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I fantasize about running for President, but in the same way I fantasize about being Batman. I wouldn't want either job, but it's fun to think about how I'd handle certain situations. One situation that pops up all the time is when a reporter asks a candidate to respond to his opponent's campaign promises to do the impossible. My fantasy answer would be "My opponent thinks voters are stupid."


The great thing about that answer is that it would generate world headlines. Second, it would resonate as being honest and accurate. You'd have to make sure you weren't making unrealistic promises yourself, and that's the hard part. But it would be a killer line.


Calling your opponent names, like flip-flopper, clearly works to some extent. But telling voters that your opponent thinks THEY are stupid would work even better, especially if it is clearly true that he thinks that.


I've also been working on good sound bites for both Obama and McCain. Obama's sound bite is easy. He took heat for suggesting a specific timetable for withdrawal before he had visited Iraq and talked to the generals. That seemed dumb. Then he made the best political move I have ever seen, by saying a President has to see the bigger picture, so generals in Iraq can't be the ones to determine when we leave. Agree with him or not, it was a brilliant political move. He needs to capture that in a soundbite: "Generals fight wars. Presidents make peace." It sounds like universal wisdom. That's a good sound bite.


Now that the Iraqi Prime Minister wants the U.S. to leave on Obama's timetable, McCain's biggest issue is gone. Even if you think McCain was right about the surge, it is no longer relevant to the election. No one cares that an old guy once made a good decision. The average voter doesn't know enough about economics to make the economy a powerful issue for McCain, and it's too late for him to start hammering on social issues. So McCain's sound bite needs to be something vague yet persuasive. I suggest: "Do voters prefer words or actions?"


The great part of that sound bite is that everyone is programmed to automatically prefer words to action. And to the extent that Obama is viewed as a great orator, and McCain is seen as more of a man of action, you start thinking the sound bite actually means something. And phrasing the sound bite as a question forces the listener to automatically answer it, thus reinforcing it in the irrationsl part of the brain. It is the political equivalent of "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit." It sounds like a reason to the unreasonable part of your brain, which unfortnately makes most of your decisions.


The other sound bite I have been thinking about wouldn't work for the election, but it's funny: "Change is good until it's your turn to be the diaper."


Do you have a better sound bite for this election?


[Disclaimer: I don't think either candidate meets the minimum standard to be president. And I won't have a preference until I complete a poll of economists that I'm working on now.]

 
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I spend a lot of time trying to concoct arguments that are so persuasive that even a hardcore unreachable will say, "Golly. Not only was I wrong, but probably stupid as well, and perhaps a little bit insane. I now adopt your viewpoint as my own. Would you like a bite of my sandwich?"

My favorite fantasy in this genre is imagining what I could say to a kid that would make him think he should substitute his own judgment for mine. My fantasy argument goes like this:Kid: Can I climb on the roof?


Me: No. You'd get hurt.

Kid: I'll be careful. And my friend Brian climbs on his roof all the time. He never falls off.

Now at this point you realize that regular reasoning isn't going to win the day. You have to resort to the "Because I said so" fall-back, but while effective, that never seems like a clean win to me. To the kid it appears you don't have a good reason and you're just being an ass about it. That's why I fantasize about the rest of the discussion going this way:

Me: Do you know who invented the roof?

Kid: No.

Me: It wasn't a kid. In fact, nothing important has ever been invented by a kid. Do you know why that is?

Kid: I don't care.

Me: It's because your brain won't be fully developed until sometime in your twenties.

Kid: I'm not listening TRA-LA-LA-LA-LA!!!

Me: You don't understand why you can't go on the roof because your brain isn't developed enough to understand the risk involved.

Kid: You suck. I hate you.

Me: I'll make you a deal. If you can find anything in this house that was invented by a kid, I'll admit that kids know as much as adults and you can climb on the roof. Use my computer, which incidentally was invented by adults. Go nuts.

(seven hours later)

Kid: Golly. Not only was I wrong, but probably stupid as well, and perhaps a little bit insane. I now adopt your viewpoint as my own. Would you like a bite of my sandwich?

Me: Thanks, but the last time you washed your hands was in amniotic fluid.

 
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Dogs
Jul 25, 2008 | General Nonsense | Permalink
I have not spent much time around dogs, so our new puppy is quite a learning experience. For example, I have learned to exist in a sleepless stupor that is neither living nor dead. My IQ has dropped about 60 points and I find myself forming strong opinions on topics I don't understand.

Puppies are essentially little factories that take in small pellets and convert the raw material into barking and poop. My job, as foreman of the factory, is to make sure the output happens in the designated grassy area. I'm sure I would have gotten a bad performance review yesterday, as little Snickers delivered a pallet of product behind the dining room table and decided it was a chew toy. I got the roll of paper towels, placed it near the hazardous waste area, and left to get my hazmat suit and chemicals. This was a mistake. When I returned, one minute later, the roll of paper towels had been beavered into confetti. The dining room floor looked like New Year's Eve in Times Square, assuming the mirrored ball is actually an exploding turd.

I have watched enough episodes of The Dog Whisperer to know that I must establish myself as the alpha dog. I do this by trying not to cry when she bites me. I think it is working. Yesterday when she took me for a walk, I saw a leaf and didn't pick it up with my mouth. And I'm getting used to wearing the harness.

I had no idea that a dog would become the organizing principle for the household. From now on, all decisions are based on what is best for the dog. I was already lowest on the family hierarchy behind my wife, kids, and cats. This latest demotion stings. I have tried to adjust to the situation by merging in my mind the concept "what I want to do" with the concept "things that won't happen." My strategy is to wait it out. A dog lives what, 15 years? I tell myself I can do that time standing on my head. Wearing a harness.
 
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A judge in New Zealand ruled that parents can't name their kid Talula Does The Hula.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080724/ap_on_re_au_an/new_zealand_bizarre_names


This makes me wonder what would be the very worst name you could give a kid to guarantee he or she gets beat up three times a day. You can play at home. How about...


Yormoms Uskank


Awanna Feelya


Punchme Hardasyucan


Inailed Yursister


Whatsituyu Ayhole

 
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Yesterday I nearly killed a million people. It was a close call.

It all started as I sat in front of my drawing workstation and wondered how to finish a comic. The best solution I could come up with involved mocking Microsoft's Vista operating system. While I have no personal gripe with Vista, I know that many of my readers do, so it would have been a popular strip. After years of cartooning, I have a good sense of which comics will end up on cubicle walls and be passed around the Internet. This one would have been huge.

I wrote the line and leaned back, admiring my work. Then I had the "Holy crap!" moment. If I mock Vista, and it has an impact on Microsoft stock value, then Bill Gates will have a few billion dollars less to spend on humanitarian projects. Therefore, the comic could end up killing a million people. Those people are all strangers, but still.

I deleted the reference to Vista and went another direction.

I know what you're thinking. You think that a Dilbert comic isn't going to influence Microsoft's earnings. But what you don't know is that Dilbert has been used in several court cases where an attorney tried to demonstrate the date when obscure technical issues became "common knowledge" and therefore something that a reasonable person should know. The importance in the court cases is that a defendant couldn't claim ignorance about something that is so widely known it can be included in a Dilbert comic without explanation. If a Dilbert comic mocks Vista, the criticism transforms into "common knowledge" and could influence Mac versus Windows buying decisions.

Okay, granted, it is unlikely a Dilbert comic would have any impact on Microsoft. But given the non-zero risk that I could end up killing a million people, I decided to go another direction with the comic.

When those people I saved yesterday solve their malaria issue and get some food, I hope they chip in to buy me a card to say thanks.
 
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I always appreciate progress bars that tell me my software is hard at work on my behalf. Any time I have to wait without a progress bar it makes me feel anxious. If I'm expected to be bored and unproductive for a minute or two, I want reassurances that something good is happening behind the scenes.

The other day I was wondering if there could be a better kind of progress bar than the usual ones I always see. Could the progress bar simultaneously assure you it is working, give you a time estimate for completion, and also entertain you in some minimal way?

Naturally my first thought went to Dilbert characters, properly licensed of course. Imagine a progress bar that involved Dogbert using a mallet to pound the Pointy-Haired Boss into the ground; the deeper he goes, the less time left to wait.

Or imagine Dilbert giving you a non-stop series of compliments corresponding to each level of completion, such as "You look nice today," and "I think you are smarter than your co-workers." The compliments would be shallow and random, but I'll bet it would hold your attention. The same model could be used with Dogbert as a fortune teller, giving you fake predictions that do nothing but make you feel good, e.g. "Today is your lucky day."

Or imagine a standard progress bar that goes from left to right, but a Dilbert character puts on a cowboy hat, straddles the bar like a horse, and kicks it jockey style any time it slows down. That would make me happy because I get angry at the progress bar when it stalls. I'd like to see it get kicked.

I would also happily read famous quotes or answer trivia questions streamed to me from some external source. It would add a tiny delay, but the payoff would be worth it. A minute of entertainment is better than 58 seconds of boredom even if you are in a hurry.

Perhaps a Dilbert comic could be the progress bar. It reveals itself from left to right as the job is being completed. The humor wouldn't work because the timing would be ruined, but it would hold your attention just to see how it ends.

Suppose you could choose your mood before any action that requires a progress bar, and the progress bar would be based on that choice. If you say you are in an angry mood, you might see Dogbert pummeling someone while you wait. If you are in a relaxed mood, maybe Ratbert suns himself and stretches, just looking cute and goofy.

Got any ideas for progress bars? (Yes, someone might steal your idea and make a fortune. But realistically, were you going to pursue it?)
 
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I plan to put solar panels on my new home when it gets built, which is bad for my wallet but good for the world. The world benefits because I will be generating about as much electric energy as I use, for once. I lose because if I could wait about three years before installing the system, the cost will probably drop so much that I will have a faster payoff. It's probably a difference of some tens of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately for me, but good for you, I'm obligated to start right away because solar panels were a condition of approval from the city, and that won't change. Nor should it. I'm helping to drive down the cost for the next person.

I was reminded of this when I heard about Al Gore's ambitious recommendation that we should attempt to generate all electricity from green sources in ten years. Many experts believe that timetable is too ambitious.

What do you think?

It is safe to assume the federal government will be more hindrance than help. Any real progress will come from brilliant individuals inventing things, funded by super rich investors. I can't see them cracking the full nut in ten years, no matter what gets invented.

Meanwhile, 99.99% of the general public is treating this as a spectator sport. It makes you wonder how you can help, since this might be the most important battle our species has known.

I can vote for the candidate who has the best energy policy, but none of them have plans ambitious enough to make a difference. And yes, I recycle. But let's face it: Recycling is the masturbation of energy policy. It might make you feel better, but it won't put a dent in global energy needs.

I wish some entrepreneur would create a way for citizens to invest in clean energy sources without having to gamble in abstractions such as the stock market or venture funds. I would love to invest in, for example, a particular windmill, or a piece of a solar farm that is generating a particular amount of energy each day. I would even invest in a few feet of new transmission cables in a specific place. I wouldn't care that it was a great investment if I knew it was directly helping save the planet.

If I could name my windmill, and see webcam pictures of it on the Internet to see how it is running, along with a widget on my desktop telling me how much power I am generating today, I would invest in it just to help save the planet, even if I knew the financial return was marginal. The same goes for investing in discrete parts of a solar farm, or any other clean energy source.

I realize windmills are expensive. But I'd be happy owning a share of a particular windmill with friends. We could name it together.

My prediction is that the brilliant scientists and the super rich investors working on clean energy can't meet the ten year goal by themselves. Some entrepreneur is going to have to figure out a way to get the other 99.99% of the country involved. If that happens, the ten year goal seems feasible to me, assuming the government stays out of the way.

 
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As regular readers of my blog already know, about three years ago, out of the blue, I got an exotic voice problem called spasmodic dysphonia. I couldn't speak above a whisper for a year. Then one day, while practicing a nursery rhyme with my stepson, my voice suddenly returned to a functional level. Unfortunately, as is typical with spasmodic dysphonia, my voice only worked well in quiet, unstressful environments, and the world is not a quiet or unstressful place. I couldn't, for example, order a pizza over the telephone and expect the person on the other end to understand me. So for most of the last few years I have been the ghost in the room, listening and smiling, silently cursing my partial existence.

This week I underwent surgery that has a high likelihood of fixing the problem. The top surgeon on the planet for this procedure, Gerald Berke, M.D., at UCLA, opened my neck and rewired the nerve connections to my vocal cords. In three or four months, when the new nerve pathways regenerate, I should be able to speak again, in weak voice at first, and improving over the year.

So I find myself delirious today, for a number of reasons. I'm exhausted, and medicated, and most of all optimistic that the ghost in the room can get one more chance among the living.

Today is a good day.
 
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Some of you poo-pooed my idea of surveying economists, pointing out that they have a bad track record of predicting the big things that matter, such as the credit crunch, or oil at $145 a barrel. Does that mean a poll of economists would be useless even if they all agreed?

 

As economists like to say, "It depends."

 

First, let's agree that even if experts such as doctors and lawyers and engineers are often wrong, that doesn't mean they should be ignored. What matters is that consulting with experts produces a better result on average than whatever is the alternative. Depending on the sort of question being asked, economists are likely to be more reliable than the public at large.

 

If the question involves predicting the value of the stock market next year, economists aren't any better than a monkey with a dart board. And they know it. But if the question is whether using food crops for ethanol could hurt the economy more than it helps, or whether free trade is a good idea, or whether a gas tax holiday makes sense, you would be wise to listen.

 

Economists are also historians when it comes to their field. They would know, for example, that government price controls would be a disaster because they have failed in the past. If doing X with the economy caused Y to happen the last three times someone tried it, wouldn't you like to know it? Economists already do.

 

When you are talking about the global economy, making the right decisions just barely more often than before is a huge deal. So the bar is set low for economists. They only need to be right more often than the public and the politicians. Is that so hard?


I'll blog again in a few days.

 

  

 
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I often see problems in the world and wonder why someone doesn't fix them. Then I realize that I am someone, and that makes me feel bad because it is all my fault. Obviously I can't fix every problem, but I decided to try and fix one in particular.


The majority of voters say the ailing economy is the most important problem for the next U.S. president to solve. How does a voter who knows little or nothing about economics decide which candidate has the best economic plan?


As you know, the media is worthless in solving this problem because they like to give equal time to both sides, no matter how ridiculous one of the sides might be. Or worse, some media outlets make no attempt to be unbiased. Realistically, the media has no idea which economic plans are likely to work best, so even if they wanted to be objective and informative they don't have the tools or the incentive to acquire them.


The economy is arguably the most important issue in the world, having a huge impact on everything from global warming, to health care, to defense. And voters have no reliable information upon which to make decisions. Someone needs to fix that. Realizing that I am someone, I decided to take a crack at it.


At substantial personal expense I hired a professional survey company to poll professional economists and find out which presidential candidate's plans have the most support. Obviously there is a limit to how unbiased the survey can be, since economists are human, and most of them presumably belong to a major political party. We'll try to take that into account with the survey design. But no matter what the result, I think it will be useful.


For example, the idea of a gas tax holiday was condemned by economists in both major parties. I expect there are other plans that have virtually no support from economists in either camp. That would be useful to know.


But suppose economists are evenly divided on a particular tax plan. Is that useful to voters? I think it is, because the only rational thing for you to do as a voter in that situation is to support the plan that taxes yourself the least. And you can do that with a clear conscience if there is no agreement among experts that taxing yourself more will help the world in the long run.


I think we would all agree that having better information won't influence most voters. If every economist in the survey somehow miraculously supported the same candidate's positions, it wouldn't change the votes of hardcore Democrats or Republicans. But in a close election such as this one, independent voters, who I call the Rational Few, end up making the decision. I am hopeful that for that influential group, better information will lead to better decisions. If the Rational Few are indeed influenced by a poll of economists, and it tips the election, economists will forever be polled before national elections. Problem solved.


And in this way I plan to fix the economy, end the energy crisis, rationally address global warming, and provide low cost health care to all. In return, I expect the public to call me an idiot. I'm pretty sure that's why "somone" doesn't fix problems more often. But I can take it.

The survey will take several weeks to pull together. I'll give you the results when they are in.

On a separate note, I probably won't post an entry until later this week. I'll tell you what I'm up to later. It's not a vacation, but it is a good thing.

 
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