Home
One way of imagining the future is that you and I, the so-called current generation, will selfishly party until we die, leaving to our children nothing but crushing debt, a boiling turd of a planet, and various Apple products. The problem with this analysis is that young adults have most of the guns and muscles. So isn't the younger generation complicit in stealing from itself?

Imagine a 20-something, muscular thug on the street, with a loaded gun in his waistband. A 60-year old banker with a bad back waddles up to him and says, "Give me your wallet!" The thug reaches past his gun and hands over his wallet. That's how our society is organized. I'm not complaining, since I have more in common with the banker than the thug.

In theory, the young soldiers in any country could collectively decide that they deserve most of the national wealth and then simply take it. If you think that sounds like a crime, assume that the first thing the soldiers could do is force lawmakers to rewrite the laws. If you think that sounds unethical, I would argue that the people who take the most physical and mental risks for the benefit of society should get the most pay. That seems perfectly reasonable and moral to me. And let's assume the soldiers are smart enough to leave enough money in the capitalist system that it still works. Perhaps the CEO of a major corporation would only earn $250K per year. If he wants more, he can join the Navy.

I only bring this up because I'm fascinated by the degree to which brains have evolved to become more powerful than guns. Society's founding geniuses engineered a social system that encourages the young people who have guns to shoot at each other instead of robbing old people. Forgive me for calling that awesome.

Arguably, the most important function of human language is to protect the smart from the strong. Humans use words to create sentences, and sentences to create concepts, such as our notions of duty and honor. Powerful concepts control behavior.

Without our language and concepts, the strong would kill the smart, and humans wouldn't evolve to be any smarter. I think you could say that human evolution is being guided at least partly by the power of ideas.

I can't remember if I had a point.

 
Rank Up Rank Down +145 votes | 60 comments | add a comment
  • Print
  • Share
Let's say that you and I decide to play pool. We agree to play eight-ball, best of five games. Our perception is that what follows is a contest to see who will do something called winning.

But I don't see it that way. I always imagine the outcome of eight-ball to be predetermined, to about 95% certainty, based on who has practiced that specific skill the most over his lifetime. The remaining 5% is mostly luck, and playing a best of five series eliminates most of the luck too.

I've spent a ridiculous number of hours playing pool, mostly as a kid. I'm not proud of that fact. Almost any other activity would have been more useful. As a result of my wasted youth, years later I can beat 99% of the public at eight-ball. But I can't enjoy that sort of so-called victory. It doesn't feel like "winning" anything.

It feels as meaningful as if my opponent and I had kept logs of the hours we each had spent playing pool over our lifetimes and simply compared. It feels redundant to play the actual games.

I see the same thing with tennis, golf, music, and just about any other skill, at least at non-professional levels. And research supports the obvious, that practice is the main determinant of success in a particular field.

As a practical matter, you can't keep logs of all the hours you have spent practicing various skills. And I wonder how that affects our perception of what it takes to be a so-called winner. We focus on the contest instead of the practice because the contest is easy to measure and the practice is not.

Complicating our perceptions is professional sports. The whole point of professional athletics is assembling freaks of nature into teams and pitting them against other freaks of nature. Practice is obviously important in professional sports, but it won't make you taller. I suspect that professional sports demotivate viewers by sending the accidental message that success is determined by genetics.

My recommendation is to introduce eight-ball into school curricula, but in a specific way. Each kid would be required to keep a log of hours spent practicing on his own time, and there would be no minimum requirement. Some kids could practice zero hours if they had no interest or access to a pool table. At the end of the school year, the entire class would compete in a tournament, and they would compare their results with how many hours they spent practicing. I think that would make real the connection between practice and results, in a way that regular schoolwork and sports do not. That would teach them that winning happens before the game starts.

Yes, I know that schools will never assign eight-ball for homework. But maybe there is some kid-friendly way to teach the same lesson.

 
Rank Up Rank Down +351 votes | 75 comments | add a comment
  • Print
  • Share
Yesterday I asked you to read an unusual paragraph and tell me how it made you feel. If you haven't already done so, please read yesterday's post before continuing.

Waiting...okay.

The unusual paragraph was neither hypnosis nor random. I wrote it, and the wording is engineered for a specific purpose. It's designed to activate different areas of your brain all at once.

The paragraph starts by activating the language part of your brain, obviously. Then it made you curious. Then your analytical side kicked in, trying to discern its meaning. Your left and right hemispheres were engaged, and they stayed that way throughout. So far, that's like any good mystery story, and not yet special.

The next level of the design is what inspired me to try the experiment: The words are meant to activate the areas in your brain responsible for your five senses, which means five different physical parts of the brain, pretty much all at once. Notice that all five senses are mentioned: touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing.

The nonsense part of the construction, where I mix up the normal descriptors of your senses, is intended to keep the writing complex, so you can't instinctively simplify anything in your mind. For example, if I had told a complicated story about a cat being on the roof, your mind could have summarized and stored it as "cat on roof." My paragraph was designed to be impossible to summarize. (Although many of you apparently shuffled it off to the "He's screwing with us" bin and moved on.)

My hypothesis before reading your comments is that by activating multiple parts of your brain at once you would feel energized. And I knew from blogging experience that this sort of thing would make some of you feel annoyed and some of you feel delighted. The difference is probably a function of your ability or willingness to suspend reason and just feel it. Or it might have something to do with your expectations of this blog, or your view of me. You're all different.

At a writer's level, the words are carefully chosen to work together independent of meaning. They simply "sound" good together, and they have a similar vibe. Call it word art.

The commenter from the UK who wrote that he thought of Lady GaGa when reading my post might be the only one who actually solved the puzzle, as far as I can tell. I blogged recently that Lady GaGa's lyrics seem designed to activate multiple brain areas at once. My paragraph was inspired by exactly that.

All good fiction writers create in book form what I did in my experimental paragraph. It's no accident when a Harry Potter book goes off on a tangent about food, which has nothing to do with moving the story forward. Descriptions of taste and texture and smell engage new parts of your brain. And it's no accident that most Harry Potter chapters end with a point of curiosity. The author is making sure to stimulate as much of your brain's real estate as possible. That's why you can sometimes enjoy a movie or a book while knowing that the story itself is lame and predictable. What matters to entertainment is how many parts of your brain get pleasantly stimulated at once.

If you felt annoyed and manipulated by my experiment, I apologize. Now that you know the intent of the paragraph, try reading it again. I promise that you won't be hypnotized.

 
 
Suppose a small red noise surrounds a concept that is faster than granite and bends like the distance. You want to wear its talents and drink its red. But you can't bend the view that your rushing is a pleasure and your texture sounds like the feel of aroma. Suddenly a noise drips into a clear blur and the wind feels tight. You see a three-pointed scent out of the corner of your head and your spine goes fresh. This must be the smoothness that everyone is so loudly ignoring. The secret rubs its way through your hair and is lost in a thin, green odor.

How do you feel right now, and why?

 
In case you missed my article in the Wall Street Journal this weekend about building a green home...
 
My Dilbert strip on Friday got the lowest reader rating ever: 2.5 stars out of 5. Part of the problem is that the published size of the so-called art was too small for you to see what was in the CEO's 's shirt pocket.

 
Here's a zoom on the CEO. He has a tiny regulator in his pocket. Try to imagine that the CEO's shirt has a trap door in the back of the pocket so the regulator can turn around and get a snack whenever he wants. It's efficient.

 

Yes, I get it. The comic still blows. It's gross. It's uncomfortable. It doesn't feature the stars of the strip. The phrase "in his pocket" isn't familiar everywhere.  I got a lot wrong on that one. But what I mostly got wrong is ignoring the Artist's Secret.

I learned the Artist's Secret in 1993. It was the first year that I included my email address in the spaces between Dilbert comic panels. Thousands of messages a day poured in. Readers told me what they liked about Dilbert and what they hated. In time I discovered a pattern that confirmed something I had heard from the Ancients but had never understood. (Okay, I heard it from one cartoonist. But he was old and hugely successful.)

The Artist's Secret is that all art comes from abnormal brains. So if you create art that satisfies your own tastes, you have created for a market of exactly one abnormal person. If you're lucky, a handful of other freaks get some joy from your creations too. But it won't be enough to pay your bills. It's not a career until you learn to create products that normal people like.

A lactating CEO with a tiny regulator in his pocket appeals to my own abnormal brain on every level. That should have been my first clue that it wasn't the sort of comic that would appeal to most readers. In retrospect, it's obvious.

I'll try to do better.
 
Rank Up Rank Down +117 votes | 68 comments | add a comment
  • Print
  • Share
The other day I planned for a very simple trip from A to B. I started with Orbitz. When I finally penetrated the security system, i.e. figured out my own password, I noodled around and found many pages of flight options. Over the next several hours I tried sorting by flight time, shortest route, and price. Then I tried JetBlue's site because it's not included in Orbitz. Then I tried United Airlines' site because I didn't know if they would have extra options, and I needed to check my miles. The flight I picked had all sorts of seating options and levels of travel that I needed to research. Then I needed to arrange the rental car, the hotel, and the airport pickup. Then I took all of the information and reformatted it in a way I could read. At some point in the process I crossed a line: The time to plan and book the trip took longer than it will take to fly across the entire country.

Worse yet, I don't have the slightest confidence that I got the best deal or the most convenient flight. And just to make things interesting, the flight's on-time rating is in the "rarely" range. That means I probably didn't book any flight at all. What I really did was plan for a time to be at the airport when someone will spot the pilot at the bar, alert the authorities, and the flight will be delayed for "mechanical difficulties."

In situations like this, I find myself dreaming of a world with fewer options. I would pay extra to have fewer travel choices. I often feel that way.

I recently wrote about my new watch that has GPS for tracking my running. It has so many features that I fail 50% of the time in getting it to do anything at all. I literally don't know what sequence of tapping, holding, and humming gets me to the right mode. When it works, I start yelling "What did I just do?! What did I just do?!" I would pay 50% more for a watch that only tells me the current time and my running distance.

Apple often gets the less features thing right. The iPad didn't add a fast boot-up speed, it subtracted a hard disk. It didn't add a touch screen, it subtracted a keyboard. You want to print? Forget it. The iPad is awesome precisely because it has fewer options. If I want more complexity I can purchase apps.

One of my local movie theaters just added the option of special seats that move in sync with the action on screen. Now every time I want to see a movie with friends, I need to poll everyone to see what sort of seat they want. Worse yet, another nearby theater offers dinner with movies. It won't be long before planning a movie will take more time than the movie itself.

Let me say it again: World, I'll pay extra if you will please give me less.
 
Rank Up Rank Down +309 votes | 77 comments | add a comment
  • Print
  • Share
There's no intellectual property protection for food recipes. And everyone has access to the same ingredients as their local restaurants, at least for the most part. You might think that the gap between great cooking and merely competent cooking would shrink over time, as the recipes and methods of the greatest chefs leak into the mainstream.  But that doesn't seem to be happening. There is enough art in cooking that you either have that skill or you don't. At the highest level, you're part psychologist, part visual artist, part explorer, and your sense of smell is freakish. Collectively, call it an x-factor.

A few years ago I went to an oddly named restaurant called The French Laundry. It's billed as one of the greatest restaurants in the world, and you need reservations months in advance. I'm no foodie, so I didn't expect much, frankly, beyond high prices. Instead, I experienced a euphoria that transcends words. There was something about the order and proximity of tastes that lit up my brain's pleasure centers in the most unexpected way. Calling whatever happened there "eating" would truly miss the point. The place is a mood enhancer masquerading as a restaurant. It borders on pharmacology.

I was thinking about this as an analogy to where the Internet is heading. Consider a web site like www.Newser.com that summarizes content from all over the Internet. They get away with it by quoting or rewording only the most interesting points from larger bodies of work, and providing a link if you'd like to see the rest. Apparently their business model conforms to copyright laws because they are still in business. Newser has borrowed from my blog, and that's okay with me because it drives traffic this way.

Consider that Newser has access to the same raw ingredients as anyone else. Newser's website design is little more than a grid of boxes. The photos - and this fascinates me - are nothing but stock photos that have at best a casual relationship to the story they are summarizing. I mention this site because I am psychologically addicted to it. I feel a need to check it twenty times a day. WTF?

Newser's business reminds me of cooking in the sense that there is no barrier to entry. Everyone has access to the same ingredients, which in this case is content from the Internet. Anyone can summarize that content and put it in little boxes on a website. Anyone can buy stock photos. But there's something else going on.

Editors are the chefs of the Internet. Newser works, I believe, because somewhere in their back kitchen is an editor who has an uncommon feel for what stories to highlight, how to summarize them in a folksy voice, and in what order and combination they should appear. There's some genius happening there. When I read news from other places, I often come away feeling deflated. When I read Newser, I always leave in a good mood. That's why I return so often. It's a mood enhancer masquerading as some sort of news site.

And that's your future of the Internet. The cost of content, such as this blog, and my comic strip, will continue to approach zero. The art will happen with the editing. Others have made the obvious point that editing will be important for the future of the Internet. All I'm adding is the notion that most editors have skill, but few are artists. The world of print publishing is driven by editors who are exceptionally skilled. But they aren't artists. Newser is edited by an artist. He or she isn't giving me information; he's adjusting my mood. That's art. That's the future.

I know my readers, and you're going to piss all over poor Newser for being simplistic in design, having annoying ads, dumbing down the news, and stretching the limits of copyright. We can agree on all of those points. I'm just saying the editor is an artist.

 
I'm thinking of starting my own stock fund. The fund would buy and sell the DOW index according to two simple rules.
  1. When the DOW is exactly 300 points below a big round number such as 10,000, 11,000, 12,000, etc., the fund would buy the stocks in the DOW, weighted the same as the index.
  2. When the DOW rises above its big round number by 300 points, the fund would sell everything.
To be smart, the fund would stay on the sidelines if the market was crashing for some obvious reason. But in normal choppy markets, it would be coming in and out according to the rules. The strategy needs some tuning, but you get the idea.

This trading strategy is based on the presumption that people make irrational decisions based on big round numbers. When the DOW is near a big round number, people start imagining, and hoping, it will cross that threshold. So they buy stocks, making it a self-fulfilling forecast. Once above the big round number, the DOW tends to drop below it at least once, usually because of economic news.

I know, I know. If this strategy worked, someone would already be using it, and you would know about it. What fascinates me is that it feels to me as if it would work while at the same time every bit of my knowledge, experience, and common sense tells me it couldn't. And even if it has worked in the past, that tells us nothing about the future.

For most of you, this idea was nonsense right out of the blocks, so your instinct (or feelings, or intuition) matches your common sense. But I'll bet there are some areas of your life in which your intuition and your judgment are at odds, and you are totally aware of it even as it happens. It's like having two brains, and one of them is an idiot.

Your rational brain has language skills. It literally thinks in words. As you work through a problem, you put it into words in your head as if you are planning to explain it to someone. The idiot part of your brain simply feels. Your rational brain tries to stay in charge, but it's a battle.

I have a theory that the rational side of your brain is only as strong as your language skills. You assume that a person who is logical can, as a result of that logical facility, write a clear and persuasive sentence. But I think causation works the other way. I think language creates logic. The stronger your language skills are, the better your logic becomes. You can never be more rational than your vocabulary allows.

It took me nearly fifty words to summarize my stock fund idea. When it takes that many words to describe something, it's fertile ground for irrationality. If tomorrow someone comes up with a nifty and derisive phrase for my stock fund strategy, as powerful as phrases such as "pyramid scheme," or "catching a falling knife," it would be easier to control the irrational part of my brain that thinks the stock fund would work.

Everyone agrees with the caution "Don't run with scissors." Language describes the idea so clearly that it somehow seems more logical than it is. Do you know anyone who was injured by running with scissors? You probably don't, although literally every child in the civilized world has done it. By way of contrast, you know plenty of people injured by non-scissor running.

Be wary of any idea that requires a long explanation. That's a red flag. And be twice as wary of anything that can be explained in four words or less. That's a red flag too.

Yes, I did just tell you to be wary of my blog posts. it's sound advice.
 
This weekend my wife and I survived a gauntlet of death. It's called a vacation. If you have never had a vacation, allow me to explain how this works.

You select a vacation destination based on the sort of accidental death that you find most appealing. If you like being kidnapped, you might choose Mexico. If you like plunging to your death on rocks, you might try mountain climbing. For our weekend, we chose drowning, with a kicker that in most cases it would be preceded by a fall from a great height. It's called Lake Tahoe, and apparently it's a popular form of euthanasia. We could hardly find a dangerous ledge that was unoccupied.

Just to make things interesting, we were on the Nevada side of the lake. Nevada isn't big on safety laws. In Nevada, when you rent a kayak, you have the option of wearing a life jacket, keeping it with you in the kayak, or, in my case, imagining that it is behind you while it's actually back at the beach.

Legend has it that mobsters used Lake Tahoe for years to dispose bodies because it's very deep. It's also very clear. I never saw what might be called scenery during my kayak trip. I was busy looking for sloppy informants beneath my kayak. I never saw any bodies. Neither did I see any fish. Not one. Apparently the water is too cold for fish. At least that's how it felt. I calculated that I could survive less than five minutes if my kayak tipped over. My wife jumped out of her kayak and went swimming for four-and-a-half minutes. For Shelly, cheating death is a form of relaxation.

We spent many hours at the beach absorbing deadly solar rays. I believe that Shelly could actually walk on the surface of the sun and come away with a beautiful golden tan. By way of contrast, my skin is so brittle that my body doesn't cast a shadow. The photons burn right through me without so much as the courtesy of slowing down. Shelly put a nice topper on her tan while I lost most of my kidney function scurrying from umbrella to tree shade.

We signed up for massages because I thought that would be a good way to relieve my vacation stress. The spa attendant showed me to my robe and, recognizing my name from the sign-in sheet, asked if I was the creator of Dilbert. I unwisely said I was. Now, for those of you who have not had the opportunity to be a minor celebrity, let me explain that getting naked in this circumstance is awkward. But I powered through it and looked forward to my massage.

My massage therapist was in her seventies and weighed about 90 pounds. Apparently she graduated from the massage school of "making it up as you go." The alleged massage felt like a farmer was slowly strangling a chicken on my back. I could feel something boney happening back there, and maybe a beak was involved, but I can't say it relieved my stress.

On our last day at the lake we asked for directions to a scenic hiking trail. Allow me to set the scene. Imagine the narrow two-lane winding road along the lake, most of it on cliffs with no railings, crammed with people illegally parked on both sides, pedestrians darting to and fro, and bicyclists on every blind curve.  Now imagine a delivery van close behind us, in a hurry, as I search for the alleged hiking trail entrance according to these directions: "You'll see a green gate with no signs. It's right after you pass the only place you can park."

Shelly is all in. We're going to locate this hiking trail and we're going to somehow sense it just in time to find the only parking place left in Nevada. Our parking spot might require one wheel to be placed over a ledge, perhaps two, but we can do this.

I have a vivid imagination. It's great for making comics, but not so good for vacationing. I begin to imagine a future in which Shelly shouts "THERE IT IS! THE GREEN GATE! STOP, STOP, STOP!!!" At which point I apply the brakes too quickly, the delivery van behind me pushes our minivan off the ledge, and I finally get to see one of those mob informants up close.

Call it good luck or good karma, but we didn't see the green gate soon enough to initiate the death plunge. We settled for a less popular trail a few miles down the road. The only catch is that it wasn't so much a hiking trail as a nearly vertical dirt slope shaped like a ski jump. The difference was that instead of a graceful landing in snow, you had a 50% chance of screaming all the way to an icy death in the lake. That's called hiking.

Anyway, we survived, against all odds. I call that a successful vacation.

 
Rank Up Rank Down +167 votes | 44 comments | add a comment
  • Print
  • Share
 
 
Showing 661-670 of total 1113 entries
 
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog