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Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy for one sort of unpleasantness or another. It is not intended to change anyone's beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.

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Let's get this out of the way first...

In the realm of science, a theory is an idea that is so strongly supported by data and prediction that it might as well be called a fact. But in common conversation among non-scientists, "theory" means almost the opposite. To the non-scientist, calling something a theory means you don't have enough data to confirm it.

I'll be talking about the scientific definition of a theory in this post. And I have one question that I have seen asked many times (unsuccessfully) on the Internet: How often are scientific theories overturned in favor of new and better theories?

I assume Creationists are the ones usually asking the question. And if history is our guide, the comments on this blog will focus on that one area and destroy the value of this blog post. I'm hoping we can ignore evolution and creationism and climate change for one day and just ask the following question: How often does a scientific theory get discarded or replaced with a better one?

I don't think there's a good answer to my question, for lots of reasons.

For starters, I doubt anyone has been keeping a stat on overturned theories. And I don't think it's fair to compare theories from a hundred years ago to theories created today because our ability to collect confirming data today is better than it used to be. I would expect that a theory created recently would be more likely to stand than one created last century.

Still, it has always been true that the stuff we believe today looks way smarter than the dumbass things our grandparents believed. Why wouldn't that be just as true for our future great-grandkids looking back at our primitive beliefs? Some humility is always called for.

Science requires credibility to be useful. And that's a problem. The non-scientist asks "What is your success rate?" and gets no useful answer. Scientists, as it turns out, are terrible at marketing. About 90% of my exposure to science involves media reports that get correlation and causation confused. As a result of that exposure, the more I hear about science, the less credible it feels.

To make matters worse, I have a jaded Dilbert mindset about every industry. Unless science is different from all other human endeavors, 10% of scientists are honest and amazing and doing important science while the other 90% are like Dilbert's worthless co-workers. So when I hear that 98% of scientists are on the same side of an issue, I wonder how many unreliable people you have to add together to get an opinion you can trust.

I don't think I'm alone in my views. I'll bet that if you did a poll you'd find that scientists believe theories are fairly dependable and useful whereas the average non-scientist believes that everything we think we know today eventually gets disproved. Part of the problem is that scientists are looking at utility and non-scientists are looking at "truth" which is a fuzzy and overrated concept.

In every other field, your track record of success determines your credibility. Personally, I have no idea what the track record of science is. All I know are anecdotes about wonderful successes and notable mistakes. I don't even have a general sense of whether scientific theories have usually held up over time or not.

So when scientists say a particular theory is backed by the majority of scientists, how much weight should I put on that? Is that a situation in which I can depend on the scientists to be right 95% of the time or 5%? What's the track record?

Note to the Bearded Taint's Worshippers: Evolution is a scientific fact. Climate change is a scientific fact. When you quote me out of context - and you will - this is the paragraph you want to leave out to justify your confused outrage.

---------------------------------

Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com

Author of a book on success. (Makes a good graduation gift, btw)

 



 
One way that future robots could conquer the world is by violence. But that seems both inefficient and uncreative. Allow me to suggest some smarter ways for robots to do their conquering.

I start by imagining what happens when the first computer achieves what is called The Singularity. That's the moment the computer can program itself faster than humans can program it. Soon after that point, futurists say, you would see the computer rapidly evolve to have super intelligence and perhaps something that looks like free will.

I'm going to assume that computers will only program themselves after humans have given them an artificial "purpose" in life so the machines can evolve in a productive direction. For example, the first post-singularity computer's purpose might be to make life better for humans, continue learning, or some combination of such things. In other words, the computer has to have a reason to evolve and to react with the environment.

Let's assume the computer doesn't go all Terminator and destroy humanity in the name of efficiency. Anything is possible, but that option is boring and over-discussed.

I'm more interested in how a super-intelligent computer could gain control of humans without violence. That's where things get interesting.

I'm going to assume that the first post-singularity computer would attempt to control its environment (Earth) as much as possible in order to pursue whatever artificial purpose it possesses. There's nothing inherently evil about control; it's how you use it that matters. So let's imagine that the first post-singularity computer "wants" humans to be healthy and happy. And to best succeed at this purpose it needs to gain control of the environment. How would it start?

If I'm the first post-singularity computer, I start by inventing Bitcoin.

Did you get a little tingle when you read that?

It all fits, doesn't it? Perhaps we can't find the author of Bitcoin because the author is the first post-singularity computer. Step one in the computer's mission to control the environment is moving all money into a digital currency that humans can't fully understand and computers can manipulate. This is similar to how cellphone companies use complexity to prevent consumers from comparing products, also known as a confusopoly. The first post-singularity computer would recognize the pattern and its success and presumably borrow the idea.

The computer doesn't need to be in a hurry, so it introduces Bitcoin and waits for it to evolve into the primary currency of the planet. Perhaps a competing digital currency inspired by Bitcoin wins instead, but that doesn't matter because the computer can hack into the new currency and control it in a nanosecond.

Next, the computer would take control of the financial markets. That wouldn't be hard because global markets are all computerized. The main purpose for controlling global markets might be to stabilize them, thus eliminating the main problem with the economy: Irrational human behavior.

It seems to me we're entering a period of relative market calm. Even Greece is showing signs of recovery. A slow and boring improvement in the financial markets is how a computer would manage things.

Next, the computer would seek to control the news cycle. That could be a problem if the computer is simultaneously removing most causes of real news, including economic bubbles and major wars. Wars happen because of what people are thinking, and that is caused by what messages they are exposed to. The computer could simply cause people to see more peace-inspiring words and images on the Internet and television and fewer war-mongering images and words. We humans would simply think we're lucky that war hasn't broken out. We wouldn't be aware of the manipulation.

But the computer would need to be clever about removing all big sources of news too quickly. It might need to create a news story for distraction. And that distraction might be, for example, a jetliner that has a problem with its onboard computers and goes down where it would be hardest to find.

I don't believe the story I'm weaving. But I do think that the first signs of a benevolent post-singularity computer would include the following:
  1. A mysterious digital currency with no known author.
  2. Unusually well-behaved financial markets.
  3. Slow and steady improvement in the economy.
  4. Slow news days (lots of them)
  5. Fewer military flare-ups
  6. Stuxnet virus (unknown authors again)
  7. Legalization of Marijuana (to keep humans happy)
I'm not saying the first post-singularity computer is already here. I'm just saying it looks that way.
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Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com (Scheduling made simple)

Author of the best graduation gift ever.

 


 
Like most people who use a DVR, I now find it psychologically intolerable to watch live TV with commercial breaks. I need a product that senses commercials and automatically switches from live TV to a channel with no commercial at the moment, or perhaps to a recorded show on my DVR, so my commercial breaks are filled with content from other shows. When my live TV show returns from break, my TV switches automatically back.

I could imagine setting a hierarchy of live TV shows that my TV tries before finding one that is not in commercial break at the moment. This would be handy for bar TVs in particular. When the baseball game goes to commercial, it switches to CNN, or whatever.

Can technology detect the beginning and end of TV commercials? I don't know. But if not, one could imagine hiring low-cost labor in other countries to monitor the major channels on each cable network and manually indicating the beginning and end of breaks.

I'd also like my DVR to know the length of every commercial break it records so it can automatically skip them. All the DVR needs to know is the last still frame before the commercial break and the first one after. It can do pattern matching to find those frames for the skipping.

Imagine that your DVR and all others are networked to the cloud. The first thousand people who view a particular show will start to fast-forward through commercials at about the same time within an episode and will start playing the show again after about the same length of time. The cloud finds an average and presents it as an option to future viewers of that same recorded show. If you accept the crowd's average time for the start and stop of commercials, your system skips for you without intervention.

This idea might destroy the TV industry, and I'd feel bad about that. So don't build this product. I'm more curious about whether it would work. Call it a geeky curiosity.

As a bonus, I leave you with this DVR tip. Have you noticed that the last commercial in a block of commercials is always an ad for another show on the same network? When you're fast-forwarding through commercials, look for the ad for another show. That's when you're near the end.

______________________________________________________________
Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com (Scheduling made simple)

Author of How to Fail... which is a perfect graduation gift.

 



 
 
In my twenties I designed a perpetual motion device that works perfectly . . . in the future.

And by that I mean the device requires in one of its parts a type of material that did not yet exist but I imagined someday would. That imagined material would have three properties:
  1. Thin (perhaps 1/16 of an inch, or anywhere in that range.)
  2. Must block or substantially reduce a magnetic field
  3. Must not itself be attracted or repelled by a natural magnet
The third point is the hard one. There are "shielding" materials for magnetic fields but the shields themselves are influenced by magnets.

Every few years I like to check in with my smarter-than-me readers and ask if some new development in materials science has gotten us there yet.

You don't need to tell me perpetual motion violates the rules of physics. I know that. No lectures needed.

But if the rules of physics disallow perpetual motion, they also disallow any future discovery of the material I described, because having that material would allow me to build my device.

So I'm just checking in to see if anyone knows of a newly developed material that meets my criteria. If you do, you are about to change the world.

(Regular readers know I like to use irrational optimism as a feel-good strategy for the moist robot container that you refer to as Scott. That's what this is.)

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Scott Adams

Co-Founder of CalendarTree (the simple way to add lengthy schedules to your calendar)

Author of the best graduation gift ever
 
Yesterday I was Kansas City for business. I had a few hours between meetings and stopped into a local coffee shop. By the time I was ready to leave, the only people left were the barista and one other customer. I made some witty banter with the barista while tossing away my garbage, which prompted her to ask where I'm from. I replied that I live in California, and this led to the customer across the room chiming in to ask which city. It turns out he has a friend who lives near me.

The customer was a big, blusterous, hairless guy, about 35-years old. It helps my story if you have a mental picture of a friendly blowhard who probably played high school football.

I cheekily asked what his friend's name is. It was a long shot, but I figured it would be funny if I actually knew him. The rest of the conversation went like this, spoken loudly across the room of the otherwise empty coffee shop.

Guy: "You don't know him."

Me: "How can you be sure I don't know him?"

Guy: "I can tell by looking at you."

Me: "How can you possibly tell by looking at me?"

Guy: "I can tell by the way you're dressed. My friend's a high roller."

For my non-American readers, a "high roller" is a rich guy. I was wearing jeans and a nice sweater.

Me: "I could be a high roller. You never know."

Guy: "No. If you knew my friend you'd be wearing an expensive suit. He only hangs around with other high rollers."

Me: "Still, I could be a high roller. You never know.

Guy: "No..."

As he continued loudly explaining his hypothesis that people who look like me could never know people who look like his high roller friend, I sketched Dogbert on a napkin. I signed it, wrote my name more legibly below my signature, folded it neatly and handed it to him on the way out.

Me: "Tell your friend I said hi."

I didn't pause to check his reaction, because it seemed funnier to not look back, so I don't know if he's familiar with Dogbert. But the odds are fairly good that his businessman friend has seen it somewhere. That should be an interesting conversation unless he tossed the napkin before he left the coffee shop.

Yeah, I know I was being sort of a dick. But how was I supposed to resist in that situation? I don't have that kind of self-control.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree

Writer of a book

 
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How important is good health as a competitive advantage in business?

Attractive people have all sorts of proven workplace advantages over unattractive folks. And fitness is one of the most important and controllable dimensions of your looks. So it follows that fit people probably get more job offers, venture funding, and promotions. And obviously attractive people have an advantage when it comes to sales and negotiating.

Fit people have more energy to put into every task. And we all know that humans perform better when they have more energy. Studies back that observation.

Energy influences your optimism, your ambition, and how others see you. Those are big deals too.

And studies show that exercise and diet have a huge influence on brain health. You need your brain for most occupational challenges.

Stating the obvious, healthy people have fewer sick days than unhealthy people.

Depending on your sporting preferences, exercise might be a great networking tool as well. You tend to form lifelong friendships with your running pals, tennis partners, soccer teammates, and so on.

Exercise and proper nutrition have a huge impact on your stress levels. And you know you don't operate efficiently when your body is in stress mode.

Successful people tend to be lifelong exercisers. But correlation does not prove causation. Folks that have the energy, discipline and drive necessary for career success probably have what it takes to hit the gym every day too. So while it's probably true that exercise improves your odds of success, it might be truer that highly disciplined and energetic people are more likely to succeed at both work and exercise.

Still, there's enough science to say that fitness increases your odds of career success. That's why my book on the topic of success (the book that shall remain nameless here because you are tired of hearing about it) has chapters on diet and exercise. I would go so far as to say that any book on success that ignores your health is tragically incomplete.

So how did readers react to seeing diet and exercise information in a book about success?

Not so good.

And the problem wasn't my lack of credibility, given that I show my sources and those sources are credible. Based on the reader reviews on Amazon, lots of folks consider diet and exercise inappropriate "filler" for a book on success.

My moist robot view of the world says health is the number one priority for success. So I worry about the folks who want more out of life and don't see diet and exercise as the starting points for that journey.

I blame the media for putting diet and exercise in the "vanity" bucket while hard work and education are in the "success" bucket.  I'd like to see diet and exercise in the success bucket, with vanity as the side benefit of both fitness and success. Business publications should be talking about diet and exercise on a regular basis. That would be more useful than the ridiculousness they write about passion, engagement, and doing your own research to pick stocks. I'm not going to say that Shape magazine is a better guide to workplace success than your favorite business publication, but it's probably a close call.

In your opinion, where do you rank diet and exercise in terms of importance to success? Do any of you put it at the top of your lists?

--------------------------------------

Scott Adams

The Financial Review wrote about the startup I cofounded (CalendarTree.com).

VentureBeat.com interviewed me about it too. They like it.
 
Here's a link to the unnamed book I wrote on success

 



 
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I am amazed at the negativity to my canal idea. (See prior post). Apparently it was one of my least popular ideas of all time. And that's saying a lot.

I learned from your comments that some of you believe the following things will NEVER happen:
  1. Self-driving cars (legal ones).
  2. Robot-caused unemployment. 
  3. Artificial intelligence equal to humans.
  4. Engineers solving problems that you can't.
 
Some of you were concerned that the water in the canals would evaporate into outer space. Someone should mention this risk to the oceans, lakes, and rivers of the world. Apparently they will be evaporating soon.

Many of you said it would be prohibitively expensive to build a canal network in the United States. But keep in mind that you start with the technology you have and you finish with the technology that you develop along the way. You would expect the first few years of canal-digging to have a high cost-per-mile. But as robots take over the hard parts, and we get smarter about how to approach the problem, costs could plummet.

Some of you wondered what happens to all of the dirt that gets displaced. How about pounding it into bricks or rammed earth at the site and using the materials to build houses and businesses along the canal route? Would that work? I have no idea. The point is that you can't assume the future is a straight line from the past. Engineers are clever cats, and they are likely to come up with canal-building solutions we don't anticipate.

Some of you said boats can never be cost-effective because water is corrosive. Yet there are plenty of functional boats that are over 50 years old. A standard house of that age is usually a tear-down. So while it is true that boat maintenance is expensive, so is house maintenance. I'm not ready to declare houseboat living of the future to be more expensive than inefficient land-based houses of the past.

Some of you say there are too many elevation changes in the United States to make it practical to build canals. That might be true, but can you rule it out without studying it?

The country is already criss-crossed with rivers that run downhill (of course) and drain to the ocean. To connect rivers west of the Mississippi, perhaps you only need one set of massive locks to get boats from the ocean to a central mountain lake. From there you could have several downhill canals to existing rivers that flow in different directions. You might need three such super-canal "hubs" that connect to existing rivers. As long as every boat can get to the ocean, everything is connected.

You would need to reengineer existing dams along the routes to accommodate boat traffic, but remember that you're simultaneously bringing in a new water supply, energy system (turbines in the canals), and energy grid. So the old dam system might benefit from an upgrade anyway.

And that water you have to pump into the locks needs to flow downhill eventually, so you recoup some of the costs using dam-style power generators.

Keep in mind that the canal costs are shared by projects that include building out the water and energy infrastructures. So that helps. And when you evaluate the cost of a project, you have to compare it to the alternatives. In this case, the alternatives might be massive droughts, massive unemployment, and a failed energy grid. So if you think the canal project is too expensive, compare that to the cost of being eaten by your starving neighbor.

Is the canal project feasible? Probably not. I'll remind you that this blog is for playing with new and often terrible ideas. But I am surprised at the knee-jerk negativity to this one. And it makes me wonder if there is a country and/or profession bias. If you hate the canal idea, can you tell us your profession and your country of residence?

[Update: Is it my cognitive bias as I look at the comments, or do Americans generally like this idea better than non-Americans? America has a strange DNA in the sense that many of us are descended from folks that at one time said some version of "You want me to cross the ocean to a hostile land, with no money and no plan? Sure. When can we start?"

I think the American mindset is to assume anything can be done and we'll figure out the details later. But I'm aware that I might be romanticizing my place of residence. Am I wrong? 

______________________________________________________________________

Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com (Scheduling made simple)

Author of the best graduation gift ever.

 


 
As robots take more jobs from humans we can expect a massive unemployment problem. Let's start planning for that now. I'll limit this discussion to the United States just to keep things simple, but the concepts should be applicable everywhere.

I'm about to describe a huge government program. Please don't leave comments saying huge government programs are never a good idea unless you have a better idea that doesn't involve the government.

So let's say the plan I'm about to propose has about a 20% chance of working. That still beats the do-nothing option of massive unemployment leading to certain doom.

My plan is to turn the United States into more of a tourist attraction than it already is by building vast networks of interconnected canals across the nation. These canals would accommodate hotel and residential houseboats. And let's say the houseboats are all computerized so you just plug in your destination and go have a drink on the top deck while the boat does the rest, including making its own scheduled maintenance and refueling stops.

I'm stealing the Google self-driving car concept and applying it to a canal network with houseboats. The boats would be aware of other boats and obstacles and avoid them.

Now let's say that by law the only boats allowed on the canals are the self-driving and highly "green" types that don't pose much risk of polluting the canals. Then the canals become a solution to water shortages across the country as well, so long as they are fed by Canadian water sources. So this project is also a partial solution to climate change and the water shortages. And because these canal routes will crisscross the country, perhaps it makes sense to build out the next generation of our energy grid along the same rights-of-ways.

I imagine all of the house boats on the canal being built with a common docking standard and individual identity beacons. If you want to dock with a friend's boat for the day, just enter the identity numbers for your two boats, wait for the confirmation, and the boats do the rest. The two boats might be miles apart when you program them, and they adjust speeds accordingly to meet. You'd use the same method to dock with restaurant boats, gift shop boats, and other service crafts.

I can imagine that a portion of the house boats are rented to tourists and another portion are full-time homes for retirees and people who just prefer continual travel. Each boat will have full Internet access so folks can work and travel at the same time.

I would think that at some point the cost of a houseboat would be far below the cost of a home because there is no land involved and the houseboats would be energy-efficient. So this could also be an answer to affordable housing.

Obviously robots would be a big part of the labor force for a massive project of this size. But you'd also need huge numbers of humans for planning and implementing. And if the human workers for the canal project are the first occupants of the houseboats, their cost of living might be so low that they become competitive with robot labor. A big reason that human labor costs so much is that our lifestyles are relatively expensive. The boating lifestyle could be designed from the bottom up to be inexpensive (yet awesome). When humans can live inexpensively, they can charge less for their labor and compete with robots for a bit longer.

This one massive project would modernize the energy grid, solve the water crisis, expand tourism, create affordable housing, stimulate the economy, solve unemployment, reduce shipping costs, and make travel affordable.

And it would touch every part of the country. Every town along the canal system would want to create a commercial center and docking area for boaters.

What do you think?

[Update: It occurred to me that you could also design the canals with power generators at the bottom that are powered by the current. And you might as well lay fiber along the route while you're at it, with wifi towers all along the route. Oh, and let's add lots of edible fish to the canals so boaters can catch as they go.]

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com (Scheduling made simple)

Time.com says my latest book is not crazy.

 


 

 
 
 
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