If there's a theme to my blog posts, it's something along the lines of Complexity is Killing Us. The complexity of investment options is why you're afraid to put your money anywhere but inside an old sock. Complexity is why the healthcare system in the United States is apparently unfixable. Complexity is why scientists can't convince a large segment of the public to believe in evolution or global warming. Complexity is why your computer spends all morning begging you for updates instead of just doing what-the-frakk you want it to do. And lately, I've noticed that routine conversations have become too complicated.

In simpler times, I imagine conversations went like this:

Nobleman: "Hey, peasant, would you like a potato?"

Peasant: "Does it come with a beating?"

Nobleman: "A brief one. My arms are tired."

Peasant: "Then yes, I would like a potato."

These days, there's no such thing as a simple conversation. When you get a business call, it might start with a history of the industrial age, a complete explanation of some sort of technology, an exposition of budgetary limitations, a verbal sketch of the characters, a briefing on the politics of the situation, with a full accounting of the timing, the risks, the opportunity, so on. Sometimes you want to know all of that stuff, and you have the time to listen. Other times, you already have the information, or you don't have time to listen, or you're the wrong person. That's when you have to go for the interrupt. And interrupting is getting harder every year.

Thanks to complexity, and the impact it has on people's schedules, if you get a person's attention, you want to take advantage of it before your listener gets into an automobile accident, or has to run for another meeting, or his kid starts vomiting, or he simply can't hold his bladder one more minute. Your best strategy is to prevent the other person from talking - not a single peep - until you have said every last thing that you called to say. I believe this is a modern phenomenon. My guess is that in olden days it was customary to pause in your fire-hose-monologue now and then to let the other person ask for clarification, make a point, or just sigh. Now any pause introduces an unacceptable risk of a failed phone call. The interrupter's job is harder than ever.

I have experimented with ways to interrupt the fire-hose-monologue without seeming rude, but social conventions haven't evolved fast enough to provide a polite solution. So far, the best I have come up with is some variant on "Can I interrupt you?" But it always feels as if I just called someone a time-wasting windbag. And I've tried "Whoa, whoa," but it feels as if I'm scolding a horse.

I propose a new custom for interrupting when it's absolutely necessary. Make a beeping sound like a garbage truck when it backs up. That way it won't seem so personal. Try it and let me know how that works out for you.

Regular economics involves someone starting a company and then hiring people to fill positions. That seems like a sensible model. But I wonder if the Internet gives us a way to flip that around, at least in times of high unemployment.

Imagine a web site in which the unemployed, and underemployed, can register their skills and the sorts of jobs they would be willing to do. The site then suggests the sort of business that would fit in a particular community based on the available pool of labor.

This is suboptimal, you say, and you are right.  Labor is only one of many factors in deciding where to start a business. So let me constrain the model further. Suppose the initial investor is the government, and the sorts of businesses are only the types that are good for the country: health, education, and energy.

Yes, yes, the government screws up everything it touches. But imagine you can solve that by having each business run by qualified business people who have a profit motive. The government would be the funding source, set a few high level rules, and otherwise stay out of the mix.

The reason I suggest government funding is that unlike a private investor, the government can make a huge return on a business that simply breaks even, assuming all of the employees pay income taxes. Plus you have the ripple effect on vendors to the company, and the benefit of reducing unemployment. In other words, where a private company might chase only low hanging fruit, the government can nibble from the top of the tree and still enjoy a sizeable return on investment.

On the health side, we know that proper exercise lowers healthcare costs. Imagine the government setting up a virtual company in your community that involves the formerly unemployed acting as personal trainers and activity directors for the rest of the community. To simplify things, sometimes all you need is a soccer ball, some space, and a person willing to organize a game, and suddenly 22 people are having a great time and getting healthy too. Would they all pay five bucks per game? Probably. And one person could organize several games a day. If the government is involved, there are no insurance issues because a government can simply make it a law that you can't sue it.

If soccer isn't your thing, substitute a running club, boot camp training, tai chi, basketball, biking, or whatever.

For education, imagine all of the skills that the current unemployed possess and would be able to transfer, if only there were a company to organize them. There's a huge demand for student tutoring. In my area, the kids who are struggling use tutors, and the kids who are doing well also use tutors to get an advantage for college. Tutors charge up to $40 per hour.

Now extend the education model to adults. There is an almost unlimited demand for adult education, ranging from reading to language to public speaking to technology. In an era of high unemployment, there are plenty of people with the skills to teach almost anything.

In the area of energy, the government could form businesses around photovoltaic installations. A benefit of this model is that it requires both blue collar and white collar workers. As long as there are roofs, the market is unlimited. And the government could make the product free to homeowners by fronting the cost and mandating that the local power companies pay off the systems over ten years, keeping some of the excess energy generated for profit. The government's return would be huge because, again, they reap the income taxes from the people they employ right away, while recouping all of their investment in ten years.

I'm just throwing out some ideas without thinking them through too carefully. That's what I do in this blog. The main point is that the government could use the Internet to organize businesses around education, health, and energy, and make huge returns, thanks to income taxes, and improved health and education of the citizens.

What I find most compelling about this notion is that the unemployed presumably imagine only a few types of jobs they could fill. But almost anyone who is employable in general could work in at least one of the job areas I just described, and none of it is digging ditches. As the economy improves, people can move on to careers that are more to their liking.

I decided to not delete all of the crazy Canadian stalker comments coming in today so you could see what I have been dealing with for about seven years. Just sit back and watch. It's fascinating in its own way. Her comments are on the strip page as well as here.

She might change her user name from Stigmada sometime today, but it will be pretty obvious which comments are hers.
Yesterday I decided to make some man points. (-1 for knowing I need them.) Recently we purchased online a big metal rack to hold free weights. (+1). The delivery guy left the package outside the door when we were gone. I wasn't strong enough to carry it inside. (-1 for having no upper body strength.) So I tipped it on its end and "walked" it into the garage. (+1 for using science to move a heavy object.)

The rack required assembly. This was a problem because all of my tools had been stolen from the garage last week. (-1 for leaving tools unprotected. -1 for having so few tools that they all fit in one basket. -1 for not replacing them the same day. -1 for not having an attack dog in the garage.)

The main tool I needed was a rather huge Allen wrench. I didn't own that sort of tool even in the days when I had tools. (-1 for inadequate toolage.) So I dropped everything, jumped in the car, and headed to Home Depot for a tool buying spree. (+1 for going on a hunt for tools. -1 for calling it a spree. +1 for intending to buy tools for which I had no immediate use.

As soon as I got to Home Depot I asked a guy who was wearing an orange apron for directions to the men's room and the tool aisle. (-1 for asking directions. -1 for having a bladder like a pregnant woman. -1 for not already knowing where the tool aisle was at my local Home Depot.)

I saw a display of hammers and acted as if I were evaluating them by lifting each one and giving it a mock motion toward, in no particular order, a nail, a victim, and beer can. I quickly found that I can't tell the difference between a good hammer and bad one. (-5). I went down the row and tossed screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, drill bits, and anything else that looked remotely useful in my cart. At the checkout counter I grabbed two Snickers and worried that maybe I'm eating too much chocolate lately. (-1)

Back home, fully tooled, I discovered that the bench was apparently used, or at least beat up pretty badly. I considered sending it back. (-1) But in the end I figured that it would just get banged up in a week anyway, so no big deal. (+3) I commenced assembly.

My first problem is that there were no step-by-step assembly instructions, just a picture of the parts along with arrows as to where they should end up. (-1 for wishing I had step-by-step directions.)  I reckoned I needed a crew of four to hold the shelves and the ends in place so I could tighten the bolts with my brand new oversized Allen wrench. (-1 for needing help.) All of the pieces of the shelf were steel and very heavy, so you couldn't hold it together with one hand while applying bolts with the other. And my garage was not outfitted with oversized clamps. (-1 for having no oversized clamps.) I considered asking Shelly for help. But if you need help from your wife at this stage of a project, you might as well use the box cutter you just bought at Home Depot to remove your own nards and keep them in a jar in the kitchen, on the spice rack between the cumin and the bay leaves. (-1 for being able to name two spices.) So I stood and stared at the various components of my potential weight rack and rotated the pieces in my mind until I could imagine a set of steps that would make a team of helpers unnecessary. (+1.)

It worked. Not only had I purchased the correct tools (+1), but I figured out a way to tilt and prop the bench parts in just the right way to make it a one-man(ish) job. Now all I needed to do was vacuum some debris left from the packaging and it was a job well done. And for that I needed...my Shop-Vac. (+1 for having a Shop-Vac.)

The Shop-Vac stared at me from across the garage. It was a Medusa-like tangle of power cord, hose tentacle, and attachments. I would need to move it nearly ten feet without strangling myself, losing an eye, or breaking an ankle. This time I wasn't afraid. My testosterone was spiked from assembling the weight rack, and from being around lots of new tools. For once, this would be a fair fight. I grabbed the Shop-Vac's hose, it countered by dropping an attachment on my foot. I yanked its power cord, and it swung around and knocked over a screen. When I went to save the falling screen, just as the Shop-Vac planned, the hose wiggled out of my hand and wiped the tool bench clean of all items weighing less than a pound. Oh, now I was in it. Soon the air was filled with curses and the sounds of screaming wheels on concrete. There were arms and hoses and cords everywhere. I moved the Shop-Vac five feet and dared to imagine victory. Then I remembered that the vacuum bag wasn't inside the Shop-Vac, because someone had borrowed the monster to vacuum water. Oh God, I would have to open it.

I ripped off its top and cleaned its insides, all the while afraid it would regain consciousness before the operation was complete, and go all Doctor Octopus on my ass. All I needed to do was slip the bag hole frame thing into a slot where the hose meets the Shop-Vac torso and I would be done. But I couldn't quite get it to fit. I tried once, twice, three times. It looked so simple, but somehow the Shop-Vac found a way to resist. I tried a 25th time, then a 26th.

After approximately the 50th unsuccessful attempt, and after a hole formed in the only vacuum bag I possessed, things went dark. I beat the Shop-Vac to death on the concrete floor, then picked up the pieces and put them in a pile as a warning to the other tools. (+10)

The broom and dustpan decided to give me no resistance.


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Curiosity is one of the most underrated phenomena in the world. It's ironic that people aren't more curious about curiosity. It's a powerful thing.

For example, if you ever wondered if someone is attracted to you, the answer lies in curiosity. If someone asks personal questions about your past, your plans, your likes and dislikes, that is an unambiguous sign of attraction. If someone tries to steer you into the bedroom without some conspicuous data gathering, that is a sign of simple horniness.

The friend variety of attraction is milder than the lover type. You can be friends with someone for years without remembering the names of his or her siblings. But if you love someone, you automatically develop a voracious appetite for information about that person.

When someone you are not attracted to talks a lot about his or her own life, you get bored to death. When someone you are attracted to talks a lot, you might find that person to be full of life, and fascinating. Attraction and curiosity are inseparable.

Let's say you're interviewing for a job. You wonder if the interviewer is attracted to you as a potential employee or just going through the motions. Look for the curiosity trail. If his questions are all of the typical variety, he's probably just moving through the steps. If you sense some questions that veer off the normal path, such as asking where you like to golf, you almost certainly have something more.

If you're trying to sell something, it is useful to judge how much the other party really wants your product. Look for curiosity. If the potential buyer says nice generic things about a product, it's not as good an indicator as if he asks a series of questions, especially if the questions include some that don't seem important to the decision. In poker terms, questions about relatively unimportant aspects of a product are the buyer's tell.

A good book conspicuously manipulates your curiosity. The writer develops a character that you are attracted to, and then creates a series of situations in which it is not obvious how things will turn out. The Harry Potter books written by J.K. Rowling are a sensational example of that simple formula. Harry is young, and kind, and cute with his glasses and mop of hair. And he's an orphan. In our culture, Harry comes as close as you can get to the sort of person that almost anyone would like. That's the first part of the formula. Then Rowling ends each chapter with a tease of danger to come, making you wait a chapter or more to find out how things will turn out for Harry. Rowling became a billionaire by manipulating the connection between attraction and curiosity.

Movie studios know how important it is to feature likeable stars in their movies. It compensates for bad writing, bad directing, and bad everything else. If you are attracted to the lead actor, your curiosity is activated. It doesn't take a lot of movie magic to make you interested in what will happen to Sandra Bullock. As soon as she appears on screen you start getting curious about her because she's so likeable.

Curiosity is rarely faked simply because people aren't generally aware that it is such a reliable indicator of attraction. Once you learn to recognize the connection between attraction and curiosity, it's like having a mild form of ESP.

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There's a fine line between crazy and entrepreneurial. If you bark at the moon to make it go away, you are considered crazy. But if you start a business for which there is less than a 5% chance of success, you are considered an entrepreneur.

If you feel the need to turn a light switch on and off exactly seven times before leaving a room, you have OCD. If you need to run exactly five miles every day before breakfast to feel right, you are considered disciplined and athletic.

On one hand, it is clearly different to engage in activities that have no practical value versus ones that do. Or ones that might. But what if the reason you engage in practical activities has nothing to do with your ability to reason, and everything to do with being lucky that your particular brand of crazy has some utility? That blurs the line.

I often think I was one lucky break away from being the crazy uncle who couldn't stop drawing pictures. For me, drawing was as much a compulsion as a career decision. From my earliest age, I drew on everything that would stand still. It's an extraordinary bit of luck that my compulsion turned out to be practice.

Warren Buffett modestly says he was lucky that his brain is wired in a way that suits the times. A few hundred years ago he would have been the crazy peasant who was always talking about ways to increase crop production if only he had the capital.

A Muslim, a Christian, and a crazy guy walk into a room. The one thing you can know for sure is that at least two out of three of them organize their lives around things that aren't real. And that's the best case scenario. Atheists would say all three have some explaining to do. And atheists are the minority, which is the very definition of abnormal.

My wife and I often have very different recollections of events. And not just the little details. Sometimes our shared memories don't even feature the same mammals, themes, or points. The scary part is that we don't realize these differences until we have some reason to compare memories, which doesn't come up that often. Every now and then there will some independent way to verify whose memory is accurate, and it is sobering to discover how many of the problems are on my end. A lot of my so-called life is apparently a patchwork of delusions.

The best you can hope for in this life is that your delusions are benign and your compulsions have utility.

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I got a strong reaction when I criticized Gmail's interface. A few people mentioned that you can activate hot keys so you can just press the r key to reply. Fair enough. I burrowed into the Settings and activated the hot key feature. It was a good idea, but nothing happens when I press r. You'll tell me this is a case of operator error, which obviously it is, and that is my point. Why is it so easy for the operator to make an error?

Someone mentioned that clicking the big unlabeled white box under the message is one of several ways to initiate a reply. I had always wondered why that big white space was there. This invites the obvious question WTF? How is a user supposed to know that a big unlabeled white space is a reply button, especially when it is right below the button labeled REPLY that seems to do the trick all by itself? And that REPLY button is not to be confused with the other REPLY button at the upper right, which brings me to my next point.

You might think that having more than one REPLY button would make it easier to find at least one of them. After all, two is better than one. But that's not how your brain is wired. Allow me to give my favorite overused example from writing:

If you say, "The ball was hit by the boy," it means exactly the same as "The boy hit the ball." But the first example makes your brain work harder to untangle the meaning. You're wired to first figure out who is the subject, then figure out what that person is doing. As a writer, you try to be conscious of anything that makes the reader work too hard. Likewise, as an interface designer, you presumably do the same thing. To that end, I want just ONE way to reply to email, damn it. If there is more than one way, I have to make a decision. That's working too hard. I'm no interface design expert, but I have to think that putting two buttons with overlapping functions on the same page is a "don't."

One commenter on this blog confessed to being the designer for the Gmail interface and listed his credentials. Assuming that message came from a real person, and I think it did, I am forced to reassess my sweeping statement that no qualified person worked on the interface design. Now my assumption is that there was a management failure. Either Google didn't do usability testing on civilians, perhaps because of budget or timing issues, or management interfered with the design in some other way. That's my best guess.

A number of people snarkily noted that there are usability issues with Dilbert.com. Of course there are. We don't do formal usability testing, as it would be cost-prohibitive, and it could take months. So we fix the big bugs and save up the usability comments for the next revision. Inevitably the new version introduces new confusions while fixing the last ones. I imagine that 99% of web sites are designed without rigorous usability testing in a lab setting.

One of my corporate jobs, in my previous life at the phone company, involved working closely with Pacific Bell's Usability Testing Lab, so I got to see how useful that process was. A highly qualified interface designer can only get you halfway to where you want to be. You need usability testing for the second half. The Gmail interface looks half done to me.

Today I went on a scavenger hunt. Specifically I was trying to find the "reply" button on my Gmail interface. The damn thing keeps moving, depending on the length of the message. And it's pretty well hidden in a forest of 40-some buttons sprinkled around the page that do all sorts of things I rarely or never want to do. Three of those buttons are different ways to get you back to the inbox.

To be fair, Gmail is lightning fast, and free. But did anyone with training in interface design even look at Gmail before it launched?

The Reply button has a left arrow next too it. The forward button has a right arrow. Would it kill Google to let me use the left and right arrow keys on my keyboard to do those functions, given that they already teased me about it?

I won't say the interface design is bad, because that would imply that someone in the relevant field actually tried to make it user friendly. It looks to me as if that step got skipped.

I mentioned in this blog the other day that my new elevator for my house needed repair. It's actually a terrific product, and the repair person was there the next day making a very minor repair (some sort of door sensing magnet came loose) and I was all set. It was all covered under warranty. Best yet, they tried to talk me through a fix on the phone, just to see if it was a case of user error or a simple reboot situation. That part was all good.

Then I got a call from the elevator's service and warranty department, I presume. The representative asked if I had seen information on their service contract. I said I had, and I would consider it when my two year warranty expired. That's when things started to go bad.

The rep explained that the warranty is void unless I get the elevator serviced twice a year, even if the problem I experience has nothing to do with maintenance upkeep.


So my option was to call them to do regular service twice a year, which would cost about $800 per year, depending on what minor things they needed to lube or poke or whatnot. And I would have to remember to schedule the visits. They wouldn't remind me, out of spite I presume. If I forget to have it serviced, my warranty is void.

Or, the rep explained, I could get a $1,700 service contract for two years and they will do all the regular service and repairs for me. In other words, if I pay $1,700 they will honor their two year warranty.

It gets better. The rep explained that if I pay for a service contract during my warranty period, they will give me a discounted service contract after the warranty is over, an offer that I can't get if I wait. In other words, I will pay MORE per year for service during my warranty period than after.

This is another example of Not Even Trying. I would have looked favorably on the service contract if it had been packaged in less of a f*^$#-you way. Now I actually prefer to pay more, if needed, just so I don't feel like I got jail raped.


Last month I asked you to tell me why your project at work, whatever it is, appears to be doomed. Many of your comments became the seeds of Dilbert comics. You might have recognized them.

That experiment worked so well that it's time to try a variation. Tell me in the comments what upcoming activity at work you are most dreading, and why. Dread is funny. Be sure to use the word dread in your comment.

As you know, most problems in life are caused by sadists, nut bags, and imbeciles. Be sure to label your peers appropriately in your tale of dread.

Thank you!
Last night I realized I was whining too much in this blog about products that don't work. So I decided to write today's post about a product that exceeded my expectations. We designed our home with a residential elevator. We didn't want to go through all the effort of building our dream home and then decades from now need to move when stairs become an issue. I was worried about having an elevator because it seems like exactly the sort of thing that will break on a regular basis. Last night I realized my negative expectations had been wrong. I need to lighten up. That elevator has worked like a charm, and we use it all the time for moving heavy objects up and down stairs.

So, as I'm walking across the living room last night, composing in my mind today's post in praise of the elevator, Shelly tells me the elevator is broken. And so it is. I'll have to call someone about that today. So I changed my plan and decided to write about my broken elevator instead. (Every word of that is true, by the way. I was literally composing the elevator praise post in my head when it broke.)

This morning I woke up at 6 AM and walked the dog as usual. I should mention that we designed the house with an automatic dog door, which functions as advertised, except it scares the bejeezus out of little Snickers and causes her to poop in the kids' rooms. So I walk her instead. In the rain.

After the dog does her business, I visit our spiffy new coffee maker. It's terrific. I push one button and it grinds the beans, mixes it with fresh water (it's plumbed!) and produces a steaming cup of excellent java. Except lately it has only been spitting out something like brown dishwater, which I drink anyway, for the placebo effect. Today I decided to take action. So after half an hour with the manual, I corrected a setting that had somehow unraveled itself, as if by ghosts. (Yes, the coffeemaker has a setting that allows you to create brown dishwater instead of something more like coffee. I'm not clear why.)

Coffee in hand, I go to my computer to start writing. But my computer decided to reboot itself last night, against my will, for some sort of Windows update. And it locked up. So I do a hard boot. And wait. And wait. And wait, while the creative juices slowly drain from my body. Once rebooted, I try to start Firefox. And I wait, and I wait. I like to check the comments on my daily strip before I do anything else. Great, I see that my Canadian stalker is back in full force, leaving crazy comments, driving out the normals. She's been cyberstalking me for about seven years now, off and on, whenever she goes off meds. She likes to call anyone I do business with and tell them I've been sexually harassing her, sending goons to search her home, bugging her phone, and my favorite: using my comic strip as a way to send secret messages to her. The police can't help me because she's Canadian. We block her IP address on a regular basis, but she keeps changing machines.

Anyway, seven years is enough. I'm in a bad mood. So as of today, I'm declaring her my mascot. Yes, stalker, this time I am talking directly to you. For the first time, it's not the voices in your head. Leave some good crazy comments that we can all enjoy.

My strategy is to get you so wound up that your husband, if you still have one, puts you back on your meds. Nothing else has worked. Let's try this.

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