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It's easy to do two things at the same time, as long as one of those actions is a practiced skill that you can do almost automatically. For example, walking and talking is easy.  And some people can play the guitar and sing, as long as they have practiced both of those skills until one requires virtually no conscious thought. But you can't do two things at the same time that both require original thinking. I know this first hand because my wife, Shelly, likes to bring up conversations in the car that involve rotating three-dimensional objects in my mind while expecting me to simultaneously navigating to our destination. This doesn't work out so well. The actual driving of the car is easy, because that is a practiced skill. But trying to imagine the correct route to our destination is impossible for me if Shelly is simultaneously asking me to imagine the optimal placement of patio furniture.

The other day, as I was cleaning pasta sauce off of every inch of the inside of the microwave, I was reminding Shelly of my bandwidth limitation for spatial manipulation. I blamed her for engaging me in a conversation involving the manipulation of objects while expecting that I would simultaneously be able to imagine the proper combination of pasta, sauce, a bowl, and (this next part is key) a cover inside a microwave. I managed to put four out of five objects in the right place, and frankly felt good about it.

I have a theory that music appreciation resides in the same part of your brain where you think about yourself. That might be why it's good to listen to music while doing boring tasks, such as going for a long run, because music interferes with your mind's ability to think about yourself. I also find it impossible to do any sort of creative writing while listening to music, perhaps for the same reason: Creativity springs from a deep examination of self, which you then generalize, and music seems to share that bandwidth. I can, however, listen to music and manipulate three-dimensional objects in my mind just fine. Those functions don't seem to interfere with each other.

I wonder if we humans will get to a point where we understand how to manage the different parts of our brains in the best fashion. For example, if you have an important upcoming task that involves manipulating objects in your mind, is it better to practice spatial tasks all morning, or better to rest that capacity of your brain until you need it?

During one period of my life I wrote a number of computer programs that involved intense manipulation of objects in my mind, for hours each day. I discovered that it was difficult to be social at night when my mind had been manipulating object during the day. It felt as if I were deep inside a cave and yelling to the people who stood at the cave opening. It seemed as if the practice of programming interfered with, or exhausted, the part of my brain that handles social skills.

It is generally agreed that playing soccer is a good crossover skill for playing tennis, because of the footwork. Could we get to the point of understanding the brain where, for example, we tutor someone who is struggling in math by asking him to do non-math tasks that are complementary to the math-handling part of the brain? I wonder, does playing a highly spatial video game for hours a day help your math skills, exhaust them, or have no impact?

If you have a date in the evening, will you be at your most witty and charming if you spent the hours ahead of the date doing light exercise, reading a novel, or assembling some IKEA furniture?  I'll bet there's a right answer to that question.

 

 
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According to the often stated (at least in this blog) Scott Adams Theory of Predictable Disasters, this would be an excellent time to buy stock in BP. Yes, yes, you'd vomit in your own mouth when you executed the trade, but follow me on this argument.

The financial wonks will tell you that the cost of the clean up and settlements are "already baked into the stock price." That's probably true(ish). Still, no one can really predict how much this thing will cost BP in the end. The stock could still go much lower. And I remind you as always, don't take your financial advice from cartoonists.

My first argument in favor of buying BP stock is that managers caused this problem, whereas engineers are solving it. That's a positive sign. Managers apparently had the choice of including remote shut-off technology in the project, but I'm assuming they decided that it cost too much, or would take too long, or they had some other managerish reason. So far, managers have acted exactly as you would expect managers to act.

Now it's the turn of engineers to fix this problem. I assume there are relatively few budget constraints on engineers as they concoct their plans. And I assume everyone at BP agrees what their highest priority is, for a change. In other words, there won't be as much manager interference as normal. And I assume some of the best engineers in the solar system are working on this. So what we have here is a pure case of brains against oil spill. It's the Manhattan Project for natural disasters.

The Scott Adams Theory of Predictable Disasters states that any catastrophe that society at large can predict far in advance won't happen, usually because scientists and engineers figure a way to head it off. So while an oil spill of this size wasn't predicted by the general public, the slow motion ecological disaster from this point forward is predictable. Admittedly, this is a grey area for the theory because this particular disaster is happening on a relatively fast schedule. It will be a good test of the robustness of the Scott Adams Theory of Predictable Disasters.

I don't want to make light of the disaster. It's plenty bad. And I will stipulate that the engineers and scientists have a lot of explaining to do in terms how we got here and why the initial attempts to stop the leak haven't worked. And maybe there should have been a tad more whistle-blowing. But here we are.

Disclosure: To make things interesting, I just bought a small amount of BP stock with my gambling money. I'll sell the stock on the day I hear that engineers capped the leak and the new technology for cleaning oil spills is working better than most people expected.

In other words, I'm betting on the engineers and scientists.

 
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Researchers discovered that people can pick CEOs out of a lineup. Sort of.

http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/News/CEOs-who-look-the-part-also-earn-more/articleshow/5863692.cms

The media interpreted the research as indicating that looking like a CEO might help you become one. I have to toss you a tiny "duh" on that. Yes, looks matter. But is that the bigger story?

I gave up trying to burrow down to the original research because Windows kept sending me down the Binghole. Perhaps the researchers themselves did a better job than the media of speculating what the research results mean. But it seems to me the media left out the more obvious interpretation. Perhaps whatever hormone it is that makes a person both ambitious and aggressive enough to become a CEO also influences a person's appearance. And let's call that hormone testosterone, because that's probably what it is.

I have a related hypothesis. I believe that political conservatives can be identified by their faces, even after you control for haircuts and eyeglasses. Not all the time, of course, but more than chance. (Another way to say the same thing is that political liberals can be identified by their looks.) Have you ever noticed that?

 

 

 
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I assume that most readers of this blog don't believe in astrology, since there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support it. But do you believe investors should rebalance their investment portfolios every year?

Suppose you start out with a balance of 70% stocks (in broad market ETFs) and 30% bonds, which for some reason you think is right for you, and your stocks have a good year. Now you're at 80% stocks and 20% bonds. Should you rebalance?

I think we can all agree that if something happens to change your overall financial circumstance, such as nearing retirement or winning the lottery, you might need to rebalance your portfolio. But what if the only thing that happened was that you aged from 35 to 36 and your stocks had an unusually good year? Do you rebalance then?

I think most financial experts would tell you there is a magical number that each investor should try to maintain in terms of portfolio balance. Your first indication that something is fishy is that experts will come up with different magical numbers. Your second sign of trouble is that the experts have a naked self-interest in getting you to rebalance more than you might need to because your irrational belief in rebalancing is 90% of the reason you think you need a financial expert in the first place.

If you have a link to scientific evidence that annual rebalancing makes sense, and it isn't written by someone who has a financial self-interest, please include it in your comment.

On a semi-related note, do you believe yesterday's stock market plunge was a "mistake" as some say, or was it a case of manipulation by someone who made a fortune on it? Ten years ago I would have said it was a mistake. Today that sounds naïve.
 
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Did you see the story about the Chinese man who died after his friends inserted a live eel into his rectum as a practical joke when the man was asleep?

http://www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk/content.php?sid=2778

This tragic situation, which I think we all agree is not funny, raises many questions.

 1. With friends like that, who needs enemas?  

2. How low did this man set the bar for friends?  

3. What were his friends imbibing when they came up with this idea, and how can I get some of that?  

4. How difficult is it to insert an eel into a rectum? Did they straighten and freeze the eel a little bit first? Otherwise it seems like trying to push a rope through a keyhole.  

5. How did the man sleep through it? 

In my own life, I have a strict rule for determining who to call my friends. Rule 46 states that any person who tries to insert a live eel into my rectum is automatically disqualified. If the eel is dead, obviously that's just good fun. I'm not a killjoy.

As a conspiracy enthusiast, I have to wonder if the friends were trying to cover up an even more embarrassing violation of the presumably drunken victim's hindquarters.

Friend 1: "Uh-oh. When he wakes up, he's going to know what we did."

Friend 2: "Not if we put a live octopus in his rectum. That should cover our tracks."

Friend 1: "That's insane! You can't put a live octopus in a rectum!"

Friend 2: "Live eel?"

Friend 1: "Fine. Remind me to never be the first one who falls asleep in this crowd."

 
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Investing is scary because the world of finance is the ultimate confusopoly. There are so many options from which to choose that many people are willing to pay perhaps 1% of their portfolios per year for experts to manage their money. And those experts might invest your money in managed mutual funds (managed by yet other experts) that charge you another 1% to pick stocks for you. And this is despite the fact that on average, experts can't beat a monkey with a dartboard when it comes to picking stocks. Every study has shown this to be true. As far as I know.

Worse yet, actively managed funds will generate more tax liability for investors than necessary because managers need to churn stocks to maintain the appearance of usefulness.

There once was a time when most experts agreed, roughly, in how a typical portfolio should be allocated. If you were young, you should own mostly stocks. If you were nearing retirement, you should have mostly bonds. But lately, even that assumption is being questioned. Some experts now say you need a healthy percentage of stocks even if you're nearing retirement, because you might live another 30 years.

This made me wonder if you and I could come up with the world's simplest portfolio that is better than what the average money managing expert might concoct. I'll toss out some suggestions here, and you can improve on them in the comments section, keeping within some simple guidelines.

First, let's assume the hypothetical money is invested entirely for retirement, so we don't need to worry about keeping any of it liquid for college or buying a house. That assumption is just to keep things simple.

Second, we're only talking about investments up to 10 years prior to your planned retirement. When you near retirement, you would typically and gradually convert as much of your stock portfolio into bonds as necessary to get the monthly income you need. That's a more complicated scenario than what I want to discuss here.

I suggest, as a starting point for our discussion, that a perfectly adequate simple portfolio for young(ish) people might involve putting 50% of your money in an ETF from Vanguard (VTI), which captures the entire Wilshire 5000. In other words, you'd buy one financial instrument and own a little bit of just about every public company in the United States. That's all the diversification you can get within one country, and the U.S. is still considered a relatively safe place to invest even if it doesn't have the best growth potential. The fees for the ETF are a low .015% per year, and because ETF managers don't do much buying and selling within the portfolio, it doesn't generate much taxable income to pass along to investors.

I picked 50% to allocate to this investment because I contend that no expert has a good reason for picking a different figure. Some experts might tell you 25% is the right allocation for U.S. stocks, and some might say 75%. I contend that most allocation recommendations of that sort are no more defensible than horoscopes.

For the remaining 50% your investments, let's say you buy the Vanguard Emerging Market ETF (VWO) with a .27% expense ratio. That gives you a play on the best companies in emerging markets around the world, at low cost, with excellent diversity, and low taxes.

Disclosure: Vanguard has licensed Dilbert in the past. I don't have any financial interest in them now, nor do I have any investment with them. I only use Vanguard as an example because they are a familiar and trusted name, in case you aren't familiar with ETFs and you wonder if they are sketchy. ETFs are as close as you can get to a commodity, and there are lots of companies from which you can get them.

Now it's your turn. How could my sample simple portfolio be any better than 50% in VYI and 50% VWO? You have to defend your viewpoint. No fair just telling us what you do now. Tell us what data you have to suggest you could do better with a different portfolio than I described.

And remember that your suggested portfolio needs to be simple enough for the average person to understand and obtain without expert advice and without excess risk.

(I should note here that it would be extraordinarily unwise to base any of your investments on what you read in a cartoonist's blog. This is just a mental exercise.)
 
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French researchers offer some insight into why you actually can walk and chew gum at the same time, but when add a third task, things go balls up.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8622137.stm

Upon seeing this report, I immediately thought of those of you who are single. You can add this concept to your seduction tool bag. For example, always phrase your romantic offers in the form of multiple choices instead of yes/no questions.

Don't: "Would you like to go to dinner with me tonight?"

Do:  "Would you like to go to dinner with me, or to dinner and a movie, or maybe just a movie? What movies would you like to see anyway?"

I can't vouch for the research, but I will say this is a standard technique that you might learn in either a sales or hypnosis training class. I think it passes the sniff test. For example, when Ralph Nader ran as a third party candidate in the U.S., it created a multiple choice situation in which the research suggests that a lot of people voted in a way that they knew would not serve their own best interests. Check!

This, by the way, is the reason I refer to music as brain pollution. I enjoy music, in its place, but it adds a task to your brain when you're probably already juggling at least two others. Personally, I've noticed that I can't do a complex task, particularly writing, while music is playing. But music is great if I'm just going for a run because the extra mental task puts me into irrational mode, and I really need that to silence the rational part of my brain that keeps whispering "Nothing is chasing you. Stop running."

Remember to ask your boss today if he'd prefer to give you a raise, a raise plus a promotion, or a promotion with a raise at your next performance review. Let me know how that goes.

. . . . . . .

On a completely different topic, what home page do you use, and why? I'm curious if the readers of this blog gravitate toward the same few starting points. I'll bet the answer is yes.
 
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One of you humorously suggested that I write a Dilbert Cookbook. My initial reaction was that a Dilbert Cookbook would make as much sense as Dilbert lingerie. It's simply a bad match. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I would use a cookbook that was designed for a Dilbert sensibility.

For starters, the Dilbert cookbook would be in the form of a website and an app. That gives you a chance to solve the first and biggest problem of all physical cookbooks: the tedious texty interface. If you're reading this, I assume you already have a laptop or an iPad for your kitchen. If you don't, you will.

The Dilbert Cookbook would include lots of optional links to quick video clips explaining every non-obvious step. Dilbert readers tend to be self-taught in a lot of areas, and no one is born already knowing what blanching means. Cooking lingo needs to have links for explanation, so the cookbook acts as both a recipe guide and an optional tutorial as needed. 

A large part of this digital cookbook would be dedicated to the chemistry, physical skills, and gadgetry of cooking. Personally, I'm fascinated by the engineering aspect of cooking, but I get bored when the interesting parts are ruined by all the talk of food.

I'd love to see all of the little rules of cooking assembled in one place, so I could study them in the abstract. For example, at what stage of cooking is it best to add spices, and why? What is the role of moisture in microwaving? How do you keep something warm without drying it out? And how do you get the onion smell off your hands? Time-wise, what is the point of diminishing returns for simmering or marinating? What food can I freeze and thaw without ruining? I assume there are hundreds more of these little rules.

I'd also like to know when I can get away with store-packaged ingredients. Is the garlic from a jar just as tasty as smashing up your own cloves, or does that depend on how long a dish is cooked? In other words, I want a ranking of what sorts of engineering steps with food preparation are more important than others.

I believe that flavor can also be reduced to a set of engineering guidelines. Specifically, I think you could categorize most flavors the way you categorize music, with high notes and low notes. Garlic and onions and pepper feel like low notes to me, whereas lemon and cilantro are like high notes. I've noticed that the best food has a combination of both, just like music. I'll bet an experienced chef could categorize most flavors in a way that would allow you to know if you were breaking any rules, such as cooking with all low notes. And I'll bet the high notes can't be more than say 10% of what you experience, in some subjective sense, without overwhelming the flavor.

Don't get me started on the gadgetry of cooking. I could spend hours learning about the best types of bottle openers, the best sauté pans, and the difference between convection and regular microwaving. When we were shopping for a refrigerator for our new home, I totally geeked out learning about how some fridges circulate air between the freezer and the regular fridge, which is apparently suboptimal for freshness. If you've read this far, you know what I'm talking about. Cooking tools are way cooler than the food itself.

I want my cookbook to show me different views of the task ahead, including a picture of all the ingredients laid out, so I can visualize, and another view of just the pots and pans and measuring cups and whatnot so I can assemble them all in one step instead of continuously running back and forth to cupboards.

How about sorting and filtering recipes? I want a search capability that lets me optimize for timeline, budget, nutrition, special diets, level of cooking difficulty, and estimated clean up time. You aren't really doing your spouse a favor if you cook a wonderful gourmet meal and then expect him or her to be your pot scrubber for the next four hours.

I'd also like to see my recipe steps arranged by timeline, with each dish for the meal overlaid. I made the mistake recently of trying to cook a meal in which everything would need attention at exactly the same time. The Dilbert Cookbook would let you filter against that problem, so each step is properly times. And perhaps the cookbook could act as your stove timer as well, so you have a visual representation of how done things are, on the computer, ahead of the alarm.

I want my Dilbert Cookbook to suggest what meals I can make from the stuff that's already in the fridge. And I want to set preferences for each family member and dinner guest so I only need to look at recipes that everyone will enjoy.

If I'm planning a potluck, it would be great to integrate my Dilbert Cookbook with my e-vite, so guests are constrained to dishes that will be complementary with everyone else, and the right size.

Obviously there are already lots of online recipe websites. None of them were designed with any sense of Dilbert-like efficiency in mind. There's a huge gap between where cookbooks are and where they could be. This is another example of where doing an old thing better (cookbook design) would completely change the experience. In the future, I can imagine each family preparing just one dish per night and using some sort of social website to arrange weeknight potlucks with friends.

 

 
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Don't get used to it, but here's another unfinished comic that would have gone stale if I waited to publish it in newspapers.


 
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Two questions I am often asked:
  1. How far in advance do you work?
  2. How quickly can you publish a comic on a current event?
Today I will indirectly answer both questions by talking about something else entirely. I assume you've all been following the story of the Apple engineer who left a prototype 4G iPhone at a beer garden. I found this story too delicious to resist, but I worried that the story would become stale before my comics would work through the pipeline. I think the soonest I can get something published is in about a month, perhaps a bit sooner, but I've never tested it.

I drew two comics while considering my options. In the end, I thought it wasn't worth the extra friction to push them to the front of the line. And it would be June 18th before they ran in their normal position, which seemed too far in the future. So here now, exclusively for you blog readers, the totally unfinished first drafts of those comics.  You will never see these in newspapers.





Take a moment to marvel at the fact that I didn't need to add anything to the story as it has been told in the media. All it really needed was Wally. I don't think any of us will ever know what really happened. I based the comic on the media's speculation of events. Remember that I'm in the parody business and not the truth business.



 
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