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We recently acquired a minivan. Half of my readers just mentally snorted at the wretched direction my life has taken. You pity me.

The other half of you have actually been inside a modern minivan. You know that a minivan is the mullet of automobiles, and by that I mean it is all business in the front, and a party in the back. It's a little slice of heaven on wheels. I love my minivan. Yeah, I said it.

We were forced to consider minivans because our Toyota Highlander had an annoying noise that wouldn't go away. It sounded roughly like "Mom, there isn't enough leg room! Make someone else sit in the back next time!" We tried turning up the volume on the radio to drown it out, but that was only partly successful. So we started looking at minivans.

After extensive shopping we narrowed our minivan choices to either a Honda or a Toyota. The Honda had an edge in back seat comfort, mileage, and console layout. But the Toyota salesman assured us that after a few years of use the Honda would rattle apart and spontaneously dissemble itself in our garage. He said we would one day come out to the garage and find nothing but a pile of parts, each one trying to crawl away from the others. The Toyota, by way of contrast, was built tight, our salesman explained. It would survive a nuclear attack without the tires getting out of alignment. This was all suspiciously difficult to verify, given that it involved the future. And Google was silent on this issue. So we went with the comfy back seats. It seemed the quieter option.  

Our minivan is packed with so many features that it changes the entire driving paradigm. In the old model you had a driver and several passengers. Now you have a pilot and a full-time manager of tech support in the front, with several disgruntled users in the back. From the moment the humans enter the minivan, the manager of tech support gets busy. My wife, who I call Spock during family drives, is responsible for the navigation unit, synching the BlackBerry to the speaker system, adjusting the XM satellite stations, loading the DVD, instructing occupants about how to move seats, locking and unlocking doors, and so on. Her job is never done because the users never stop submitting change orders.

As pilot, I try to tune out everything but the sultry and sometimes scolding voice of the navigation unit. If I allow myself to get invested in the tangle of tech support and political issues bubbling over in the rest of the vehicle I will lose concentration and drive into a ravine. Although I'd be lying if I said it isn't a tempting option after the fifteenth change order gets submitted, just before I fire up the rear bumper video camera, and the distance sonar, and start backing out of the garage.

The XM satellite radio is a wonderful invention. It has an endless variety of music. But for reasons I haven't yet discerned, all we ever hear is Daughtry and Lady Gaga. I would be fine with this arrangement if Daughtry didn't sound like two mules dragging a barn door over crushed stones. I need to talk to Spock about that, but she is always buried in work orders.

My point is that minivans are wonderful. If you like Daughtry.
 
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I've blogged about my theory that you can appear to be an expert, at least to non-experts, on any topic for which you know the twelve basic concepts. Someone suggested I write a book with lots of topics and their twelve concepts. I like that idea except you would need about a hundred topics to make it work. I could only come up with 25 topics. What other subjects would you want to know at twelve concepts about? Or to put it another way, what topics do you wish OTHER people understood better?

Investing

Humor

Presentations

Design

Business Writing

Entrepreneurship

Creativity

Job Interview

Exercise

Social Interaction

Education

Diet

Sex

Media

Human Nature

Physics

Aging

Learning

Cooking

Travel

Buying a car

Health

Success

Energy conservation

Building your own home

 
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In my corporate days I shared a cubicle wall with a guy from marketing. He would wander in a few hours after I started work, say his hellos, and occasionally try to recruit me for some sort of pyramid scheme involving artificial gems. After he made his presence known in the office, he would take some documents in his arms and head down the hallway, down the stairs, through the lobby, across the parking lot, into his car, and all the way home. He lived near work, and he'd stay home all day under the cover story of being in meetings.

A few years later I learned that he went on a drinking and drug binge, got in a fight with a buddy in a hotel room, and strangled the fellow with his belt. My coworker went to prison and wrote a book about his experience. It was a good book. He alleged that the victim was a big guy and it wasn't easy to kill him. The relatives of the victim allege that the deceased was about the size of a lawn jockey. I don't know the truth, but I do know that my coworker had a background in marketing not karate.

So who was your worst coworker?
 
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Years ago a suit salesman gave me a tip that has always stuck with me. He said that people won't notice you're bald if you keep yourself very fit. He was a good example of this. I literally hadn't noticed he was bald until he made the comment. My first impression of him had been dominated by the fact he was so obviously fit. It was a brilliant case of misdirection. And it made me think about all the ways people mitigate their bad luck.

Generally speaking, a high level of fitness can compensate for whatever imperfect genes your parents gave you. Fitness is enough to achieve good looks if you bother to dress well, take care of your skin, and get a good haircut.

And fitness, along with a good diet, can also suppress the most common killer diseases that your genes might predispose you to. You can't prevent bad luck, but you can keep it at bay.

If you have the bad luck to be born to a poor family, education can compensate for that. Some schools are better than others, but almost all of them, at least in developed countries, will get you where you need to go.

If you're unlucky in love or business, your degree of effort can compensate for that. In both cases it's a numbers game. If you keep trying, you're bound to get lucky eventually. You just have to be willing to move on to the next attempt, and learn from your failures.

If you boil it all down, the only types of pure bad luck are the truly random disasters such as being struck by lightning, or being born without the gene for optimism. Optimism is what gives you the willingness to stay fit, eat healthy, and keep trying. You wouldn't do those things unless you expected them to work.

So suppose science finds the gene that controls optimism. And suppose it can be manipulated. That would be enough to solve the healthcare problem and boost the economy. People would get fit, avoiding medical costs, and they'd work extra hard because they believed it would pay off in the long run, thus fixing the economy.

The optimism gene is probably the most important one in the universe. Someday we'll find it. That will be interesting.
 
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I saw an interview with Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, & Co. He said his company responded to the public outrage about executive compensation by converting a greater percentage of executive pay from base salary into stock incentives.

It all sounded reasonable until I remembered that their current stock price is about half of its previous high. So depending how those stock options are priced, the executives stand to reap huge rewards for doing nothing but showing up for work while the overall economy rights itself. And the best part is that they're selling this concept as a sacrifice. It's all very Dogbertian.

This reminds me why my first career direction out of college was banking. I wanted to learn how to pat someone on the back and rifle through his wallet at the same time. Unfortunately my banking career ended when my boss called me in her office and explained that the media was giving our bank a hard time for having so few women or minorities in senior management. She explained that promoting me would just make things worse. So I jumped ship to work for the local phone company, and finished my MBA a night, only to get the identical message from my new boss. Once it became inescapably clear that my efforts and my rewards were not linked, I became a cartoonist. It was the only job I could imagine where absurdity was compensated.
 
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The best quote I've seen lately about white collar work comes from commenter Webster:

"The white collar sector is all about no activity punctuated occasionally by useless activities."

I laughed for five minutes after reading that.
 
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As you know, traditional newspapers of the dead tree variety are falling victim to the Internet. Most newspapers have an Internet presence themselves, but they don't generate enough in the way of advertising dollars. And once a local paper is online, it competes with every newspaper in the world. Their only competitive advantage is local news, and so far that doesn't seem to be enough.

My solution is what I will call super-local news. It's not just news about your community, but also about your homeowner's association, your apartment building, your kids' classrooms, and the sports teams they belong to. Every family would have their own online local newspaper, assembled electronically every day based on that family's log-in information. Your personal and super-local news would include everything from world events to school lunch menus for that day. Eventually it might even include your child's report card. Obviously the schools have to be partners in this, and I think that could happen. Most school information is online already or heading in that direction. It just needs to feed to the newspaper's site for aggregation.

The key is for the super-local information to come to the newspapers from volunteers. For example, every youth sport team would have a parent with a digital camera and the willingness to upload some pictures and write a few lines about the game. A simple user interface would make it easy to integrate the news about little Becky's soccer game with news of the Lakers. They would have equal billing.

The key is to get kids interested in the online version of the super-local news. Kids care about themselves more than they care about anything else in the world. So the super-local news has to have lots of content about classrooms, Cub Scout meetings, local movies listings rated less then R, and that sort of thing.

Parents could even have the ability to manipulate their super-local newspaper and add birthday pictures, for example, and forward that day's paper to grandparents and friends.

With this concept the local newspaper extends their business model to include working with schools and youth sports teams to make sure there is a steady stream of family-oriented news in addition to world and local stuff. Once you have kids reading newspapers, the potential for advertising is much greater.

Another great service the super-local news could serve is organizing a family's schedule. Imagine if your family could add its appointments, test dates, assignment deadlines, and invitations to the super-local news so everyone in the family can see it. This would be made easier by allowing families to select what sports teams and classrooms apply to their kids so all of that schedule information populates the calendar automatically.

Done right, the super local newspaper could start capturing the business of evite.com by offering a feature to allow invitations to flow into the family's online calendar. And it could capture the Shutterfly.com business by allowing you to share pictures in a newspaper format, which could be amusing when you add your own headlines, and share them with friends.

Local newspapers wouldn't have the resources to develop the software to make this work, so I imagine the technology being developed by Google, for example, and managed by the local news folks. It would be a big job keeping the school and other super-local information flowing. And of course selling to local advertisers is best done in person.

And of course the news would have lots of Dilbert comics.

[Update: For all the people who mentioned Facebook, or RSS feeds, or other services, you're confusing the technology with the business model. -- Scott]
 
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Almost everything you do in your personal life is useful, even if it's just relaxing or spending time with your family. But if you have a white collar job, almost everything you do for your so-called work will end up being a waste of time in the long run. Obviously if you are a carpenter, most of your nails serve a good purpose. But white collar jobs are mostly about wasting time, with the hope that sometimes, rarely, something good will happen.

If you have a white collar job, leave a comment telling me two things:
  • (1) What is the next WORK item you expect to do.
  • (2) Tell me why it's probably going to be a waste of time.

Resist the urge to say "Eat a donut" or "read Dilbert comics." Tell me the actual work item and why it probably makes no difference in the long run.

This will either be sad or funny. I'm not sure.

[My blogging software doesn't allow me to do numbered lists that don't look stupid.]

 
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There's a machine at the gym where you lie on your stomach and lift a weighted lever by your ankles until your feet are near your buttocks. It works a major muscle in the backs of your legs, which I think is called the biceps femoris. A funny thing happens when I do that exercise: I feel a distinct euphoria. Call it a high if you will. No other weight machine gives me that same feeling.

Now combine this with my observation that people who are addicted to apparently boring sports such as swimming or running tend to have extra large biceps femoris and you have my newest hypothesis: Could the euphoric feeling that comes from working that particular muscle be the reason some people need to run ten miles a day?

Obviously people who exercise a lot will have larger muscles than people who don't. And it's no big secret that exercise makes people feel better in a number of ways. All I'm adding to the mix is the thought that perhaps that particular muscle is more responsible for athletic addiction than others.

I think you'd find that addictive sports are either intellectually challenging (golf, baseball, etc.), or they work the biceps femoris muscle, such as running, biking, and swimming.

I recently joined an indoor soccer team. It exercises the biceps femoris muscles, but it also requires a lot of thinking to make the right passes and plays. Indoor soccer is a fast game, mentally and physically, because you're never far from the ball. My theory predicts that this would be more addictive than most sports. I can attest that it is in fact insanely addicting. I've never experienced anything quite like it. I can see why soccer is the most popular sport in the solar system.

I wonder if the world would be a nicer place if everyone exercised their biceps femoris muscles and experienced its euphoria. A sentence you never hear on the news is "He was a marathon runner and a serial killer."
 
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About a week ago it occurred to me that I could probably double my net worth without increasing my risk. But I wasn't willing to pull the trigger because even though I could identify no risk, maybe I was missing something. It turns out that my plan would have worked, but I waited too long and probably missed window.

The investment idea was this: Sell most of my municipal bonds and buy stock in Wells Fargo bank. This was before the recent run-up in the stock market. The reason this seemed like a risk-free investment is that there were only two real possibilities for the future. Either the banks would become healthy, through government action or market forces, in which cases their stock would zoom, or the entire world would plunge into darkness and no investment would be worth anything.

Generally when you make an investment choice there is an opportunity cost. You always have to wonder if the investment you didn't make would have been better than the one you made. But in the case of banks last week, either they would go up in value, probably by a lot, or the entire economy would collapse and no investment would have value. So while there was a huge risk to investments in general, there was no risk in moving money into Wells Fargo stock. It was all upside potential with no additional risk.

I wonder if there has ever been a time when such a clear investment choice existed.
 
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