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Q. What is the new definition of "Taliban"?

A. Anyone who lives above a lithium deposit

On Monday we learned something that the Pentagon has known for years: Afghanistan is sitting on a trillion dollars worth of valuable minerals.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/14/world/asia/14minerals.html?ref=world

I have literally never seen a news story more interesting than this one. I barely know where to begin. For starters, why were Americans looking for mineral resources in Afghanistan in 2007? I try so hard to NOT become a conspiracy theorist, but COME ON! Give me a frickin' chance!!!

If you're wondering when the U.S. will withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, you now have your answer: Never. Our worst case scenario is peace. If war ends in Afghanistan, some subset of the Taliban would eventually become fantastically wealthy with the help of foreign mining operations. Nothing good can come from Taliban billionaires. That's the strategic risk that will keep us there forever.

Of all the mineral riches that Afghanistan could have, why oh why did it have to include lithium? Just when I was getting all hopeful about electric cars, which require batteries, which will probably require lithium, we find out that lithium is located where the Taliban poop. What were the odds of that? It's like the plot of a poorly written movie. Meanwhile, the friendly Swiss are being completely useless and producing nothing but chocolate and lederhosen. I will only say this once: I CAN'T RUN MY CAR ON CHOCOLATE!

Strategy-wise, these valuable deposits in Afghanistan are a major problem for U.S. defense. It makes leaving impossible and staying even harder. Any sense of military legitimacy will soon be smothered by talk of economics. If there's one argument that you can be sure will never fly with the American voting public, it goes like this: "Those vast mineral deposits are a total coincidence."

The moral questions in Afghanistan are fascinating. If a country harbors terrorists that attack your country, creating the necessity of invasion at great expense, do you get to keep some of the minerals you find? Or is it fairer that some goat herder or war lord who happens to live above a copper deposit by pure chance gets to become a billionaire while his neighbors starve? Is it moral to establish a thoroughly corrupt Afghan government, which might be the only kind possible, and then leave? I contend that all paths are thoroughly immoral.

If every option is equally immoral, maybe the next filter should be practicality. I say we turn Afghanistan into a corporation, with all of the citizens owning equal shares after the U.S. Treasury carves out its 25% stake of preferred stock. Our military would stay there in a paid security arrangement, transitioning over time to a private operation. The corporate bylaws would require American security personnel for at least 100 years. Sort of like the Swiss Guard and the Vatican.

Afghanistan might never work as a country, but maybe it could work as a corporation. Arguably, the corporate model is what makes China work so well. The Chinese Communist Party reminds me of a corporate structure, where the CEO serves at the pleasure of the board of directors, and building wealth is the main goal. In China, the head guy doesn't have dictator powers. He serves at the pleasure of the Communist Party leaders, and he needs to perform well or they replace him. Some version of that model would probably work a lot better than democracy for Afghanistan.

Yes, I do realize that nothing I write in this blog is factually accurate or remotely practical. Thank you in advance for pointing that out.

 
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What is the most widely read ebook in the world? Interestingly, no one knows the answer to that question. You can find best seller lists for ebooks, which are generally limited to one distributor's numbers for a limited time window. The best seller lists ignore all of the illegal ebook downloads, the free ebooks, the books from the past, and the books from distributors that don't report their numbers. In other words, no one has any way to determine which ebook has been the most widely read in the world. In the future, book best seller lists could become meaningless because the numbers will be too unreliable.

A good guess is that The Bible is the most widely read ebook in the world, and The Book of Mormon is second. Things get tricky when you try to figure out who comes in third. I think there's a good chance that I hold the third position with my book God's Debris.

Yes, I did compare myself to God. But if it makes you feel any better, God won this round.

God's Debris was an ebook before it was a traditional book, and during that time it was a #1 best seller. But that's not the basis for my estimate, because in those days few people bought ebooks. Ten thousand ebook sales would have been considered a blockbuster.

A few years ago I released God's Debris on the Internet for free. Anyone with a computer or smart phone can still download and read it at no cost. The book is designed to be viral, in the sense that it's most fun when passed along to a friend for later discussions.

Here's one free source: http://nowscape.com/godsdebris.pdf

Stephen King got a lot of attention for releasing the "first mass market ebook" called Riding The Bullet. Exact download numbers are sketchy because of a computer crash, but more than 500,000 copies were downloaded. It currently sells for $3.99 for the Kindle. My best guess is that God's Debris has been downloaded and read ten to twenty times more than that number because free is a good price, God's Debris has no DRM, it is a generic PDF file, and it's a viral book by design. Also, the topic in God's Debris tends to appeal to people who have access to the Internet. I think you would download a Stephen King novel if you liked his work, but you would download God's Debris just because it was free and you were mildly curious. Free is a good price.

When you're an author, people like to tell you when they have read your books. The number of times that happens, including email, for a particular book, generally tracks with the sales volume of the book, at least for the books for which I have sales numbers. In other words, the Dilbert book with the highest sales was The Dilbert Principle, and more people have commented to me about that book than any other Dilbert book. And so on down the line. The interesting thing is that I get more comments on God's Debris, both in person and by email, than I get for all of the Dilbert books ever written. That's what makes me suspect that God's Debris could be the most widely read ebook of all time, not counting books authored by The Lord Almighty.

God's Debris is allegedly available on iTunes now as an audiobook. I can't confirm that because iTunes gives me an error when I try to search for it. I don't have much luck with Apple products. Let me know if you can find it.

 

 
The brain makes associations automatically. That's why aversion therapy works. For example, if you want someone to avoid watermelon, inject a foul smelling chemical into a number of slices and have your subject bite into the slices repeatedly. In time, if your subject is willing to continue the experiment, he will develop a strong aversion to watermelon, and you will have successfully programmed him to avoid that particular food in the future.

Associations don't have to be negative. People will enjoy working if they expect it will help them later experience some good feelings in the form of praise or respect. The limit on this form of positive programming is that we mistakenly believe it is a conscious phenomenon, in which people reason that a certain activity will produce a certain positive outcome. I believe rationality is overrated, and thus we miss a huge opportunity. If we could accept that humans are fundamentally irrational, we could program ourselves for higher levels of happiness and productivity than we currently enjoy. Here's how.

Take a volunteer and ask him all of his favorite sensations. This could range from the taste of his favorite food, to foot massages, to sexual stimulation, to warm baths, to his favorite song. Then spend a few weeks showing the volunteer a particular and not-too-common object whenever the positive sensations are applied. For example, you might pick a sock monkey as your object because you don't see them often, and they don't carry with them any sort of special association beyond generic fun. After two weeks of intensely associating sock monkeys with favorite sensations, the volunteer's brain would make a permanent connection. Thereafter, any time he wanted to turn a bad mood into a good mood, he would look at his sock monkey and his brain would execute its happiness subroutine. It's safer and quicker than pharmaceuticals. The only risk is that the volunteer might fall in love with his sock monkey. But I'm not judging.

People who have favorite sports teams know how powerful this sort of programming can be. If you wear the jersey of your favorite team, your brain associates the colors and the logo with the good feelings of watching a game. The rational part of your brain might tell you that you wear the team jersey because you look good in those colors, or you support the team. But I think the real reason is a simple association with the stimulation you feel when watching your team compete. It's an accidental subroutine.

Society would never accept any sort of rigorous programming of humans in the fashion I have suggested, even if the process were fully supported by science. To do so would be to accept a view of ourselves as irrational. And so we miss an easy opportunity for much greater happiness and productivity.

 
The Adams Complexity Threshold is the point at which something is so complicated it no longer works.

The Gulf oil spill is probably a case of complexity reaching the threshold. It was literally impossible for anyone to know if the oil rig was safe or not. The engineering was too complex. I'm sure management thought it was safe, or hoped it was safe, or hallucinated that it was safe. It wasn't possible to know for sure.

Maybe someday we'll learn there was one person who skipped a safety step, but that's exactly the sort of thing you can't get away with in a less complex world, where everyone understands the whole process and can notice a mistake. It's our nature to blame a specific person for a specific screw-up, but complexity is what guarantees mistakes will happen and won't be caught.

Enron is another case of complexity crossing the threshold. No one really understood what Enron was doing, except for a few crooks, and they intentionally used complexity to conceal their treachery. I lived in California when Enron literally made the lights go out, and even the Governor didn't know why.

The financial meltdown, health care, defense spending, our tax code, problems in the Middle East - you name it. They have all become unsolvable because of their complexity. We want to blame individuals for being stubborn or corrupt or even stupid. But the real enemy is complexity.

Complexity is often a natural outgrowth of success. Man-made complexity is simply a combination of things that we figured out how to do right, one layered on top of the other, until failure is achieved.

Try leaving the house with the family. It used to be as simple as getting in the car and driving away. Lately it has become more complicated than the Normandy invasion. You need cell phones, car chargers, iPods, sunglasses, address for the navigation unit, and sweaters, if not layers. Someone needs a snack, and someone needs an Advil. There's something you need to drop off along the way. Remember to stop at a mailbox, then pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, and get gas. Then remember that the iron might be plugged in, and drive back home to check. Repeat.

Recently I got a very cool Garmin watch/GPS device for running. It can do so many things that the interface is unfathomable to me when considered in the context of my busy life. To be clear, I am completely capable of figuring out how to use the device, given enough time and attention, but the complexity of the rest of my life guarantees that this happy day of understanding will never come. So I wore the watch to a party and asked a friend how to activate the distance tracking function. I'll stop my learning there, since that's the main thing I wanted the device for. I have comics to draw and blog posts to write. No more time for Garmin.

It's not an accident that the recent leaders of China have been trained engineers. They've done a great job in an immensely complicated situation. Engineers are trained to deal with complexity.

I wonder if we should start requiring in our leaders a background that shows they can deal with complexity. Lawyers and engineers have that training. I assume that doctors and economists have what it takes. Ironically, a degree in political science alone is probably a red flag that a person might not be suited for the complexities of holding office. Taking it a step further, if your elected representative majored in English, he's probably relying on reflex, polls, superstition or bribery to make his decisions. Good luck with that.

[On another topic, check out my article for the Wall Street Journal that grew out of this blog. It's getting a lot of attention.]



 
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My Google Alert recently picked up a lot of chatter on the Internet about a rumored Dilbert movie in the works. The rumor is ahead of the reality, as the project hasn't been funded, and there isn't yet a director, writer, or actor signed on. But I was fascinated by the reactions of the many movie web sites that weighed in with their opinions on whether it was a good idea to create a Dilbert movie.

What?

Evaluating whether an idea is good enough for a movie is a bit like an automobile expert saying a certain brand of car doesn't taste good. It's absurd. You can only hold the opinion that a particular movie concept is a good or bad idea if you don't understand what a movie is or what an idea is.

For example, here's the world's worst idea for a movie: Titanic. It did okay at the box office.

Movies are good or bad because of execution, not concept. Even outside of the movie realm, ideas generally have no economic value whatsoever, except in rare cases such as when a patent is issued. And even in those cases it's the patent law that creates the value, not the ideas.

The self-appointed movie critics went on to point out that Office Space was already a movie, so there was no room left in the universe for a Dilbert movie. That's a bit like saying there's no point in creating a romantic comedy because someone already did that one. It's a fundamental misunderstanding of what a movie is.

I've long been fascinated by the common human illusion that ideas can be sorted into good and bad, when all experience shows this not to be the case. We could play the game all day long where I describe a simply terrible idea and then tell you about the people who got rich implementing it just right. Let's try a few...

How about a comic strip that is literally a bunch of stick figures? It will be called XKCD and have no discernable characters. Done! It's the most viewed comic on the Internet.

How about a movie about two gay cowboys? Done! Academy Award!

How about a comedic TV show about a Nazi concentration camp? Done! It was called Hogan's Heroes and was a hit in its time.

How about a Broadway musical about a bunch of frickin' cats? Done!

You'd be hard pressed to come up with an idea so bad that it couldn't succeed with the right execution. And it would be even harder to imagine a great idea that couldn't fail if the execution were left to morons.

Ideas are worthless. Execution is everything.

 
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If you're at work, summarize the last conversation (or e-mail) you had prior to reading this post and include all relevant buzzwords. The more mundane the better. Bonus points if your last conversation was completely unintellible when taken out of context. I'll turn one of your entries (maybe more) into a comic.

Don't try to pick the funniest or most ironic conversation. Pick the most recent.

And thank you for doing half of my work today.
 
The Adams Theory of Content Value: As our ability to search for media content improves, the economic value of that content will approach zero.

I heard someplace, albeit unreliably, that 90% of all music that people own for personal use is stolen. Let's agree that the real figure is some large number, if not 90%. And you can already obtain every top-selling book, TV show, and movie on the Internet for free, assuming you don't mind mixing your shopping with your copyright crime sprees. Newspapers, magazines, and comics such as Dilbert have been freely available on the Internet for years.

At the moment, plenty of people still pay for media content. Those reasons will evaporate. Let's consider books. Most people still prefer old-timey tree-based books, but the Kindle and other ebook readers are eating into that preference quickly. I haven't yet heard of anyone buying a Kindle and later returning to a preference for regular paper books. It appears to be a one way ride. The Kindle, and similar devices, are designed for buying legal copies of books, which is a doomed attempt to forestall the inevitability of all media content becoming free.

Now comes the iPad, which is destined to become primarily a criminal tool, and it will cause a change in society the same way that widespread illegal boozing caused a change in Prohibition laws. I'm not saying the changes will be bad, just inevitable.

The iPad has a browsing capability that allows you to see any content on the Internet, legal or not, and consume it from just about anywhere. Once you have an iPad, the only reasons to ever buy physical books, magazines, or newspapers will be:
  1. You might want to read outdoors, where the iPad isn't so good.
  2. You don't want to break the law.
  3. It's still a little bit hard to search for illegal content.
  4. Kindle is cheaper than an iPad.
My guess is that the iPad will someday be easy to read in bright light, perhaps working in concert with your sunglasses of the future. And when Kindle owners begin to factor in the unnecessary cost of books, they will start to see the iPad as a bargain.

Then there's the issue of not wanting to break the law. Every kid understands that stealing is wrong. But ask the average ten-year old about copyright law and watch for the blank stare. Students are taught to freely download copyrighted content from the Internet for school reports, which I understand is legal in the context of education. And at the same time, every school kid is learning from friends that downloading music and movies from the Internet is common practice. Paying for content on the Internet is strictly a generational thing, and it will pass.

Those of you reading this blog are already savvy enough to find and download any content you want for free. But I'll bet the average 40-something user of the Internet still wouldn't know how to search the Internet for criminally free content. At some point, I assume, a Google search for any popular book title will return an illegal source at the top of the page. When that happens, Amazon.com will primarily be selling electronics, household products, and clothes.

I predict that the profession known as "author" will be retired to history in my lifetime, like blacksmith and cowboy. In the future, everyone will be a writer, and some will be better and more prolific than others. But no one will pay to read what anyone else creates. People might someday write entire books - and good ones - for the benefit of their own publicity, such as to promote themselves as consultants, lecturers, or the like. But no one born today is the next multi-best-selling author. That job won't exist.

As an author, my knee-jerk reaction is to assume that the media content of the future will suck because there will be no true professionals producing it. But I think suckiness is solved by better search capabilities. Somewhere out in the big old world are artists who are more talented than we can imagine, and willing to create content for free, for a variety of reasons. And so, as our ability to search for media content improves, the economic value of that content will approach zero.



 

 

 
I'm fascinated by BP's attempts to stop the oil leak, especially today with the Top Kill operation underway. I've had multiple nerdgasms following the story. I mean, seriously, I'm sitting in my home office in California and watching an oil leak a mile below the surface, on a live submarine cam, as scientists try to save the Gulf from destruction. You know this will someday be a movie, and I'll watch it again.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I bought some BP stock recently because I liked the odds that the top engineers and scientists in the solar system, with unlimited funding, presumably somewhat freed from management meddling, could plug a hole. And yes, I averaged down.

I also assumed that the liberal media's coverage of the oil damage would depress the stock more than necessary. It's a catastrophe, no doubt, but even catastrophes have levels. I'm betting the financial damage will be very, very, very bad and not very, very, very, very bad.

This is also a test of my theory that you should buy stocks in the companies that you hate the most. In general, you hate the companies that have the most power. And BP is the frickin' Death Star of companies. They're in the process of destroying an entire region of the world and there's still no talk of cutting their next dividend. I admire them in the same way I admire the work ethic of serial killers. There's an undeniable awesomeness about BP. I hate BP, but I still want to have their baby.

Note: Do not take stock advice from cartoonists who want to have babies with oil companies.

 
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The other day I did something I haven't done in about ten years. I watched a new episode of The Simpsons as it was being broadcast, commercials and all. Normally I would record it. So let's say there have been 230 episodes of The Simpsons in the past ten years, and I watched only one of them live.

This particular episode featured the judges from American Idol as themselves. American Idol is one of my favorite shows. So let's say there are a few hundred shows on television, and maybe five of them qualify as "one of my favorites." That coincidence is probably why I didn't flip the channel. I was interested in seeing how the American Idol judges and Ryan Seacrest did with their voice work.

On the show, the animated version of Ellen, voiced by the real Ellen, goes into one of her signature rambles that seems to be going nowhere and surprises you by being funny. The gist of it was that someone was a nut, which makes her think of Filberts, which makes her think of Dilbert, which (she said) is a funny comic if you work in a cubicle.

I imagine that most of you don't know what it feels like to be watching television while it is watching you back, sort of. It's creepy as all hell. It literally makes it hard to believe that reality isn't scripted.

But wait, it gets better. What you don't know is that Ellen is the TV show I've tried hardest to appear on, for book publicity reasons, without any luck. I'm not famous enough to be booked on that sort of show as a celebrity, so I had pitched the idea of some sort of Pictionary contest in which I would be a contestant, as a ringer, and that would be the joke. But that idea never got any traction with Ellen's producers.

Also by coincidence, Ellen's wife, Portia, stars on a TV show called Better Off Ted. Critics often compare the show to Dilbert, which as most of you know has a main character called Generic Ted, who looks a lot like the TV Ted. Last season, the show asked for permission to make some extended references to Dilbert in an episode. I was happy to agree. So Ellen's wife said "Dilbert" on national TV before Ellen did. To my knowledge, that is the first couple to ever both utter the word "Dilbert" on television.

The other day I was thinking about all of the coincidences involved in hearing Ellen mention Dilbert on The Simpsons. I wondered if it was interesting enough to turn into a blog entry. As I pondered the question, the pigeons living under my office eves, or maybe they live in my attic, starting their loud cooing routine that drives me crazy. So I turned on my office TV to its loudest setting for a few minutes, which usually shuts them up so I can work. And what's on TV?

Our cable provider has music channels. While the music plays, a picture of the artist is displayed on screen. It was Ne-Yo, and the song was Closer. I have seen Ne-Yo perform that song exactly once. It was on Ellen.

Okay, okay, skeptics. I know that the math of life guarantees a bounteous harvest of coincidences. And some of those strings of coincidences might form what looks like a theme. Let's agree that it's not magic. But let's also agree that if you suddenly have the ability to fly, the smart money says you're dreaming. You can only have so many unlikely events in your life before you reject the reality hypothesis.

My particular coincidence theme in life involves television. The Ellen incident is one of many for me. The usual form of the coincidence is that something unusual will happen to me during the day, such as being bitten by a squirrel, and the first TV show I watch that night will be about a cartoonist who is bitten by a squirrel. It happens so often that it's a running joke with my wife.

And so I wonder, does television track your life as well? Or is it just me?

 
The winner of The Attention Contest is Lukeout. I have edited his piece and republished it below. I gave it a heavy edit, but no more than a magazine editor would do for an unknown writer. I found the piece to be interesting, inspiring, and to the point. That's rare.

You probably wonder why I didn't pick one of the entries that had far more reader votes. I rejected bathroom humor, anything that seemed dated, anything that seemed familiar (derivative), and anything that couldn't be brought to a professional level with editing.

I agree that the top vote-getters were quite fun and funny. Good job. And thank you to all who entered.

And now the winner...

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

Pick up the Phone

I was a 24-year old, third-shift chemist, living in a tiny town in Pennsylvania, dreaming of being a hobby game designer - for games such as Warhammer, and Magic the Gathering.

One day, by a freak of randomness, I was asked to play-test a game that was being designed by a local artist. I arrived at the artist's studio, and took a seat with a few other play-testers. As the night progressed, I learned that this artist, Keith Parkinson, was not only a nice guy, but also famous and important. Keith was an icon of fantasy art awesomeness. I learned that his art appeared on some of the best fantasy and sci-fi products ever made. Over the course of the night, the pressure of working with a legend began to sink in. The situation was intimidating, even though he couldn't have been a nicer guy. I found it strange and fascinating that his fame had such an effect on me.

Unfortunately, his game was terrible. The characters were great, but the mechanics just weren't up to snuff. That night, I wrote up six pages of notes on how to make his game better. It was a brutal review. The next day, I read over my notes and decided to call Keith, to see if I could stop by and go over my thoughts. This was far beyond what was expected of a play tester. I was scared to death to make the call. I must have stared at the phone for fifteen minutes before dialing.

Keith answered and was receptive to hearing my feedback. I was in his studio delivering my bad review within an hour. Within two hours, he had offered me a job helping with his game. That was sixteen years ago. I've been happily working as a game designer ever since.

Keith died a few years back, and I miss him greatly. Whenever I look at two of his paintings that proudly hang in my office, I'm reminded to pick up the phone when I have something useful to say, no matter if the news is good or bad, and no matter to whom I'm delivering it. I'm also sure to listen when someone calls me with something to say. Keith showed me that there's more to art than what hangs on the wall.

--------

The latest game designed (and sometimes marketed) by the author is called Bakugan, published by Spin Master.

 
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