sides of the same coin. So their interests would include wars and financial markets and access to natural resources. Everything else they could buy.

I'm not suggesting the Illuminati exists, or that the companies in the physicists' study are doing anything inappropriate. I just think it's interesting that the Illuminati is entirely feasible, bordering on simple. The CEO of any one of the big financial or media companies could pick up the phone and call a meeting of the others. Add some hookers and cigars and you have the Illuminati.

If you were one of the 20 powerful people, would you make that phone call and organize the others?

Last week I challenged readers to provide links to the best arguments on both sides of the idea that we are doomed because of the soaring national debt. I have reviewed your comments and your links and render my nonpartisan verdict.
  •  If the government hadn't bailed out banks, we might already be toast.

  • When baby boomers retire in numbers, we're doomed for sure.

  • Stimulus money will largely be wasted.

  • It is possible to grow the economy enough to minimize a very large debt, and this has been done in the past. But the past has never seen a debt as large as the one ahead of us, when the boomers start collecting Social Security and their health costs skyrocket. And we're not done with mortgage defaults either.

  • If the government tries to inflate our way out of the debt, or raise taxes by some huge amount to pay it down, the medicine will be as deadly as the disease. In other words, we're in a fiscal death spiral.

  • No one credible is showing any numbers that give us a way out of the death spiral. Or at least none of you provided a link to anyone who sounded credible to me.
  • My blog sofware will never allow me to do properly formatted bullet points.

And so I conclude, based on the evidence presented in the comments to this blog that the most realistic straight line prediction is that we're all doomed. And that seems to be the case no matter what any president did in the past or will do in the future.

The good news is that straight line predictions are almost always wrong. The future unfolds in shocks and surprises. So maybe our civilization will be annihilated by space invaders before inflation ever becomes a problem. Or maybe some inventor is on the verge of building a device that turns industrial waste into delicious, non-fattening food.

I've already predicted that the next economic boom (okay, bubble) will involve energy storage devices. And I think another growth area will be new planned cities to store all the senior citizens. The notion of a "house" will change into something much less expensive and yet more fun and useful.

It didn't get the most votes, but it has the clearest argument.


In reaction to my post yesterday, several people pointed out that Obama's budget deficits would lead to certain economic doom. Let's take a look at that assumption.

First, if you are American, and you believe the deficit means certain doom, you should cash in all of your investments and move into some sort of survivalist encampment, or to a country that has less of a budget problem. You don't want to pay your share of the $19 trillion. So if you aren't already packing to leave, maybe you are just saying you think the ballooning national debt is the end of us all, but you really think we'll figure a way out of it. This might be similar to saying you believe in Jesus but for some reason you refuse to give most of your money to the needy. There's a difference between real believing and whatever the heck the other thing is.

Allow me to be the first to say I don't understand all the ins and outs of the national debt. On the surface, it's hard to see how you can pay off a multi-trillion dollar debt even if you mug the rich. It's not even clear how we could stop the debt from increasing every year until cannibalism breaks out.

On the other hand, the Adams Theory of Slow Motion Disasters states the following: Any looming disaster that is generally recognized years in advance is eventually solved. For example, population hasn't increased until we ran out of food (Malthus), the Y2K problem got fixed, and even our air and water quality have improved in recent years in the U.S.

So what are the odds that human ingenuity will find a way to pay off the national debt, or at least pound it into a smaller problem before it rips society to shreds?

Do the economic experts in the Obama administration believe the debt is unsolvable? It's entirely possible that some of them think we're doomed, but they don't speak out because keeping their jobs in the short run is the best strategy they have.

I declare a link war. Show me your links to the best arguments for the debt eventually killing us all, and your links to any argument that says there is a way to grow the economy enough to pay it off. If you don't have a link to share, vote on the ones you think are most persuasive. Let's see if we believe, collectively, that we're doomed.
Recently I realized that our kids will never experience something called "bill paying." While they will certainly exchange their money for services, it will all happen by electronic funds transfer or some version of it. And your kids' kids won't know the word "checkbook."

You grandkids probably won't deal with the concept of a home phone number, since all numbers will go directly to individuals. And the fax machine has one foot in the grave, as most new printers allow you to scan to e-mail.

I'm hoping that "booting a computer" soon goes away. Someday it will seem funny that we had to wait minutes to fire up the old Personal Computer, which is another phrase that is already mostly dead. Now we just have computers. The personal part fell away.

Perhaps the word "television" will be gone soon too. You'll have a monitor that can access all forms of entertainment from the Internet, and network TV shows will be a small part of that. Television already sounds old timey.

Computer backup will cease being a spoken concept, except by engineers, as soon as all computers do it automatically over the Internet and on the fly. That's probably coming.

"Online" is a word that will fade away, once that becomes the only way anything gets done. It already sounds ridiculous to say you booked your airline tickets online, since that is generally understood.

What other concepts are going away?
I read an interesting report in the media about a new technology breakthrough. Obviously you shouldn't believe the report, for two good reasons.

a. The story is about technology.

b. It's in the media.

According to the story, a Salt Lake City company, Ceramatec, has developed a super battery that will soon make it practical and economical for homes to be off the power grid, or mostly off, as long as you also have solar power or your own wind mill.


I'm sure this is one of many research projects going on right now to improve battery technology. MIT is spewing breakthroughs:


The battery industry has excellent financial bubble potential. By the time you put batteries in your house, your electric car, and all of your portable electronics, we're talking serious money.

If you want to invest in the future battery bubble now, figure out what raw materials or related products are generally necessary to add battery storage to a home with solar power, or electric cars. For example . . . pause while I Google. . . maybe a product like this chip, or future versions of it, will be part of the next boom:


Just to make this prediction interesting, moments ago I bought a few shares of Linear Technology (LLTC), the company that makes that chip. I ignored the company's fundamentals, because I'm making a bubble play. It's probably a year before the battery bubble forms, if it ever does. And obviously you can ignore all of the analyst recommendations for the stock. I believe you're all smart enough to know those are complete bullshit.

What other stocks would benefit from huge improvements in battery storage technology? Let me see your ideas. Ignore the obvious companies, such as the solar cell companies. They already had their bubble run. Let's dig one level below the obvious.

[Warning: Don't take financial, medical, safety, romance, or career advice from cartoonists. Any one of those could get you killed.]

Sometimes there are benefits of being That Dilbert Guy. After I mentioned the brain reading technology from Neurosky (Neurosky.com) one of their headsets and some software showed up at my office. You slap on the headset and control what happens on screen by either concentrating or relaxing. The headset reads your brain waves and communicates via Bluetooth to the game.

The sample games are limited, designed just for demonstrating the technology. I understand that some cooler things are in the pipeline from third party companies. This got me wondering what would be the coolest game you could develop with this technology. I think I came up with the best game ever.

Imagine an online multiplayer game where you control an avatar that is a wizard in this imaginary world. So far, that sort of thing exists. Now imagine that when you encounter an enemy wizard, you do battle, Harry Potter style, with an assortment of spells. So far, I imagine this already exists too. (I'm not a gamer.)

The new part involves integrating voice recognition and the Neurosky headset with the game play. Imagine that you speak the name of your chosen spell, and the game recognizes it and raises the magic wand of your avatar. But to actually apply the spell, you have to concentrate, and the Neurosky headset picks up that brain wave and translates it into the power of your spell.

Imagine that the available spells in this online world are an elaborate form of paper-rocks-scissors, meaning that every spell has a spell it can best and one that can best it. And even those results would depend on how effectively you concentrated to empower your spell. So a weak spell with good concentration could beat a powerful spell poorly done.

And perhaps you can escape from a spell through relaxation, becoming like a vapor to avoid chains, for example. The headset would pick up relaxation brain waves too.

I probably just pissed off some game developer who is working on this exact idea in a top secret lab somewhere. Sorry.
I hear a lot of complaints about big companies donating money to politicians and getting favorable legislation in return. Obviously these companies make donations because they believe it works. I decry this perversion of our democracy (okay, our republic). On the other hand, I wonder how I can invest in those companies.

Has anyone tracked the stocks of companies that donate to politicians to see if those companies beat the market averages? I'd like to see a stock fund comprised of companies that are donating the most money to politicians. If those companies do indeed outperform the market, I want in. Realistically, I don't see this practice ever subsiding, so complaining does no good. Even voting for politicians who say they will fight it does no good. But making money from the companies who corrupt the system seems to make good sense to me. I see no reason that you and I shouldn't get a taste of that action.

I couldn't find a list of the biggest political donors, which is worrisome on its own. Can someone Google me up one and put it in the comments?
What is the most amazing house one could build at the lowest cost? You'd think someone already built that house, but I don't think so.

When you build a custom house, you generally default to "things I like that I can also afford." That will give you a terrific house, but you'll never really know if you could have had a different house that would make you just as happy at half the cost.

For example, when you decide what rooms are near other rooms, it's usually based on lifestyle, not on minimizing the length of plumbing runs. And when you pick the bathroom shower size, you're not considering the optimal size for tiling it without wasted tile, even if that means just an inch or two of adjustment.

The subcontractor who has to run your ductwork often finds he can't get from one end of the house to the other without running through unconditioned space, because ducts are not always part of the architect's plans. That stuff is "engineered in the field." That's another way of saying too late to optimize.

A big developer might take the time to design homes with short plumbing runs and efficient duct paths, but he cares about making the sale more than he cares about livability. After you move in, you realize there's no closet space, and the two car garage only allows a few inches between cars. And forget about any extra green features in your home that can't be seen, because those don't help the sale price.

Big developers also tend to create homes with traditional spaces, because I'm sure those sell the best. So you often get the "museum" type rooms, such as a formal living room that gets no use.

I contend that no one has both the expertise and the interest in designing the ultimate home (or set of homes for various lifestyles), that provides the best living and wow factor at the lowest price.

This got me thinking that the ultimate inexpensive home would have what I will call a wet side and a dry side. The wet side would have your bathrooms, laundry, and kitchen. That consolidates your plumbing, but it has another advantage: Those rooms have few windows. So in a warm climate such as California, you put those rooms on the hot side, which is west in this case.

Homes use a lot of energy heating water, for everything from "Warm Floors TM" to bathwater. I've seen an experimental design that puts a huge water tank on the sunny side of the house inside a glass room that acts like a hot house, capturing the sun and heating the water. I imagine the heating could be magnified with reflective material around the tank. And the beauty of the huge tank is that once heated, it has enough thermal mass to stay warm through the evening. So I'd put one of those bad boys on the west side too. Obviously one side of your home would be unattractive, but you can make up for that on the other sides.

To keep costs low, I'd have one great room and no formal living room or dining room. The dining table would be rustic and casual, so it can be part of the great room for eating or game playing. And instead of a home theater, I would include a powered screen that comes down over the fireplace and is viewable from the kitchen, dining table, and family room that are all part of one larger area. If you entertain, that area can also take advantage of the home theater speaker system and become your dance floor.

This home would also include dog doors, with a fenced dog run area that has a porch to keep Fido cool and dry as he does his business, and a cat's litter box area, perhaps near the garage door so they are near the trash bins. Most people have pets, but few homes are designed for them.

These homes would also have a huge covered porch for entertaining. Make that a screened porch if it makes sense in your climate. It would be the least expensive room of the house to build, and have the most entertainment value.

Likewise, the garage would be oversized because it is another space that is inexpensive to build and requires no heating or cooling. Make it big enough for your ping pong table or even pool table, your shop, or your bike storage. If it opens up to the large covered porch, it becomes part of your entertainment space.

For green building, I would include in the home the features that are free or at least inexpensive. You start by orienting your house to the best direction of the sun, and shading key windows. That's huge. And you could add a big thermal mass to the center of your home, such as an attractive rock wall; that wouldn't be expensive but it would help regulate interior temperatures. You could also design the home to take advantage of the chimney effect, where a tower on the hot side of the home heats up in the sun, causing its air to rise, sucking cooler air into the home from the cool side of the home that might, for example, have lots of greenery. And you would have a light colored roof. That's a big deal for cooling, and costs no extra. I think a good architect could make the white roof seem like it belongs with the house.

Depending on your location, some sort of geothermal heating and cooling solution might make sense, which involves running pipes underground to take advantage of the Earth's continuous moderate temperature. A lot of the expense is in the digging of the ditches to lay pipe, which I'm assuming could be reduced by digging common ditches for several neighbors at once. So these homes probably cost the least when built in clumps of several. That way they can have their own shared park in the center. Maybe they would have a shared tool shed too, with video security to keep the honor system honorable.

For interior building materials, there is generally an inexpensive solution that looks nearly as impressive as high end solutions. For example, painted kitchen cabinets are much less expensive than high end stained cabinets, yet you see both types in the most expensive homes. So you might as well go for painted.

For flooring, carpet is the least expensive, but it also has the least wow effect. I'm no expert in this area, but I'll bet an experienced designer could find porcelain, concrete, or laminate floor materials that look incredible, cost relatively little, last forever, and are easy to clean.

This would be a good project for students of architecture. Better yet, a CAD system should have these sort of considerations built in. Push one button and the system finds the best duct and plumbing runs. It should also be able to calculate estimated energy costs on the fly, with each change to the house design.
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