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I keep hearing that the United States ranks low in student performance in math and science. This can be interpreted at least two ways.

Interpretations 1: The United States is doing a poor job educating students in two subjects that are vital to the future of the world.

Interpretation 2: Students in the United States realize they will never need to know that mylonite is a breccieated metamorphic rock frequently found in a fault zone.

If you have kids, you know that most of what they learn in math and science is completely useless. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that kids have figured it out too.

I grant you that it is important for the future of the economy that we produce plenty of scientists and inventors and researchers. But how does it help anyone that a future chef can tell you which critters evolved in which epoch? He just needs to know which ones are good eatin'.

I'm all in favor of benchmarking against other countries for education. But isn't the average grade for math and science the most obviously useless and misleading statistic one could follow?
 
I plan to start hoarding supplies soon. There should be some big riots after the election. Here's a sequence of events and conditions that would lead to rioting. Do you see anything on the list that isn't likely?
  1. The economy stays bad for a another month
  2. Obama has a clear lead in the polls before election day
  3. McCain wins anyway. While the real reason for the polling discrepancy will be racism, there will be a widespread belief that the election was rigged. And there will be plenty of real and imagined evidence that it was.
  4. Riots will break out, partly out of genuine anger, partly to get that new flat screen TV.

We know the country can get past one suspicious Presidential election, because it did exactly that with Gore versus Bush. But two in a row would turn even normal citizens into conspiracy theorists. Given the anxiety over the economy, concerns about abortion rights, and the continuing wars, you have a perfect storm for revolution.

Interestingly, the only person who could stop the riots would be Obama himself.

 
Last night at the Presidential debates Obama described education as our top economic issue. All politicians say education is a top priority, but I've never heard Obama refer to it as the top economic issue. This is interesting because my recent poll of 500 economists listed education as the top economic issue, and I think that surprised a lot of people. We know that Obama is heavily influenced by data, and it's a certainty that members of his campaign saw the results of the survey. Did it have any impact on his message about education?

In my September 17th post about my survey of economists, I said, "We know that kids do best in school when their parents are managing the process right. If either candidate had a plan for educating parents on how to help their kids succeed in school, I think that would be compelling." In Obama's exchange about education he made a point of emphasizing the role of parents in improving the performance of their kids in school. I don't recall hearing that before. And as obvious as that might seem, McCain didn't mention it in his remarks about fixing education.

Obama's comments stopped short of where I think the government needs to be in terms of teaching parents how to coach their kids to be good students. I think parenting is a skill that can be taught, especially in regard to education. Most of the countries that kick the United States' butt in student academic performance spend less per student. That suggests that the biggest point of leverage is at home. And it passes the sniff test, because the top students in any class generally have parents that are actively steering the ship.

Do you think the Dilbert survey of Economists had any impact on Obama's message about education? Or is it just a coincidence?
 
After looking over the responses to yesterday's post, my new working theory is that the subprime mess can be boiled down to a widespread failure to follow the most basic rule of investing: diversify.

That's true whether we are talking about the widow, or the pension funds, or the banks, or any other corporate entities that held these exotic mortgage backed securities. If they got in trouble, it is only because they put too many eggs in one basket.

Apparently lots of people bet their corporate and/or corporeal lives on these unfathomable investments. You might be making the same sort of mistake right now, but in a different way.

I know people who use financial advisors to help them spread their money across many different financial investments. This feels like diversification, but it isn't. If the financial advisor is a crook, or incompetent, you put all of your eggs in one rotten basket. In the case of the widow who was convinced by her financial advisor to put a lot of money in these exotic securities, the problem was the advisor more than the securities.

When I first started making serious Dilbert money, I let experts manage half of it, and I managed the rest, as a hedge against both the experts and myself. The experts invested in Enron, Worldcom, and a number of other companies that promptly exploded. The experts reduced their portion of my money by about a third over five years. (The experts work for one of the most respected financial institutions on Earth, by the way.) My own investments did better, precisely because they were more diversified. So now I handle my own investments, probably incompetently.

I didn't own much in the way of stocks for the past several years, thanks to not using professional advisors. A big chunk of my money has been in California Municipal bonds of various types, and all are insured. When I asked my bond advisor what good it would be to have insurance if the entire state of California goes to hell, they advised me emphatically, and obviously incorrectly, that these big insurance companies are ready to take any hit.

In order to diversify more, I started migrating money over to the stock market during this recent plunge. The market could go a lot lower still, but this is either the beginning of the end of the United States as we know it, in which case it doesn't matter how I invested, or it is a once-in-a-lifetime stock buying opportunity. It was an easy decision.

Are you diversified?
 
As a general rule, wherever you find a large group of people who are baffled by complexity, you will find a smaller group of people making a good living screwing them. It's true with all complex things:  insurance, cell phone plans, legal stuff, technology, you name it. But it has never been truer than with the mortgage backed securities that are currently crapping down the throat of the global economic system.

As I understand it, a bunch of geniuses used something called math to make it seem like a good idea to loan money to people who are unlikely to pay it back. But here's the part I don't understand: Who invested in these risky securities?

According to a recent piece on 60 Minutes, there might be $50 trillion invested in these exotic financial vehicles. So why didn't anyone ever offer those investments to me? And why don't I know anyone else who invested in them? And why haven't I seen a crying widow on TV who wishes she hadn't invested her life savings in them?

As I understand it, banks and mortgage brokers offloaded their crappy mortgages to these investors, thus transferring the risk from the system that makes loans to a bunch of confused people who apparently ran out of regular things to invest in. So why is the banking system in trouble if they moved their worst loans to other people? And who are these other people?

Do you personally know anyone who invested in these exotic securities? And if not, how did we watch so much coverage of the economic crisis without learning such a basic fact?
 
I consider myself the biggest skeptic in the world. But I've gotten myself in trouble for describing my experiences with a self-described psychic, and with something called affirmations, where you write your goals daily. (See the last chapter of my book The Dilbert Future.) In both cases I thought I was writing about the limits of perception, and frankly just trying to entertain, but it was widely interpreted by hardcore skeptics as "He believes in magic." Oops.

For the record, I don't believe in ESP or magic. But I do believe our perceptions are interpretations of a reality that is too complex for a human brain to process. And so sometimes when your brain tries to incorporate an inconsistency into its interpretation, the result can look like magic. And if you tell me that isn't just as good as actual magic, we could have a long discussion. It's like the difference between thinking you are happy versus being happy. I call that a tie.

With that context, I feel safe in telling you that I have had regular glimpses of my future throughout my life. If I believed in psychic powers, these experiences would fit that model perfectly. But since I don't, let's agree you can label it selective memory or whatever you like.

I had the first glimpse of my future when I was about eight years old. I saw an article about a cartoonist who was doing okay for himself, a guy named Charles Schulz. I remember looking at his picture and feeling that was my future job. The sensation was different from wanting or hoping. I wanted and hoped for lots of fantastic things, but I have only had one vision of my future career. And as I spent the next 20 or so years working on a more traditional career path, I never shook the feeling that I was supposed to be a cartoonist. It always felt like I was fighting destiny.

One day in my senior year at Hartwick College, in Oneonta New York, I woke up from a sound sleep, sat upright, and saw myself living in San Francisco. This was a seemingly random choice because I had never been to California, didn't know anyone in San Francisco, and didn't know anything about the city.

A few months later, I asked my economics professor what company I should try to join after graduation and he tossed a brochure in front of me for Crocker Bank, headquartered in San Francisco. He explained that they were doing lots of innovative things with technology, and they were the future. That wasn't enough to convince me, and after graduation I went to visit my brother in LA. Meanwhile, an ex-girlfriend had moved to San Francisco and invited me up for the weekend to visit. I went, liked what I saw (of the city), and on Monday morning I walked into a branch of Crocker Bank and got a job as a teller. I've lived in the Bay Area since.

Another college vision (or false memory) involved me standing in front of huge crowds of people, giving some sort of speech. The details were sketchy, but I knew the crowds were there to see me. This vision conflicted somewhat with my vision of becoming a cartoonist. I figured it was either one or the other. You don't draw comics in front of huge crowds.

One day, a few years into my cartooning career, I got a call from an oil consortium in Canada, asking if I would give a speech to their small group of twenty or so members. They offered $5,000 plus travel expenses. I said yes, went and spoke to them for an hour, and cashed my check. But the phone kept ringing and the crowds got bigger. One of the last events I did, before losing my voice, was an audience of about 15,000 people in Vegas. My opening act was a traveling branch of the Cirque du Soleil. I remember standing on stage, spotlights in my eyes, while the opening applause thundered, thinking this is just how I saw it.

People often asked me if I was nervous on stage in front of huge crowds. I wasn't. It felt like I was supposed to be there. Likewise, people ask if it is hard to produce comics on deadline. It isn't. This feels like what I am supposed to be doing.

I was thinking about these things because my book, Dilbert 2.0: Twenty Years of Dilbert is just out. I included in the book the story of how I used affirmations to achieve my goals (not magic). And I included the comics I previously showed only to live audiences during my speaking years. Those are the comics too edgy for publication, plus the ones that got published and got me in trouble. If you know anyone who saw me speak, they can tell you what to expect.

Physically, the book is beautiful. The publisher did a terrific job. It's ten pounds of the best Dilbert comics ever, according to me, with a disk to give you the entire 20 years of Dilbert comics. This is the best product I will ever be associated with. If you have a Dilbert fan in your circle, do him a favor. Here's a link:

http://www.amazon.com/Dilbert-2-0-20-Years/dp/0740777351/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1223908144&sr=1-1

 
Today I give you some positive news because frankly you need it.

Basic Instructions


Long time readers of this blog remember I was trying to help cartoonist Scott Meyer develop a syndicated comic strip. He already has a comic called Basic Instructions that is popular on the web, but its format and characters aren't a natural fit with mainstream newspapers. And while newspaper syndication didn't work out, Scott just came out with a book that is a collection of his comics. I have a copy, and it is pure genius. Check it out.

http://www.amazon.com/Help-Way-Collection-Basic-Instructions/dp/1593079958

The web site is here: www.basicinstructions.net/

Voice Update

In July I had surgery to fix my voice issue. For 3.5 years I have had spasmodic dysphonia, a condition where the vocal cords squeeze shut involuntarily when you try to talk. The projected recovery time from the surgery is 3-4 months, while the transplanted nerves in the neck regenerate. I was told that after a few months of only being able to whisper, the new nerve pathway would finally be complete, and one day I would wake up with a voice.

It happened this week.

I don't yet have a full voice, and I still can't talk above much background noise, but it's a real voice. Unlike before, it is fully functional. For the first time in years I can use the telephone, and order food at a restaurant and be heard. It will take several more months for the voice to become essentially normal. I am delighted.

Creativity


Recently I was asked if human creativity is nearing its limits. It seems as if every idea has already been done. Regular readers of this blog know that every time I describe what I think is a new idea, someone provides a link to an earlier description of the same idea.

I don't think creativity is coming to an end. I think creativity is increasing at an increasing rate, and always will.

Creativity is generally a combination of existing ideas. If there were only two concepts in the universe, creativity would be "What happens if we put them together?" If you add a third and fourth concept to the universe, the number of creative combinations shoots up.

The Internet allows you to check the originality of your idea quickly, so it sometimes seems that all the good ideas have been taken. But the Internet also seeds us with many more concepts than we would otherwise be exposed to. Humans are like distributed computing for creativity. The Internet and the media and our daily lives dump huge volumes of raw concepts into our heads and we process and combine things until something new feels right.

Worrying comes from predicting the future on a straight line, imagining trouble increasing at some established pace. But the real future comes in leaps and bounces, with creative solutions expanding faster than problems. I believe this is some sort of fundamental law of the universe, that solutions will always outpace problems.

Take a deep breath. You're going to be fine. Someone, somewhere, just thought of an idea that will fix everything. And you couldn't stop it if you tried.

 
The concept of retirement baffles me. I certainly see why people want to retire if they have unpleasant jobs, fun hobbies, and interesting grandkids. But why is it okay with the rest of society that individuals can simply stop contributing to the greater good?

Retirement is a fairly recent concept in historical terms. When the average life expectancy was 40, it wasn't much of an issue. I think the concept of retirement really took off when people were healthy and productive until about 65, on average, then started the rapid descent towards a dirt nap at about age 75. No one begrudged a few years of relaxation to someone who had put in 50 solid years of productive toil.

Now we have people retiring at 60 and living to 100. Do you still feel good about that? Even if the retiree has saved money for retirement, society is still picking up a big part of the tab. You have the Social Security payments that usually exceed the amount paid into the system, and all the roads, police, firemen, and other services that are being funded by other people's taxes. The list goes on.

I think about this when I hear about young families struggling with childcare expenses at the same time a bazillion retirees watch Jeopardy and wish they had something better to do. Is there really no way to solve those two problems at the same time?

If human life expectancy had suddenly jumped from 40 to 80, instead of gradually increasing, it would have been socially unacceptable to retire before your health failed. But because life expectancy inched up, we drifted into a situation where older people aren't expected to be part of the solution. I think most of them would prefer to contribute more than they are.

People who know me well don't ask when I plan to retire. I'm sure I will stop drawing comics at some point, but I can't imagine a life where I'm not adding something back to the system. I don't think I'm that different from most people.

When we think of how to patch up the ailing economy, we reflexively think about youth. We think about education, and innovation, and getting healthcare for young working people. I think we're leaving some low hanging fruit on the trees with the older generation.

For example, imagine the government coming up with some sort of carbon trading-like plan for healthcare. Under this plan, anyone who uses less than the average amount of healthcare for his or her age, during a given year, wins some extra government funding for their local school system, and that amount would be tracked and publicly reported. You'd feel like a stud to be on the top of the healthy seniors list.

The idea is that retirees would be incented to exercise and eat right, thus cutting their average medical bills. Old people are the biggest users of medical care, so the impact could be huge. And since any savings would not go directly to the retirees, they wouldn't be incented to skimp on medical visits just to make a few bucks for themselves.

I'm making an assumption here that keeping older people healthy saves society money, but I could be wrong if it boosts life expectancy. That tradeoff would have to be studied, but you get the idea that maybe there are some missed opportunities here.

Certainly retired people could be helping with childcare, tutoring, crime watch, and other functions that directly benefit society, at least a few hours per week. Can you think of any other ways to harness senior power to juice the economy?
 
In a few weeks, my 20th anniversary Dilbert book comes out, titled Dilbert 2.0. I'll tell you more about that later. As part of the promotion for the book, I made a video of how I draw Dilbert on my computer and posted it on Amazon.com. Check it out.

http://www.amazon.com/Dilbert-2-0-20-Years/dp/0740777351


The rest of this post is for art nerds who care about this sort of thing. I'll see the rest of you tomorrow.

The equipment you see me using is a Wacom Cintiq 21ux. Here's a page that describes it

http://www.wacom.com/cintiq/21UX.cfm


It's attached to a plain Windows PC running XP. The software is Photoshop. I created my own font for the lettering, using a commercial font creation packages. I forget which one.

Obviously I started my career drawing on paper, with the first draft in pencil, and then inking over the pencil lines. The dot pattern used for shading was a sort of decal you could buy at high end art stores. You placed the decal on your art and then used an X-Acto knife to cut it to fit.

It was a tedious process, and took about twice as long as my current method. When finished, I would take a photocopy and mail the original to United Media in New York. The flaw in this process is that once the local Post Office figures out who you are, the original art starts disappearing. So the next step involved scanning the originals and e-mailing them, which took forever with the computers of the day.

The next phase in the tool evolution involved drawing the basic art on paper, then scanning it into the computer to finish. Once scanned, I used Photoshop just to clean up stray lines, add the shading with a "fill" command, and do the lettering. I created my own dot pattern for the fills, through trial and error.

During those years I used a Macintosh for the art, and a PC for everything else, partly to be compatible with licensees. Every Mac I owned was a lemon, crashing ten times a day on average. My Windows machines were all relatively sturdy, so I moved everything to Windows and things have been great since. (You don't need to tell me your Mac never crashes. I know.)

About four years ago I moved to a fully paperless process, using the Cintiq 21ux. It took me about three months to get the hang of drawing on screen. It's an entirely different feel, scale, and process.

I still draw a first draft, as you will see in the video. It's hard to tell, but the lines of the rough art are jaggy because of the scale I use to draw it. The rough art is in its own "layer," which is Photoshop lingo. When I'm happy with the rough art, I click on the layer and change the opacity of the lines to about 25%. That makes the rough look like a light gray line. I do that so that when I do the final art in another layer, the black lines of the final are easy to distinguish from the lighter lines of the rough draft below it. I zoom to 200% for the final art, and use the paintbrush tool at size 6, with 25% hardness, giving the lines a smooth look.

The starting file is 600 dpi, grayscale. The comic size is about 2" x 7" with some extra white space around the perimeter. You can draw in any size that is proportional to the finished product. It took some trial and error to figure out what works best for me.

The daily strips are colored by an outside firm. I color the Sunday strips myself, in Photoshop. It takes about ten minutes, mostly just using the paint bucket took and clicking a color into each area. Before I add the color, I convert from grayscale to bitmap then back to grayscale and up to CMYK. The detour to bitmap makes the color fills cleaner, going all the way to the black lines without leaving a little border.

Most syndicated cartoonists still draw on paper, then scan the art and e-mail it to their syndication company. They're going to be pissed when they see this video and realize how much extra work they have been doing.

 
According to a new study, women are attracted to intelligent men for both long term relationships and for hook-ups.

http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=5951979&page=1


The only time women are not attracted to intelligent men is when they have the option of a good looking guy who is dumber than pants on fish. Still, it's comforting to know that given the choice of two ugly guys, women usually prefer the one who is not a moron. And obviously many women will still pick the guy who is both ugly and stupid if he has lots of money, good hair, is tall, or plays in a band. I did my own study to reach that conclusion. It's titled "Duh."

In my vast experience as an unattractive smart guy who was not always a syndicated cartoonist, there are in fact women who have fetishes for smart men. Not many, but they exist. My guess is that about 3% of the female public is in that group. That's probably good enough to keep the inventions flowing for a few more evolutionary steps.

The only risk to the future of humanity is that nerds will invent a technology that is better than sex with another human being. I'll try to keep this next part rated PG-13, so please be patient with the indirectness.

I assume some entrepreneur is already working on creating a business where guys will be able to buy a lifelike female body part that plugs into a standard USB port, and can be controlled by someone else across the Internet. That artificial body part could mimic a hand, mouth, or woo-woo. In the short run, the business model would involve paying women, in countries where such things are legal, to control the device and appear on a web cam chat. In the long run, artificial intelligence and CGI women will be controlling the action, so the whole system would only cost $100, with no recurring fees. And that will be the end of humanity because nerds will stop mating, their genes will die out, humanity will revert to the Bronze Age, and all the attractive, dumb people will be eaten by wild dogs.

I like to end on a positive note, so let's take a moment to be happy for the wild dogs.

 
 
 
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