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I wonder if the most valuable knowledge you can have is the knowledge of what you're good at. For example, I doubt you are working at the very best job for your aptitude. We tend to drift into our careers. It's more luck than plan. But imagine if you were born knowing you had the natural aptitude to be the world's best brain surgeon, or guitar player, or graphic designer. On the flip side, maybe you thought you had more talent in some field than you do, and wasted a lot of time preparing for the wrong profession.

Any assessment of your own abilities is necessarily polluted by your optimism, your pessimism, your passion, and your everyday delusions. On top of that, you are influenced by other people's opinions of your abilities, and other people are just as clueless as you.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a famous cartoonist. I assume now that it was more wishful thinking than premonition. But my self-assessment at the time was that I didn't have the necessary talent. I thought I might someday be a pretty good lawyer, or a banker. So I became an economics major. I got lucky in the sense that I poked around at the wrong professions, trying this and that, including cartooning, until finally something worked. And even as my cartooning career was taking off, the majority of experts were pretty sure I didn't have the talent to make an impact. All but one syndication company rejected my original submission for Dilbert. And for the first several years, 90% of all newspaper editors didn't see any potential in it. I was sustained through those years by a handful of insightful people at United Media who thought Dilbert could someday be big.

In summary, the two opinions about your abilities that you should never trust are your own opinions, and the majority's opinions. But if a handful of people who have a good track record of identifying talent think you have something, you just might.

 

 
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I've written before about the fact that a person's name can influence his choices. Studies show that people named Dennis become dentists at a higher rate than you would expect. People also prefer to live in places that sound like their own names. Names matter.

http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/stuff_for_blog/susie.pdf

I was thinking about the naming of things while watching the debate over the iPad. And by the way, for the record, I would like to say I was wrong about the iPad being a non-genius device that consumers would compare unfavorably to a laptop. According to the media, who are desperate for a savior to their dying industry, the iPad is primarily a competitor to the Kindle. On that comparison, I predict iPad wins. Apple will nail the user interface, and make it relevant for the whole family. Kindle will mostly belong to Mom or Dad. On a cost per person basis, the iPad will actually be less expensive because more family members will share it. And Apple will make it easy for old media to make the leap to a digital-only distribution model because Jobs will make people believe it can work. Apple is the only company that manufactures belief.

Back to the names of things: Much has been made of the fact that iPad sounds like feminine protection. I get that. But how does that name influence consumer behavior? Feminine protection is generally considered essential. Perhaps that subconscious connection actually works in Apple's favor.

Consider the name Apple. An apple is the Christian symbol of an irresistible urge, whereas Kindle sounds like the unimportant twigs you use to start a fire. Kindle also sounds old-timey, as in "Grandma's got her Kindle and her rocking chair."

Compared to the Kindle, Apple wins on name, coolness, interface, cost-per-person, extra applications, web surfing, and probably its media distribution model. Kindle wins on screen readability, which is mostly relevant to oldsters. Battery life will be good enough on both.

 

 
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Where I live, about an hour from San Francisco, you have to think about getting earthquake insurance. I've always had it. But I looked into it again for our new house because the insurance is absurdly pricey. I learned, to my surprise, that most people in earthquake territory don't buy earthquake insurance. This made me wonder who the bigger fools were.

There are two popular schools of thought. One is that your house is (often) your biggest asset, and you can't take a chance of losing it. If you live in earthquake country, the odds of a Big One are high. Therefore, if you can afford the insurance, but can't afford to lose your home, you insure. And if you are only buying relief from your own worries, that's worth something too.

The other school of thought says that earthquake insurance is so pricey, and the deductibles are so high, there are only two realistic outcomes after the Big One:
  1. The earthquake damage is less than your deductible.
  2. The damage everywhere is so bad that your insurance company can't pay
Your earthquake insurance would only be useful in the event that your home was destroyed while your neighbors' homes were fine. You have to ask yourself what special risk your home has. If it was built recently, the answer is probably not much risk at all. In fact, I've never heard of a new home in the suburbs being destroyed by an earthquake. How do you calculate the odds of something that has never happened?

You could squirrel away a lot of savings by not paying for earthquake insurance for 30 years. That could add up to six figures. You have to include that money in your calculation when you compare how much you would lose if a quake smites your house.

Few companies offer earthquake insurance. That's a big red flag, since the business model mostly involves taking huge amounts of money from people and giving them nothing in return. I assume most insurers stay out of that field because they know that if there were massive earthquake losses, they would have bigger problems than a bad fiscal quarter. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think Warren Buffett's insurance companies offer earthquake coverage. That means a lot of people who know more than you about insurance believe that Insurance companies can't even protect themselves if a big earthquake hits.

I give you a final data point before asking your opinion. We had a little 4.2 quake a few weeks ago. The neighbors felt a good wiggle in their homes. Our home, which has all the latest government-required anti-earthquake engineering, didn't move at all.

Would you buy earthquake insurance if you lived in California and your home was relatively new?

 
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A lot of what passes as creativity is just combining things that aren't normally combined. For example, my parents are in town this week, at the same time the iPad was launched, which made me think a lot about the physical form that products take. And because of the iPad launch, there's a lot of talk about the iPhone too. At 6:30 AM, all of those ideas combined in my head, somewhat automatically, and I drew a comic in which Dilbert invents a cell phone in the form factor of an old man's head. You'll see it on March 23rd.

Comic characters work best when they have well-known mental flaws. Dilbert's flaw is that he sees the world in terms of function while being somewhat oblivious to things such as beauty and social convention. To Dilbert, a phone that looks like an old man's head has no obvious downside. Once I had the idea of a phone that looked like an old man's head, I imagined how each of the Dilbert characters would react to it, and I laughed to myself when I thought that Dilbert wouldn't see anything wrong with the idea. Creativity is the combining of wrong things. Art is recognizing the physical sensation that the wrong combination gives you. In this case, my own physical response to the idea told me it was a keeper. Your mileage might vary for this particular comic, as is always the case, but if I keep to the system, I'll get you sooner or later.

Someone asked me in a recent comment on this blog if I come up with the titles for my posts before I write them. Usually I do. If I can't capture the essence of my idea in a few words, it probably isn't worth writing. A title is a good first test of an idea's worthiness. (And more broadly, anything that can't be described briefly is probably a bad idea.)

But I often change my working title after I write a post. For example, my recent post titled "Like a Night Watchman" was originally titled "Into the Well." My first take at describing what it feels like to be a writer involved a well metaphor. I lower myself into the well, deeper and deeper, until all outside stimulation is gone. That's the best description of what it actually feels like to shut out the world. But the night watchman metaphor was more visual and seemed friendlier. Falling into a well is scary. I thought it would distract from the point. A big part of writing is removing distractions.

 
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iPad
Jan 28, 2010 | Permalink
I think you can predict acceptance of a new product by what people will compare it to. For example, the iPod was compared to all of the other ways you could organize and carry your music around, and the iPod was just plain better.

Then Apple introduced the iPhone. It was compared to other phones, and in that comparison it won easily, unless you expected to do a lot of e-mail.

Yesterday, Apple introduced the iPad. What do you compare it to?

The iPad borrows a little from phones, and a little from laptops, and a little from their own iPod and iTouch, and a little from the Kindle. It's better in some ways than all of those things, but less portable than its smaller cousins, less functional than a laptop, and more expensive than a Kindle. There's no comparison that is a clean win.

I think the human brain will automatically compare the iPad to a laptop, mostly because of the size. And I think most people will come to the conclusion that since an iPad won't replace your laptop, and it's too expensive for a toy, it has no place.

Betting against Steve Jobs is a fool's game. But the iPad doesn't feel like a genius creation. I think Jobs was focused on his health when the iPad was conceived.  It looks like committee work to me.
 
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I keep getting unexplained bankcard services fees on my business checking account, somehow related to selling some of my original art a few years ago. I contacted my bank to clear it up. My bank could find no record that I ever had a merchant account with them. Nor could they find any record that I have a current checking account with them. They did acknowledge billing me for the services they say I don't have.

Allow me to say that again: My bank can't find any record that I have a checking account with them, searching either by my name or my account number. As I write this, it still isn't cleared up.

In the end, it will turn out to be something simple. I probably called the Bankcard Merchant Services department instead of the Merchant Services Bankcard department, and they can only see certain types of accounts, or some such thing. I don't think my money actually disappeared. The real problem is that the world has become so complex that simple tasks are nearly impossible.

I recently got a video switching device, professionally installed, that lets multiple televisions in the house display what is playing on, for example, a DVD player in another room. We just built our home, so we had the luxury of wiring it for that sort of function. It's a great idea, except that when I turn on the TV in one room it sometimes randomly turns on a TV in another. A team of very smart and experienced technicians have been trying to solve that bug for a week. In the end, I'll just live with it, or stop watching television, whichever is easier. Complexity transforms the simple into the impossible.

I went to upgrade a family member's cell phone the other day. I knew exactly what I wanted. The store even had it in stock. Still, the transaction took 90 minutes. It had something to do with using the upgrade of one family member for the phone of another, which ended up killing the wrong phone, hosing e-mail on my BlackBerry, and a host of other issue before we got it all working. Complexity made the simple nearly impossible.

Lately I've been trying to get all of my insurance issues sorted out. I need about seven different types of policies for various car risks, house risks, business risks, and personal risks. So I ask my insurance guy a question, and he passes the question to the carrier, and by the time I get the answer, I forgot what I asked. Worse yet, I have three more questions. Insurance documents keep piling up on my desk. Some want payment, some want inventories, some want data, some need review, and maybe signatures. I don't even know where to start. The complexity has overwhelmed me. So I just stare at the pile and hope a meteor doesn't strike the house.

I'd like to have an iPod. It would be great for working out. But I know that heading down that road would be disaster and heartache. Sure, it would be a simple task if it were just me. But the kids have iPods, and share an account, and there are gift cards, and limitations on porting to different devices, and a computer that only works half the time, and lord knows what other problems are lurking. The one thing I know for sure is that I'm not going to plug an iPod into the computer and happily download music with a few keystrokes. It would be more complicated than the Normandy Invasion. Instead, I just live without music. And exercise. So I suppose complexity is actually killing me now.

It was never a fair fight.

 
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When you lack a particular skill, you are often curious what it would feel like to have it. For example, I marvel at people who can sing in key, or even recognize the right key when they hear it.  I suppose it's more about feeling the music than thinking it. So I wonder what that feeling is like.

My little window of talent involves selecting the right words to make things sound either funny or compelling. I'll get to that in a minute.

My job also involves drawing, but that's not so much a talent (obviously) as it is a simple skill that I developed through practice. If I have any talent in that area, it involves knowing how to make the drawings fit the way I write. I could draw in a lot of different styles, albeit just as poorly as the one I use now, but my current style might be the only one that fits my writing.

Let's forget about the drawing part of my job and talk about word selection. In that area, I can actually feel a sensation that is like no other in my life. And I wonder if it is what musically inclined people feel when they write the perfect melody, or what athletes feel when they are in the zone.

I can literally feel words. And I wonder if it is a mild form of synesthesia, a condition where people have a form of crosstalk in their senses. A person with synesthesia might perceive certain words or numbers to have colors. Or they might perceive a particular month or a year as having something like a personality or a location.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia

My relationship with words is that I can feel them more deeply than most people. At least that is what I think is happening. To me, the word aura feels beautiful, but when I see osso bucco on a menu, I feel as if I have been slapped by a crabby skunk.

By the way, I experience the words "osso bucco" the same way I experience the words "crabby skunk." The words and their meanings are completely different, yet the feeling I get from them is the same. I probably store those words in the same parts of my brain.

I'm reading Andre Agassi's autobiography, Open. I assume it is ghost written, since Andre is barely educated, he says. My first reaction to the writing style was that it is heavy handed, and it bothered me. In time, I realized the writing style evoked the same feeling in me that Agassi evokes as a public persona. It was a perfect match. I assume Agassi's publisher hooked him up with a world-class ghost writer, and it shows. The writer found a style that fits the subject, probably leaving a lot of writer's ego at the curb. It's brilliant work. The book is fascinating.

People often ask how I get into the writing frame of mind. To me, it feels like being the night watchman in a museum. My job is to make sure all the doors are locked, and the blinds are pulled, and the lights are out. As a writer, you need to shut out all of the distractions from your other senses. I make sure I'm not hungry, tired, uncomfortable, or listening to anything. Then, like the night watchman, I go room by room with my flashlight until something scares me, surprises me, or makes me laugh. I have to feel something. And when I do, that's the part I keep. Then I wrap up the inspiring words in ordinary words, to form sentences. That part is more craft than art.

Writers tend to work early in the morning, or late at night, when brains are naturally able to focus deeply on one thought. In the middle of the day, distractions are unavoidable. I wonder if anything worthwhile has ever been written in the afternoon.

 
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The other day I tried to change my address through a company's web site and it wouldn't accept my new address because I "already have a phone number." WTF??? I tried various workarounds including no phone number, and a fake phone number, but it insisted that once you have a phone number, and the system knows it, you can never change your address. So I asked myself, am I the first person who ever owned a phone and wanted to change his address?

On a daily basis I am astonished by the bad design of things. In my last home, the switch for the garbage disposal was on a panel with a light switch, and looked just like it. Approximately 50% of the time I turned on the light when I wanted to dispose of something, and vice versa. I tried to memorize which switch was which, but I always got confused by my own memory tricks. Were the switches ordered the way I thought they should be, and that was my memory trick, or were they ordered the opposite of how I would have done it, and THAT was my memory trick.

So now we have a button on the countertop for the disposal. It's obviously not a light switch, which is good. But when you press it with your inevitably food-dirty fingers, I imagine debris falling into its little well hole until someday the button just decides not to work. I wonder how that meeting went when someone suggested putting the button where it would be guaranteed the most slime. Did no one raise a hand to suggest that might be a bad idea?

Our new light switches have light indicators to tell you when a switch is turned off. That's right: The "on" light indicates that the switch is off. At least that's how my brain has interpreted it nine hundred times in a row. I understand that they want to make it easy to find the switch in the dark. But did they ever test how people use these things? And while I know the off indicator light uses almost no power at all, I can't get past the fact that it's sitting there wasting energy while its only function is to confuse me up to three dozen times per day.

Perhaps my biggest interface pet peeve is alarm clocks in hotels. I stare at the controls for about ten minutes, give up, unplug it, and use my BlackBerry as my alarm clock. I have to unplug it because the last guy might have accidentally set it for 3 AM.

What is your biggest interface peeve?

 
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I got the flu recently, with all of the usual symptoms. But one symptom fascinated me: I lost all ambition. I didn't want to work, eat, read, talk, or even exist. For several days I had no long term goals, no short term goals, and no desires whatsoever, except to nap.

I'm a goal oriented guy. I can usually tell you exactly what I want right now, in ten minutes, and in ten years. That's not always a good thing. It's more of an itch than a positive quality. Losing the itch, even temporarily, was a strange feeling. It was like inhabiting someone else's brain for a week.

As soon as my body's natural defenses overran the flu, my baseline ambitions came flooding back. But it left me wondering if ambition could be directly manipulated by pharmaceuticals. I was the same person when I was sick, give or take some chemistry.

Obviously caffeine and amphetamines can give you the energy to accomplish your goals, but is energy all one needs to have ambition in the first place? I don't think so, because when I'm tired I still have ambitions; they just seem harder to pursue.

At about the same time, I was noticing that people can exist in the same general place and yet inhabit different time. Some people live for the moment, others are stuck in the past, and some live in the future. You can identify people's time zones by their conversation. People who live in the past will compare everything now to something that went before, or tell you how the past made them what they are. The lucky people who live in the present will talk about their immediate environment. And the people living in the future will talk about their plans or predictions.

My hypothesis is that your temporal frame of reference gets set when you're very young. If your earliest years were great, perhaps you get accustomed to living in the now, especially if things remain good for you. If your early life was painful, maybe you focus on the future as a way of escaping the now. And maybe the people who live in the past had good early years and not-so-good adulthoods.

Putting together the first and second part of this post, I wonder if ambition can be adjusted by teaching someone to live in the future. It feels like an entirely trainable skill. If you spend enough time thinking about how things can or will be, I suppose it becomes a habit. And to the extent that you think you can influence that future, perhaps you become ambitious as a side effect.

Obviously it could be the other way around. Maybe ambition is something you're born with, and having that quality causes you to focus on the future. My guess is that a person's time preference comes first. And I also believe that imagination is a skill you develop by focusing on the future, whereas a good memory is caused by focusing on the past.

My questions to you: Do you live in the future? And if so, would you consider yourself relatively ambitious and imaginative? And how's your memory?

Please summarize your answer thusly:

Time preference: future
Ambition: high
Memory: good
 
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Lately I have been wondering whether online reviews should remain legal.
Yeah, I know. That just set off all of your alarms.

Free speech, etc., blah, blah.
It helped when I bought my barbecue, etc., blah, blah.
It’s easy to tell the useful ones from the bad ones, etc., blah, blah.
It keeps the seller honest, etc. blah, blah.

I will stipulate that all the obvious arguments in favor of online reviews are valid. But there are a few things you might not know.

Keep in mind that I get reviewed online often, for Dilbert and non-Dilbert books, my restaurant, and anything else I seem to do. I could be accused of being biased, and obviously I am, but I’m also experienced in a way that you probably are not. And luckily my positive reviews have far outpaced the bad ones. I should be a fan of the system.

I also consult online reviews for just about anything I intend to consume, so I am no stranger to their utility. I’d miss them if they were gone.

My argument for making online reviews illegal is that illegitimate reviews have a huge potential economic impact. For example, when I published my book that was a collection of blog posts (Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain), I got hammered with one-star reviews from people who loved the writing from which it came. Their gripe was that, in their opinion, blog material should remain free and online. I had somehow violated a rule I didn’t realize was a rule, and so I was punished with negative reviews. The one-star reviews dragged down the average star rating on Amazon and presumably influenced other buyers.

Any controversial writer – and I sometimes fall into that category (Google "God’s Debris"), gets one-star reviews from people who want to suppress certain points of view. Online reviews are the digital equivalent of book burning. True Believers from the left and the right pile in to drive reviews low enough to sink book sales. It is activism masquerading as reviews.

As a restaurant owner, you learn that many local businesses have anti-Yelp teams. When a negative review appears on yelp.com, they call their crew of fake reviewers to give glowing reviews and push the negative one down. And by the way, the negative reviews are often from the customer-from-Hell types who were drunk at the time of the alleged “dirty look” from a hostess or whatever sets them off to say the cheesecake was chewy. Most online reviews are entirely legitimate, but you would be surprised at how many are not.

As an amateur hypnotist and a professional writer, I’m a longtime student of how people choose their words. I feel I can identify fake reviews, at least some of the time, which might explain why I’m more alarmed than you. Still, I’ve purchased items with high reviews and realized later that I was obviously duped. There’s a fine line between good marketing and grand larceny. If you think you’re smart enough to tell the difference, you might be giving yourself too much credit.

If your argument in favor of online reviews is that they are helpful more often than not, I would submit that there is no way to measure that. My gut feeling is that enough people have crapped on the beach to make sunbathing no longer fun.

If your argument is that freedom of speech is enough of a reason to allow online reviews, that’s a kneejerk reaction. One must weigh the benefits versus the costs and decide if the destruction of millions of jobs, which I’m sure is the case, and widespread fraud, which is also clearly the case, is worth the freedom.  

If it were up to me, I would allow online reviews to remain legal. I value the freedom higher than the costs. I’m sure that’s where most of you come down too. But if you think it’s a clear call, you might be naïve.

 
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