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Shopping is broken. In the fifties, if you wanted to buy a toaster, you only had a few practical choices. Maybe you went to the nearest department store and selected from the three models available. Or maybe you found your toaster in the Sears catalog. In a way, you were the hunter, and the toaster was the prey. You knew approximately where it was located, and you tracked it down and bagged it. Toasters couldn't hide from you.

Now you shop on the Internet, and you can buy from anywhere on the planet.
The options for any particular purchase approach infinity, or so it seems.
Google is nearly worthless when shopping for items that don't involve technology. It is as if the Internet has become a dense forest where your desired purchases can easily hide.

Advertising is broken too, because there are too many products battling for too little consumer attention. So ads can't hope to close the can't-find-what-I-want gap.

The standard shopping model needs to be reversed. Instead of the shopper acting as hunter, and the product hiding as prey, you should be able to describe in your own words what sort of thing you are looking for, and the vendors should use those footprints to hunt you down and make their pitch.

For example, let's say you're looking for new patio furniture. The words you might use to describe your needs would be useless for Google. You might say, for example, "I want something that goes with a Mediterranean home. It will be sitting on stained concrete that is sort of amber colored. It needs to be easy to clean because the birds will be all over it. And I'm on a budget."
Your description would be broadcast to all patio furniture makers, and those who believe they have good solutions could contact you, preferably by leaving comments on the web page where you posted your needs. You could easily ignore any robotic spam responses and consider only the personalized responses that include pictures.

You can imagine this service as a web site. The consumer goes to the section that best fits his needs (furniture, cars, computers, etc.) and describes what he wants, in his own words. Vendors could set key word alerts via e-mail or text for any products in their general category. Once they read the customer's needs online, they have the option of posting their solution, publicly, which gives other vendors and consumers an opportunity to offer counterpoints.

I assume this service already exists in some weaker form.
www.answers.yahoo.com is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't broadcast your needs to vendors. My prediction is that Broadcast Shopping (as I just decided to name it) will become the normal way to shop.

(Note: I am not using this blog post to solicit suggestions for patio furniture and toasters. Those were just examples.)



 
Suppose a genie appears and gives you two choices. The first option is that he will give you $10 million dollars, but everyone else you know will get $20 million apiece.

Choice two: You get $5 million, but no one else gets anything.

As a bonus, the genie offers to erase your memory of having made the choice, so guilt will never be a factor. You will simply wake up the next day in the new situation.

Which option do you choose to maximize your personal happiness?

This might seem like an easy choice. You take the $10 million and your friends will get $20 million each. Everyone wins. Unfortunately, I don't think humans are wired that way. Happiness is based on the direction your life is heading (better or worse), and what you have compared to what you think you should have.

If you take the genie's $10 million option, over time you will start feeling like the poorest person you know, since everyone else has $20 million apiece. You will wonder what you did in a past life to deserve this shabby treatment from the universe. The ugly truth about humans is that your happiness might be maximized by screwing everyone you know while screwing yourself half as much.

If you buy this premise, it has interesting implications for personal relationships. For example, it means that one way to cheer up an unhappy friend is to put yourself in a bad situation, thus resetting the reference point. The splinter in your finger only makes you unhappy when you're not talking to someone who has a railroad spike through his head.


 
I wonder if you could make money by investing in whatever companies make you angriest. For example, when oil prices were climbing to the sky, it was popular to hate oil companies. It also would have been a good time to buy their stock.

Before any war, a lot of people start hating defense companies more than usual. And that's the best time to own defense stocks.

During Microsoft's long run to dominance, the company was widely hated. It also would have been a good stock to own for most of that time. Now it feels as if the white hot hatred of Microsoft has reached some sort of plateau, and so has the stock.

We generally hate companies when we think they have too much power. And that correlates with profits. So suppose you took a survey of people's opinions of various industries today, then did another survey every six months, and tracked the anger levels. If you invested in any industry where the average public hatred was increasing, and sold stock when the average hatred started to level off, would you prosper?

Can you think of any industry where the public's hatred was increasing while the companies' stock prices were stagnate or dropping?

Remember, it's not the absolute amount of hatred that matters, just the direction of the intensity. There is plenty of hatred toward cigarette companies, but thanks to the success of anti-smoking laws, that hatred has leveled off. So according to my hypothesis, this wouldn't be a good time to own cigarette stocks.

What do you think?

 
I saw in the news today that The United States is going to withdraw most of its military forces from Afghanistan. Okay, the news didn't say that in so many words. But they did say, "The cat is on the roof," which means the same thing.

Allow me to explain "The cat is on the roof" to those of you who are unfamiliar with the joke. It goes like this: Bob goes on vacation. He asks his moron brother to take care of his cat. After a few days on vacation, Bob calls to say hi. The moron brother blurts out "Your cat is dead."

Bob is beside himself with grief. And he chastises his moron brother for breaking the news to him in such an abrupt manner. The moron brother asks how he could have done it better.

Bob explains "Well, for example, you could have told me the cat was on the roof. The next time we talked, you could say the Fire Department is trying to get him down. The next time, you could say the cat fell during the rescue and was in the veterinarian hospital. The next time I called, you could say the cat succumbed to his injuries and passed away. That way I would be prepared for the bad news."

The moron brother says he understands. Then he adds, "Oh, by the way. Mom is on the roof."

With that in mind, I saw in the news that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is warning Karzai to clean up the corruption in the Afghan government or else Great Britain will withdraw its forces.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gEBlJJibsvBmFQK5iQvBXDIIJRQAD9BQ3BQG0

That's the "cat is on the roof," as clear as I have ever seen it. Obviously Afghanistan isn't going to get rid of corruption. That gives Great Britain an honorable reason for withdrawing, which I assume they have already decided to do. Once that happens, Obama will be forced by public opinion to do the same, leaving behind some terrorist-hunting forces only.

 
Suppose a genie appeared and offered to give you regular access to all the things you desire. Let's say that in your case it includes golfing, exotic traveling, eating ice cream, and having a great career. The genie's only catch is that he gets to control your schedule.

Your first reaction might be to take the deal, since all of the activities on the menu are better than the things you do now. And maybe having a genie do all of your scheduling would be convenient.

But if you're smart, you'll decline the offer. No matter how fun or fulfilling are the activities on your list, you can only enjoy them if you have control over WHEN and HOW LONG you do each one. On day one of the genie's deal, you might find that he has allocated nine hours for eating ice cream, and twelve minutes for golf. And your tee time is midnight, after you work twelve hours.

I'm exaggerating the genie's cruelty, but in general it's true that doing the thing you want at the time when you are most in the mood for it makes a gigantic difference in your overall happiness. If you eat when you're hungry, nap when you're sleepy, and work when you're feeling productive, life can be pretty great.

So let's test this concept. Tell me in the comments how much flexibility you have over your own schedule then rate your own happiness. Use a scale of 1-10, as in:

Schedule Flexibility: 8

Happiness: 7

 

 
Yesterday I blogged that beauty is nothing more than our recognition of functions that are related to current or past survival. Many of you chimed in with counterexamples and arguments. I will address them here.

Q. Music is beautiful. Where's the survival benefit there? 

 A. Even the most famous musicians are generally only enjoyed by 10% of the population. Someone mentioned Miles Davis. I can't stand listening to him. But every person reading this blog would agree that a lush forest is beautiful. So while music in general is universally enjoyed, any given song does not register as beautiful to the public at large. 

Q. What about art?

A. We speak of "appreciating" art, and I think that's a good word. Most art wouldn't be described as beautiful. The Mona Lisa, for example, is skillfully done, but the subject is homely. If other people hadn't told you it was worth a fortune, you wouldn't hang it in your living room. And like music, there is no universal standard for beauty in art.

But there's still a correlation between art and survival impulses. It's probably no coincidence that so much art includes food, babies, and well-fed women during childbearing years.

Q. You can concoct an argument that ANYTHING has a survival benefit.

A. What's the survival benefit of a spider or a human turd? If you break down either of them for their color and form, you'd find the elements that would be considered beauty in some other context. But since spiders and turds have no survival benefit, they don't appear beautiful to the public at large.

Q. What about an ocean? Or a sunset?

A. The ocean is full of food. That one is easy. And if you are an early human living outdoors, sunset and sunrise are probably the best times for hunting and gathering. Midday is too hot. After dark, you're more prey than predator.

Q. Why does a Corvette or a Porsche look more beautiful than an Edsel?

A. Fast cars have more function than slow ones. Most of the beautiful ones are fast. You need speed to catch prey and avoid predators.

 
Researchers tell us that we find other humans beautiful when those hotties appear as if they could produce healthy offspring. In other words, our minds translate the perception of species survival utility into the perception of beauty. I wonder if survival utility is the ONLY thing we find beautiful about our world, but we don't realize it.

If you're a guy, you know the joy of walking through a hardware store and seeing all of the well-made tools. To me, a good power drill looks like art. It's literally beautiful. And of course tools have survival utility. So far, my hypothesis holds.

Little kids are drawn to playing with toy trucks and toy bulldozers. Kids wouldn't describe those toys as beautiful, but those items must be visually attractive in their own way. Obviously construction equipment represents tools that are highly useful, and help humans survive. Even toddlers realize it.

Speaking of toddlers, adults find babies to be attractive almost automatically, without regard to what the little creatures look like. Clearly the adult response to babies has survival utility.

There are plenty of areas open for interpretation under this hypothesis. For example, a parking lot is arguably more useful than a forest, depending on the context, but the forest registers as being more beautiful. Perhaps that is because we're not that far evolved from hunters and gatherers, for whom a forest means survival and a parking lot means no food.

In general, scenery that has a lot of variety in color and shapes looks more beautiful than something with less variety. That makes sense from a survival standpoint too, since eating a variety of foods is healthier than eating just one type. And it would be easier to hide in an environment with more variety. Variety seems highly correlated with basic survival.

I thought a lot about beauty as function during the design of our new house. At every step, it seemed as if we had to choose between function and some "standard" sense of beauty. In time, I came to see this as a false choice. The most functional choices register as beauty when you put them all together.

The best example of that idea, which I have mentioned before, is the formal living room. In a traditional home, the formal living room is somewhere near the front door, and it has no function but to look beautiful. To me this sort of room always looks hideous no matter how well the drapes match the furniture, because the space has no utility. In my view, beauty is a garage with some extra space on one end for a ping pong table. I might be stretching the "survival" concept to include recreation, but there's no point in surviving if you're going to be unhappy.

Another example of beauty as function is the layout of our ground floor. It has a circular flow, so you can head down the hallway, turn right twice, and end up where you started. You can never be cornered. The feeling you get in the space is one of beauty, but it probably stems from some sort of survival instinct. And you get that feeling  before the paint, baseboards, furniture, floors, or drapes are in place. The beauty seems to come directly from some primal sense of how the space flows. At least that's how it feels to me.

When you coordinate colors, for your outfit or your living space, you try to avoid introducing a color that doesn't match at least one other color that is already there. To do otherwise makes the outcome less beautiful. Here again, I think the survival instinct is informing our sense of beauty. As an early humanoid, I would think that any time a color appeared in your view that was inconsistent with the surroundings, that meant something was wrong, and perhaps dangerous.

That's my hypothesis: Beauty is nothing more than our recognition of functions that are related to current or past survival.

Okay, I'm sure other people have the same theory. But I'm the first one to write about it in The Dilbert Blog.
 
It's hard to be a teenager and get away with anything these days. Parents can determine from the phone bill who the teens have texted and when. Parents can even read the teen's text messages if the phone is left unattended. Parents can see e-mail messages, check what web sites have been visited, and stalk their kids via Facebook.

In some cases the parents can already track their kids via GPS devices in cars and phones. You know that trend will increase.

Yes, teens have countermeasures and workarounds. But that's a lot of effort, and it's hard to hide all the electronic clues of, for example, an unapproved association. Even if you hide all of your own electronic footprints, you could still pop up on someone else's Facebook page.

This got me thinking about privacy issues in general. Most people reflexively believe privacy is a good thing, and a lack of privacy is a bad thing. But what if privacy creates more problems than it solves?

Let's say you have a secret carnal desire for broccoli. In our current world, where privacy is still somewhat attainable, you hide your dirty little broccoli secret. If anyone were to find out, you'd be ostracized and mocked. So you carry your little secret around like a bag of shame, sneaking trips to the grocery store to get a fix.

Now imagine a world where no one has any privacy and your inappropriate desire for broccoli becomes common knowledge. Suddenly all the other broccoli lovers know you are one of them. You start hanging out together, sharing your broccoli stories. You make new friends. You are understood. It's a relief in many ways.

In a world with no privacy, no one will seem like a freak because so many people will appear to be one type of deviant or another. In that world, the biggest losers would be the people who have totally uninteresting flaws and passions. They would seem boring.

Like it or not, that world is probably coming.
 
Recently I was thinking about the typical pathway to democracy. It seems to me the usual pattern goes something like this:
  1. A dictator rules a bunch of uneducated idiots.
  2. The dictator realizes he needs smarter citizens to compete with other countries.
  3. The dictator educates his citizens.
  4. The educated citizens get rid of the dictator.
  5. Democracy flourishes.
In Afghanistan, the literacy rate is about 26% in cities, and 9% in outlying areas. Not surprisingly, the recent Afghan presidential election didn't work out so well. I have a feeling that version 2.0 won't be a spectacular success either.

What Afghanistan needs is a dictator who values education for his own benefit, thus setting the stage for his own demise and the emergence of democracy. The Taliban aren't the right kind of dictators because they eschew education.

But I wonder if education is the one area in which the Taliban might be willing to negotiate, assuming there are moderates among them, in return for power. Suppose we agree to withdraw our military, leaving some hardly-noticed bases that we use for hunting terrorists, in return for the Taliban allowing the U.N. to set up non-religious schools, funded by foreign assistance, with mandatory attendance, including girls. We could agree to keep any political or controversial stuff out of the curriculum.

The Taliban could still teach religious absurdities to their kids on their own time, the same way we do it in our own country. We wouldn't like what the Taliban teach their kids, especially the parts about killing infidels. But in the long run, the Afghan education system would produce a citizenry that demands democratic reform. It might take 200 years, but that's not bad for a country that is in the Stone Age.

The risk, of course, is that once we leave, the Taliban beheads everyone who thinks education is a good idea, and spends all of their drug profits to set up Bed and Breakfast places for Al-Qaeda. I will stipulate that the beheading scenario is likely. My only point is that Afghanistan needs a pro-education dictator more than it needs a president who steals elections. Maybe we shouldn't be trying to skip steps.

 
Yesterday I made dozens of decisions, on topics as varied as Dilbert licensing, landscape design, marketing, and investing. In all cases I was operating with incomplete information, which is typical. As a practical matter, most decisions happen without the benefit of all the data you would like.

It made me reflect on all of the little rules one develops over the years for handling decisions without the benefit of sufficient data. You always start with the easy questions, such as...
  1. What do the experts say you should do?
  2. How much experience do the experts have with this question?
  3. Does the expert have a conflict of interest?
  4. What's the worst thing that could happen?
  5. How easy is it to switch course if you choose wrong?
  6. What information can you find on the Internet?
  7. Who has made this choice before? Were they satisfied?
  8. If I delay, will I learn something more that is useful?
  9. Is there a way to do a limited test?
  10. Does the decision make logical and mathematical sense?
  11. Do the experts make this choice with their own money?
  12. What do the well-informed people in my situation usually do?
  13. What does the competing vendor say about this vendor?
  14. Have I seen all of the alternatives?
Those are the questions with relatively clear or quantitative answers. It's the next category of questions that intrigue me, because they involve pattern recognition, and I can't always tell whether I am being influenced by fear and bias, or keen intuition informed by my experience. The questions in this category look like this...
  1. Does this situation follow a pattern I've seen in scams?
  2. Is someone giving answers that seem intentionally vague?
  3. Is information conspicuously missing?
  4. Is someone trying to rush me?
  5. Could someone unscrupulous easily take advantage of me?
  6. Have I regretted this sort of decision before?
  7. How do I imagine other people will react to this decision?
  8. If the expert is so smart, why isn't he rich?
 
What questions would you add to the list?

 
 
 
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