[Warning: This post uses vulgar language because it involves the manly activity of assembling mechanical devices.]

The other day I tried to assemble two outdoor heaters that Shelly and I bought online. This is exactly the sort of project I would pay someone else to do, if such a person existed. Specifically, what I need is a man with four testicles so that when we team up we have, on average, enough to get a job like this done.

Did I mention that the heaters use liquid propane? Or that they come with angry warnings guaranteeing you will die in a giant fireball?  Maybe the manufacturer has to say that sort of thing for legal purposes, but I took it as a death threat. My fight-or-flight response went straight into overdrive. I picked up a screwdriver and started going all knife fight in every direction in case the heaters had accomplices.

So, now imagine my complete lack of mechanical skill applied to a situation in which a mistake will catch my shirt on fire, but I won't care because by then the rest of me will be scattered among the neighbors' burning trees. That's the image running through my head as the beads of my sweat smeared the ink on the barely helpful heater assemble instructions.

At some point in a project like this, inevitably, I run out of patience with a screw that should go straight into a hole but insists on going all squirrelly. I suppose the proper method involves continuous trying until you are sure the screw is properly straight before tightening. My method involves getting pissed off on the 27th attempt and then tightening the shit out of the screw until it is halfway in, like the Tower of Pisa, and the Phillips head is so stripped it looks like a tiny bowl. On most projects I have the option of simply living with my poor craftsmanship. With these heaters, one bad screw might be the difference between dying in a giant fireball and dying in an even gianter fireball.

The assembly directions estimated it would take 30 minutes. That's about how much time it took me to get everything out of the box, and to vacuum up the shitstorm of Styrofoam debris. I carefully arranged all of the pieces on the ping pong table and hoped something was missing so I could give up. But no luck, it was all there.

I have noticed that the people who write assembly directions often assume too much of the buyer. Those direction-makers have a lofty idea of my powers of deduction, assumption, and anticipation. But let me say to you direction-makers as clearly as I can: If you don't put it in the directions, I'm not going to fucking do it.

The gap between my literal interpretation of the directions and the proper assembly process soon became a problem. One component had an ever-so-slight bend, but seemed to fit no matter how you screwed it in. To my credit, I noticed after the sixth try that something wasn't quite right. But before I noticed, I stripped one screw in an attempt to make brute force a perfect substitute for proper assembly. That's when I noticed that the vendor shipped two extra screws for just that one part of the heater. In other words, I assume enough people had made the same mistake I did that some engineer decided to throw in a few spares. I guess that was cheaper than fixing the directions. Still, you can never be totally comfortable with leftover parts. No one wants his last words to be "I wonder why I have these two extra screws. OH GOD, NO! SHUT OFF THE VALVE! SHUT OFF THE..."

Amazingly, three hours into the project, I had assembled both heaters. Now I had to figure out how and where to buy the fuel tanks. Someone suggested Walmart, but I think you can see where this is headed. Walmart did indeed have some liquid propane fuel tanks, but I needed confirmation that they were suitable for my heaters.

Yeah, I tried to ask a technical question at Walmart.

Now, I don't want to say unkind things about the fine folks who work at Walmart. But I wouldn't object if you use your imagination to fill in the blanks. You might even want to get out of your chair and mime the expression and posture of the person to whom I asked my question. I'll bet your impression won't be far off. Anyway, since I didn't want to die because of something I learned at Walmart, I decided to try Home Depot.

You can ask a Home Depot employee just about anything and get a satisfying answer. I might ask, for example, "How many times would I need to pound this particular nail with a 3-pound hammer to get it in?" The Home Depot guy would look me in the eye and ask, "What kind of wood?" And then I might say, "There are different kinds of wood?" Then the Home Depot guy would put a tape measure around my forearm, shake his head, and say, "For you, about 435 hits." And he'd be right! So it was no surprise that he pointed me to exactly the right liquid propane tanks. As far as I know.

On the way home, I noticed that the minivan needed gas. I filled the tank and realized that along with the liquid propane bumping around in the back, I had enough explosives to take out a strip mall. All I needed was a spark. And the town was full of sparks. Sparks are pretty much everywhere. When a police car rolled by, all sparky, I tried to look as un-terrorist as possible, which is hard to do when you're sitting on a weapon of mass destruction and a turtle is trying to burrow out of your ass.

Back home, I carefully connected the tanks to the heaters, and followed the directions to use soapy water to test for gas leaks. The directions didn't say how much soapy water I was supposed to use, and I didn't want to err on the side of too little. I'm nervous that way. I just kept adding soap and checking for leaks. Shelly finally sent our dog into the giant soap mountain to find me and lead me to freedom.

The hardest part was trying to turn on the heaters. The process involves turning a knob several thousand times while absolutely nothing fucking happens. Except that maybe you are forming a giant invisible gas cloud around your general vicinity that will ignite if and when a spark is ever generated by all of your knob-turning. It's not a good place to be.

The directions even predict the product won't work. They include a workaround that involves sticking a lighter into a hole when all else fails. Finally, Shelly came out and offered to help. She had a theory about hearing some sort of hissing sound and guessing it meant something good was happening. While I could accept that hypothesis as being potentially correct, the competing hypothesis involved a giant fireball. So I split the difference and told her to explore that hypothesis while I positioned myself between the heater and the pool. I figured the explosion would propel me into the water and, with any luck, extinguish my flames.

But in the end, Shelly got the heaters started. Now I worry that the connections will come loose before we use them next time. I'll need to buy more soap.
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Apr 15, 2010 | General Nonsense | Permalink
I'm always fascinated when society decides to label some type of behavior as a mental problem. For example, Tiger Woods is allegedly being treated for sex addiction while his real problem is some sort of unusual blindness to risk and consequences. The common name for that is optimism. That optimism is probably a big part of what makes him a spectacular golfer. No one would practice as much as he did from an early age without some sort of crazy optimism that he was The One. And it has to help your nerves in critical situations if you are optimistic that your putt will go in. If Tiger hadn't succeeded in becoming the greatest golfer of his day, he'd be the crazy caddy with delusions of greatness. The only difference between crazy and confident is that the confident guy was lucky enough to have the resources to pull it off. Somewhere in China there's a guy with just as much golfing talent and optimism as Tiger. He's a bus boy. And a virgin.

In summary, optimism paired with luck is considered greatness, whereas optimism paired with a Y chromosome is considered sex addiction.

I also wonder about gullibility. At what point does normal, daily gullibility rise to the level of something that needs a medical label and some sort of pharmacological treatment? For the sake of this discussion, let's assume that your particular religion is the true one. That means that all the people who don't share your views - all several billion of them - are profoundly gullible. Luckily for them, whenever the majority of people have a particular quality, it is considered normal by definition.

As a practical matter, one big problem with labeling gullibility as a mental problem is that no group of researchers would agree on how to test for it. That meeting might go like this:

Researcher One: What if we test for belief in Santa Claus, alien abductions, and ghosts?

Researcher Two: Perfect. Except remove the ghost part because those are real.

Researcher Three: I was abducted by aliens once.

Researcher Four: I quit.

Researcher Two: Don't give up! Where's your optimism?

Today we will consider a model for replacing our current form of government with an insurance-based model.

In step one of this hypothetical future, the government of the United States buys every insurance company in the country at estimated current values. In this imagined future, the government becomes the insurance provider for the country, and perhaps the rest of the world. The profits from selling insurance will eventually replace taxes. Our government would become a for-profit enterprise.

In a way, the U.S. is already sort of a big insurance company. When something catastrophic happens, from hurricanes to war, the government steps in. I'm suggesting we formalize the arrangement and try to monetize it, with most of our profits coming from international sales.

Remember that an insurance company does more than just collect premiums and pay out for losses. They also work to reduce risks. This is similar to what a government tries to do for its people. Governments urge you to quit smoking, and they force you to wear seatbelts. Governments form armies to keep the homeland safe. Governments fund schools to keep future generations from needing aid. For all practical purposes, the government is already a big insurance company. All I'm suggesting is that we become more efficient at it, and make some money in the process.

Think how much the rest of the world would pay for our military protective services. It has to be a lot more expensive for a country to have its own military than it would be to pay for insurance against unlikely attacks. Obviously some countries would keep their own armies out of pride, or fear, or tactical preference. But I can imagine a few hundred smaller countries preferring to pay insurance for military and diplomatic protection.

The U.S. probably has the best disaster emergency resources in the world. We should be selling those services in the form of insurance policies. If the tsunami hits, we swoop in and rebuild towns and provide emergency services up to some predetermined limit. Perhaps we would still help the uninsured, just to be good neighbors, but at a lower level, and funded only by donations.

The thing I find interesting about insurance as a new model for the government is that it would lead to practical laws, especially if law makers had some sort of profit motive. For example, you might see the legalization of any activity that lowered financial risks. I think you'd find that in most cases, the majority of citizens coincidentally support just about every policy that saves money in the long run. That's because the best way to save money in the long run is to keep citizens safe and healthy and prosperous.

Obviously there would be danger in allowing a profit motive for government officials. The press would have to be our watchdogs. Assuming some transparency of decisions, based on published actuarial tables and budgets, there shouldn't be too many surprises in what choices the government makes.

In this imagined future world, politicians are still elected by the people. And the big moral issues could still be decided based on cultural preferences over profits. The difference is that the voters would always have an estimate at hand to see how much those preferences might cost them. For example, if the majority of citizens prefer to keep doctor-assisted suicide illegal on moral grounds, that's fine. But citizens would have access to a government-provided estimate on how much that decision costs the economy.

Another benefit of the United States of Insurance is that citizens would have just one policy for all sorts of risks, including automobile, health, home, personal liability, and so on. Your premium costs would depend on your specific situation. Just check all of the appropriate boxes on a web page, and enter your bank account number for automatic deductions. You just paid your taxes and handled all of your insurance needs in ten minutes.

I can imagine that becoming the United States of Insurance would make the world safer in the long run. Imagine two smaller countries spoiling for a fight, and one of them is an insurance client. The plodding and ineffective United Nations would be irrelevant, but the United States of Insurance would step in fast to protect its investment. No one would ever misjudge its intentions because its motives would be entirely transparent.

The insurance model would also remove unproductive emotions from international affairs. Many of our problems in the world seem to revolve around which leaders have bruised egos, who is getting snubbed, and that sort of thing. If the United States of Insurance started making decisions based on actuarial tables, other countries would find it hard to find any negative emotion other than boredom.

The biggest leap of faith in this thought experiment is that the government could do anything right. But consider that 90% of private businesses eventually go belly up. If you could measure the performance of your government the way you measure the performance of private companies - by profits, and the government leaders themselves had a profit motive, how efficient could government become? The United States of Insurance would allow that sort of profit measurement and incentive.

I agree that this imagined future can never happen. We don't have the sort of government that can change. It's just interesting to think about.

Last night I heard on television for the millionth time that our national debt is like borrowing from our children. Millions of viewers from around the country were probably nodding their heads in agreement. That saying has been around so long that we accept it as a simple statement of fact.

But are we borrowing from our children or investing in them? Suppose we decide to stop spending money so our children will have lots of money for themselves. That would be generous of us, right?

I don't think so.

I think future generations might like to have most of the things we're investing in, such as infrastructure, healthcare, schools, a clean environment, energy sources, and freedom, to name just a few. No one wants to inherit a country full of sickly, uneducated hobos, on the verge of being conquered by Cuba.

Obviously there's a middle ground, where we spend our money as wisely as possible in the present for the benefit of all. But stop making me feel guilty about leaving future generations a clean, educated, healthy, well-defended country with a vigorous economy, even if it comes with some debt attached. It still seems like a bargain.

And perhaps we should stop talking about the future debt in absolute dollars, because "trillions" scares the food out of my esophagus, through my large and small intestines, and about four feet into the surface of the earth. I prefer to hear our national debt expressed as percentages of, for example, our next 30 years of projected GDP. That way it doesn't seem so scary.

Future generations should go get a job. And a haircut. And stay off my lawn!

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Suppose humans were born with magical buttons on their foreheads. When someone else pushes your button, it makes you very happy. But like tickling, it only works when someone else presses it. Imagine it's easy to use. You just reach over, press it once, and the other person becomes wildly happy for a few minutes.

What would happen in such a world?

You could imagine that everyone in the world would be happy just about all the time. People would make agreements with each other to push each other's buttons on a regular basis, thus guaranteeing the complete and utter happiness of all humans.

No, I can't imagine that either.

The first thing that would happen is that we'd create some rules of etiquette saying you can't press anyone's button without explicit permission. That makes sense, since sometimes you need to get some work done, and happiness can make you lose focus. You wouldn't want people making you happy against your wishes.

The next thing that would happen is that people would realize they can sell the button-pushing service. People would stop giving it away for free. You'd be begging people to press your button and it would just seem pathetic. You might get some takers for a brief button-pushing fling, but it would get tiresome to push another person's button every few minutes all day.

Perhaps some people would give their button-pushing services away for free, to anyone who asked. Let's call those people generous, or as they would become known in this hypothetical world: crazy sluts.

Button pushing would become an issue of power and politics within relationships and within business. The rich and famous would get their buttons pushed all day long, while the lonely would fantasize about how great that would be.

I can't think of any imaginary situation in which long term happiness could come from other people. The best you can hope for is that other people won't thwart your efforts to make yourself happy.
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Suppose an unfriendly country is suspected of building nuclear weapons. In reality, it isn't even trying, and it officially denies any nuclear weapons ambitions.

For the sake of discussion, assume this is NOT Iran or it will bias the exercise. Most of you think Iran looks a bit too guilty at the moment to fit this hypothetical situation. So put Iran out of your mind for this exercise.

Let's say the accused country chooses to not allow full inspections for some reason, and you don't know for sure what those reasons are. I can imagine several innocent reasons.
  1. The inspectors might be spies.
  2. There's a security advantage in making others suspect you of having nuclear weapons.
  3. Allowing foreign inspections is a national humiliation and a sign of weakness.
  4. Legitimate nuclear research could be misconstrued.
  5. Inspectors would demand access to all military sites, which would be a security risk.
  6. The leader thinks he would lose his next election (or head) if he allowed inspections.
Now imagine that your own country has a long, bad history of disputes with the hypothetical country in question. Do you have a moral right to make a preemptive military attack simply because your enemy refuses to do enough to disprove it has nuclear weapons in the pipeline?

It's a tough question because any country could be falsely accused, and they might have good reasons for not allowing inspections.

Now suppose the accused country makes the following counteroffer to the world, because it genuinely doesn't want to be suspected of making nuclear weapons. The accused country says, "You can send inspectors, and they will have full access, but no unmonitored communication with the outside world during their stay. The control of their communications is to make sure they are not spies. At the end of their inspections, and after they report about the nuclear inspections only, they will be put to death to preserve any national security secrets they might have picked up along the way. Moreover, it is agreed that the inspectors can include in their report some sort of secret code that signals to their governments whether the report is coerced or honest."

If the inspectors are tortured for the secret code, everyone knows they could just lie about it and put in the real "I was tortured" code anyway, so coercion wouldn't work. The torturers would have no independent way to know if they were getting accurate information.

This model guarantees that the suspect country can keep its national security secrets, and it makes them appear strong since they are the ones doing the killing. This counteroffer puts the accusing countries on the defensive because they would have a hard time choosing war over the sacrifice of a handful of citizens (per country) for the inspection team.

Getting good inspectors might be a challenge. But I'm always surprised at the things people will volunteer to do for the good of the world. History is full of examples of people volunteering for suicide missions. And the suspect country would always have the option of putting the inspectors on death row for some period of time and then issuing a pardon, for public relations reasons. 

Like most of my ideas, it would never work. I only ask this sort of thing to make you think about a question in a different way.
You're reading this blog, and that means there's a good chance that people ask you to help them solve computer problems. There are three types of users who ask for help: Runners, Watchers, and Squatters.

Runners are all too happy to abandon their workstations for as long as it takes you to solve their problems. When the runner is gone, you can think through a variety of potential solutions, try some things, and really dig in to the problem. Personally, I don't mind runners, although it makes me feel as if I should be getting paid for my services.

Watchers are the most thoughtful users. They might offer some useful information when asked, such as passwords. Perhaps they will compliment you on your computer skills and intuitions. And the Watcher is there when you find your brilliant solution. It's nice to have a witness sometimes. The only danger with a Watcher is that sometimes you get a talker.

The third type of users is Squatters. A Squatter will not leave his or her Chair of Control, and will insist on being the one to operate the mouse and keyboard. In theory, this shouldn't be too bad, at least for simple problems. But the Squatter will only give you a half listen. The other half of the squatter's brain is going rogue, occasionally checking in with you to say, "Click what?"

You could try to explain the situation to the squatter, but it won't help. For example, you might say, "If you relinquish the keyboard and mouse, I can probably solve this printer problem in one minute. If you continue asking me for advice while ignoring my input and randomly pursuing your own theories, we'll both be here all night."

Helping a squatter generally sounds like this.

You: Click the Start button

Squatter: What's a Clark button?

You: The Start button

Squatter: Where do I type Clark?

You: It's a button. You click it. I am pointing to it. Follow my finger. Don't look out the window. Don't yell at the dog. Focus on my finger. Click there.

Squatter: Click your finger? Is your name Clark?

Sometimes you'll get the half-squat, or even the quarter-squat. The half-squat is when the user keeps his chair but allows you to use the mouse and keyboard while he continues to sit directly in front of the monitor. The quarter-squatter only gives up one input device, such as the mouse alone or the keyboard alone.

I write about this because it is yet another problem for which the solution lies in naming the phenomena. If everyone agreed that the name for this situation is Squatting, it would be easier to talk a user out of doing it.

User: Can you help me fix this computer problem?

You: No, you're a Squatter.

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I wonder how accurate the government budget projections are for the next 20 years. You need to look out that far because any reckoning of the national debt will be over a long period. If you don't consider such a long view to the future, there's no way to know how much of a budget deficit is too much today.

Back in my banking days, one of my jobs was "budget guy." I was in charge of forecasting the costs of our individual projects as well as predicting expenses for the department as a whole. I say with all modesty that if there were any correlations between my forecasts and the actual costs of things, it was coincidental. Allow me to explain how budgeting works. There are two rules of budget forecasting:
  1. You must assume that trends continue.
  2. Trends never continue.
Life is a series of shocks and surprises. It's delusional, bordering on superstition, to think you can predict the future more than a few months out. Another problem is that you aren't allowed to budget with any assumption of failure or organizational change, no matter how likely you think those things might be.

For example, can the CBO assume that the U.S. Postal Service shuts down within twenty years? My personal assumption is that by then all letters will be sent by e-mail, and packages will be handled by private companies. It would be insane to keep funding the Post Office twenty years from now. But I doubt the CBO forecasts assume that it goes away. (Do any of you know?)

The budget estimates for defense spending are obviously complete nonsense too. I can't imagine that the guy who handles that part of the forecast for the CBO includes, for example, an assumption that we'll invade at least two smaller countries per decade. I think there would be a lot of pressure on that guy to remove those assumptions, no matter how right he is.

Also, in twenty years our military might be mostly drones and robot tanks. How do you predict a budget for that?

What about population growth? That's a huge assumption in any budget looking out twenty years. It's not certain that the U.S. population will even increase. Japan's population is predicted to DECREASE in coming decades, and it's the same for other industrialized countries. In twenty years we might have the technology and the will to seal our porous borders as effectively as Japan. I don't think one can predict U.S. population growth or even its direction.

Healthcare is another huge wild card. I already do half of my healthcare by e-mail with my doctor (at Kaiser). And they just added the capability to receive digital pictures. I never would have predicted that five years ago. I think most people predicted that we would be doing teleconferencing with our doctors by now. But e-mail is about five times more efficient for the doctor.

Suppose medical technology gets to the point where you can diagnose potential problems, from gene analysis for example, and start treating things before they become expensive? Preventing cancer has to be a lot cheaper than treating it after the fact. How do you forecast a budget for that?

Or perhaps euthanasia will become legal, or at least widely practiced, and the expensive part of healthcare - the last few months of life - suddenly becomes economical. That's a game changer that the CBO can't assume will happen.

Budget-wise, I think it's fair to say we'll run a deficit for the next five to ten years. But in twenty years? It's anyone's guess.

I was amused by the story of the crooks who tried to buy office supplies using the charge code of a local prison. The purchases included computers, speakers, iPods, and apparently whatever was expensive. They came back three times. My favorite part of the story is "...the store manager grew suspicious."


I can see how crooks would consider it hilarious to rob a jail. But I have to think the correct number of times to try this particular crime is once. Or, as super criminals like to say, "One minivan's worth."

The big problem here is that the nature of the crime depends on putting the idea of a penitentiary in the mind of the cashier as the same time you are cleverly trying to act innocent with your prison haircut and/or mullet and tattoos. I wonder if one of the perps even considered throwing a package of Sticky Notes on the pile of computers and iPods to look more legit.

Anyway, this made me think of the famous question "What rhymes with orange?" If you have wrestled with that question before, you know the answer is either nothing or, at best, "door hinge." The interesting part is how quickly your brain can decide if a word can be rhymed or not. How do you arrive at that conclusion without trying all of the word combinations in your language first?

What rhymes with elephant?

See how quickly you realized the answer is nothing? I think the brain stores words that sound alike near each other, perhaps for some useful reason that isn't obvious. The by-product of that brain architecture is that humans are naturally good at rhyming. When you wonder what rhymes with train, you go almost instantly to brain, grain, main, and even playin' without really trying all the combinations that are not words or don't rhyme.

As a writer, you have to be very aware of how the brain stores information. For example, it would be a mistake to write the sentence "He murdered a doll," even in the context of humor. Dolls are stored in the brain somewhere near the area you keep your concept of children, and so the idea of murdering a doll gets registered with nearly the emotional revulsion as if you said, "He murdered a child."

And yes, I did just write the very thing I said you should avoid writing. But I'm a professional, and I know how to quickly cleanse your mental palate from that last thought by quoting four lines out of context from Lady GaGa's song Bad Romance.

"I want your ugly, I want your disease"

"I want your horror, I want your design"

"I want your love and I want your revenge"

"I want your psycho, your vertical stick"

My favorite of the group is "I want your horror, I want your design." I'm fairly certain that your brain stores the concept for horror in a different part of your brain than it does for the concept of design. All of the quoted lines are like that. It's the opposite of rhyming, as far as brain storage goes. I'd love to see an experiment where a subject's brain is monitored while reading rhymes and then again while reading the lyrics to Bad Romance. Nursery rhymes are literally used to put kids to sleep. When I hear Bad Romance, it's a whole-brain experience that wakes me up. (I couldn't find Lady GaGa's IQ listed online, but I'll bet it's off the chart.)

As a writer (or lawyer, or marketer, politician, etc.), you need to be aware of your readers' brain architecture. Otherwise your words and your intended message will be out of sync.

Did you hear about the Bangladeshi brick company that beheaded an employee to improve the color of its bricks?


This tragic incident raises many questions. The article is vague, but I assume a supervisor or some sort of boss was leading this strategy. So I wonder how the employee was chosen? Was he the worst worker, the biggest complainer, or the guy who looked the most like a brick?

You probably wonder why someone didn't speak out against this plan when it first came up. But my guess is that as soon as the beheading topic is on the table, disagreement trails off fast. That's a management technique called "getting buy-in."

I wonder how the boss broke the news to the employee. Did he work up to it with a list of criticisms about the employee's job performance? As a boss, you don't want to start that sort of conversation with the beheading part. Begin with something like "I noticed you've been late twice this week." That way it isn't such a cruel shock when you get to the decapitation scenario.

I wonder if the boss made any clever puns when he was breaking the news. I would have started the conversation with something like "You know how I always said you have a good head on your shoulders?" Or maybe I would have gone with the good-news-bad-news set up. "The good news is that you'll save a fortune in hats..."

I wonder what it's like to go home after work when you just beheaded a coworker.

Wife: "Hi, Honey. How was your day?"

Employee: "The usual. I swept up some brick debris, then a few of the guys and I beheaded Bob."

Wife: "You WHAT???"

Employee: "Brick debris. It's everywhere."

And I wonder how specific the Fortune Teller was when recommending the beheading as a way to fix the bricks. When I try to follow a recipe in the kitchen, I always run into a part that seems too vague. If I were involved, I'd be wondering if I'm supposed to use the head part or the rest of the body. Is stirring involved? How long is it supposed to simmer? I'd go through half of the marketing department before I got the bricks just the right color.

Too soon?
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