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I'm sure you're all following the iPhone 4 story. If you hold the phone a certain way, it drops calls.

In a press conference on the subject, Steve Jobs said, "We're not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy."

Jobs got a lot of heat about his response. Where was the apology? Where was the part where he acknowledged that the buck stops with him, and that Apple made a big mistake that never should have happened? That's public relations 101, right?

I'm a student of how language influences people. Apple's response to the iPhone 4 problem didn't follow the public relations playbook because Jobs decided to rewrite the playbook. (I pause now to insert the necessary phrase Magnificent Bastard.) If you want to know what genius looks like, study Jobs' words: "We're not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy."

Jobs changed the entire argument with nineteen words. He was brief. He spoke indisputable truth. And later in his press conference, he offered clear fixes.

Did it work? Check out the media response. There's lots of talk about whether other smartphones are perfect or not. There's lots of talk about whether Jobs' response was the right one. But the central question that was in everyone's head before the press conference - "Is the iPhone 4 a dud" - has, well, evaporated. Part of the change in attitude is because the fixes Apple offered are adequate. But those fixes easily could have become part of the joke if handled in an apologetic "please kick me" way.

If Jobs had not changed the context from the iPhone 4 in particular to all smartphones in general, I could make you a hilarious comic strip about a product so poorly made that it won't work if it comes in contact with a human hand. But as soon as the context is changed to "all smartphones have problems," the humor opportunity is gone. Nothing kills humor like a general and boring truth.

I've wondered for some time if Jobs studied hypnosis, or if he's some sort of freakish natural. And I wonder how much of his language is planned versus off-the-cuff. He speaks and acts like a master hypnotist. (For new readers, I'm a trained hypnotist myself, and it definitely takes one to know one.)

I have long had a name for Jobs' clever move. I call it the "High Ground Maneuver." I first noticed an executive using it years ago, and I've since used it a number of times when the situation called for it. The move involves taking an argument up to a level where you can say something that is absolutely true while changing the context at the same time. Once the move has been executed, the other participants will fear appearing small-minded if they drag the argument back to the detail level. It's an instant game changer.

For example, if a military drone accidentally kills civilians, and there is a public outcry, it would be a mistake for the military to spend too much time talking about what went wrong with that particular mission. The High Ground Maneuver would go something like this: "War is messy. No one wants civilians to die. We will study this situation to see how we can better avoid it in the future."

Notice that the response is succinct, indisputably true, and that the context has been taken to a higher level, about war in general. That's what Jobs did. It's a powerful technique, and you can use it at home.

There's a limit to the method. I don't think that BP could have gotten away with it as a response to the oil spill because the problem was so large and it seemed unique to BP. But if they had tried the High Ground Maneuver, it would have looked like this: "All of the easy sources of oil have been found fifty years ago. If the oil industry stops taking risks, many of you would be out of work in less than a decade. We all want a future of clean energy, but no one sees a way to get there as quickly as we need to. We will do everything we can to clean up the spill, and to make things right with the Gulf economy."

Someday business students will read about Steve Jobs' response to the iPhone 4 issue and they will learn that the High Ground Maneuver (probably by some other name) became the public relations standard for consumer products companies from that day on.
 
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You probably saw the story about the woman who won the lottery for the fourth time. Some say the odds of that are 1 out of 18 septillion. I think almost everyone who reads this blog assumes it wasn't luck, and that there was some criminal activity involved. But it made me wonder if humans have some sort of innate and similar view of where coincidence fails as an explanation. Let's test that.

Let's say a mysterious man appears at your door and tells you that you have a special power. If you write the name of a person on a piece of paper and put it in a sock overnight, that person will die. You try it once out of curiosity, picking the name of some scoundrel from the news so you won't feel bad if it works. And sure enough, that person dies of a heart attack that very night.

Your first thought might be that as a general rule, scoundrels live risky lifestyles. You might have gotten lucky on that one. So you try it again the next night with a new name, and that person is also dead by morning.  You try it twenty times, never telling anyone else of your experiment, and each time it works before sunrise the next day.

You can imagine a variety of explanations for your experience. You might be crazy, or dreaming, or experiencing selective memory. Maybe the mysterious man who told you of this method is somehow watching you and putting out the hit order on the name you choose, for reasons that you can't understand. Maybe you're just good at recognizing when people's time has come. Maybe you are part of some sort of science experiment or reality show. Perhaps there are a dozen other explanations.

My question to you is this: How many times could you repeat this experiment alone, with whatever controls or privacy you could muster, before you believed your actions were causing specific people to die?

For me it would be somewhere around the fourth person.
 
Today's blog is for science nerds only. I provide you with three media data points and turn you loose to connect or reject them.

First, the New York Times is reporting that a respected string theorist is saying gravity is an illusion emerging from the mechanics of atoms. Another respected physicist says gravity is an illusion caused by the differences in entropy.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/13/science/13gravity.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1&ref=homepage&src=me

In other recent news, physicists working with the Large Hadron Collider are rumored to have found evidence of the so-called God Particle (Higgs boson) that would theoretically explain why other particles have mass.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/large-hadron-collider/7885997/Large-Hadron-Collider-rival-Tevatron-has-found-Higgs-boson-say-rumours.html

Thirdly, I point you to page 55 of my book God's Debris, written ten years ago. It's the chapter titled Physics of God Dust. (It only makes sense if you read the entire book, but most of you have, so this is just to jog your memory of that chapter.) The free pdf download is here:  http://nowscape.com/godsdebris.pdf

Years ago I read a fascinating book (I can't recall the title) that described how throughout history the great discoveries of science were preceded by art. In other words, if you looked at the paintings and fiction that were becoming popular just before the scientific breakthroughs of the times, you would see that the styles of thinking necessary for specific scientific breakthroughs had recently begun to permeate society at large. Or to put it in more poetic terms, humanity gains knowledge about its own reality when it is collectively ready for it. That readiness is reflected in art.

Skeptics will rightly point out that you can find any pattern in history if you try. True enough. But it's still such an interesting notion that it's worth considering, even if only for fun.

My discussion of physics in God's Debris isn't an exact match to what the physicists are discussing in the links I provided. But if someday the idea is validated that gravity is an illusion caused by probability and entropy, it will seem as though art, including but not limited to God's Debris, predicted humanity was ready for that knowledge.

Update: Thanks to reader Alanc for correctly identifying the book about art preceding science.   The more relevant sequel is Art and Physics by Leonard Shlain.

http://www.amazon.com/Art-Physics-Parallel-Visions-Space/dp/0688123058



 
The other day I bought an iPad for the house. Yes, I know, when the iPad was first announced, I predicted that few people would want a crippled laptop. Allow me to say I was obviously and totally wrong.

By far, the iPad's most wonderful feature, compared to laptops, is the fact that it turns on instantly. There's no boot-up sequence. That one advantage makes the iPad an entirely different product from a laptop. Once powered on, the iPad doesn't start begging me to update things nor force me to make decisions. It doesn't remind me of all the ways it is protecting me. It doesn't tell me to order printer ink or ask me to fill out a survey. A regular laptop is like your boss: always making you wait before giving you busy-work assignments. The iPad is more like a punctual lover. It's always ready for fun. And if you are tempted to do some work on the iPad, its non-keyboard quickly changes your mind. You wouldn't say a lover is a crippled version of a boss. (Insert your own inappropriate humor here.) So any comparison of an iPad to a laptop simply doesn't work.

Our new iPad's permanent home is in the kitchen. I've discovered that 90% of its usefulness comes from the fact that it's speedy. Yesterday a fox walked by the window, and I was the only witness. Someone asked what type it was, and I was able to point to a picture on the iPad in less than 30 seconds. Some version of that situation happens continuously. Life comes at us in sub-minute chunks, especially in the kitchen. That's a lot of iPad opportunities. I wouldn't have bothered waiting for my laptop to snap out of its energy saving mode.

[Full disclosure: The 30 seconds to locate a fox picture on the Internet does not count the full minute of looking at Megan Fox images that Google was kind enough to offer up at the top of the search.]

Interestingly, I don't recall the instant-on feature being a prominent element of Apple's advertisements for the iPad. Perhaps at this point they could sell laminated turds if they put the Apple logo on them. Obviously whatever Apple is doing is working, marketing-wise.

Another interesting phenomenon of the iPhone and iPad era is that we are being transformed from producers of content into consumers. With my BlackBerry, I probably created as much data as I consumed. It was easy to thumb-type long explanations, directions, and even jokes and observations. With my iPhone, I try to avoid creating any message that are over one sentence long. But I use the iPhone browser to consume information a hundred times more than I did with the BlackBerry. I wonder if this will change people over time, in some subtle way that isn't predictable. What happens when people become trained to think of information and entertainment as something they receive and not something they create? I think this could be a fork in the road for human evolution. Perhaps in a million years, humans will feel no conversational obligation to entertain or provide useful information. That will be the function of the Internet. Someday a scientist will identify the introduction of the iPhone as the point where evolution began to remove conversation from the list of human capabilities. And when the scientist forms this realization, he won't tell his spouse because conversation won't exist. He'll put it on the Internet.

 
I like problems. Where there are problems there are opportunities. I don't think it can work any other way. No one wishes for problems, but when a bus goes into a ravine, the undertaker gets more business. That's just the way the world is wired.

I credit the problems I had in the corporate world for my cartooning career. Had my path been smoother I wouldn't have tried something new. And I wouldn't have had so much fodder to work with.

Tell me your career-related problems. I will happily translate those problems into Dilbert's world, thus transforming your problems into your entertainment. If you can't solve a problem, the next best thing is to squeeze some laughs out of it.

Please answer any one of these...

What problem does your company's product try to solve?

What is the biggest problem for people in your profession?

What is the biggest problem in your industry?

What is the biggest problem/constraint in your current project?

 

 
Did you notice on the Dilbert.com home page that there's a new search box above the strip? You can now search the entire Dilbert archive by key word. Once you find the strip you like, you can easily have it put on a mug, t-shirt, mouse pad, or water bottle.

You can also order the strip for your PowerPoint presentation or other business use, all online.

Or you can just read, for example, all of the Ratbert strips at once. Or all of the strips that mention Mission Statements, or sales, or Unix, or whatever. I just spent about an hour looking for my own favorites.

I've waited 15 years for this capability. It took a huge effort to manually enter all of the keywords. I have to say the result is quite awesome.

 
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My assignment was to pick up a few items from the grocery store. You should understand in advance that I'm not the designated shopper in our family. I suffer from a condition called CFS (Can't Find Shit). If you ask me, for example, to open the crisper and take out the bowling ball and the severed human hand, I would come back with, at best, one of those items and a bag of small carrots.

So you can imagine the panic that sets in when I'm handed a shopping list. I hope and I hope and I hope that the list will contain only familiar and easy-to-locate objects. For example, cucumbers are a good choice for me. I know where to find them, and when I come home with one that is spongy and inedible, I can say, "It was the best one they had."

I scan the shopping list: six items. I feel good about five of them. The sixth is coconut milk. Oh, God. I do not ask Shelly where in the grocery store I might find coconut milk. That is announcing failure in advance. I vow to find it on my own.

As I drive toward the store, I consider the possible hiding places for coconut milk. I'm sure it's not in the dairy section. And they probably don't have an "all things coconut" section. It's not a fruit juice. It's not a soda. My only hope is that a thirsty monkey is in the store at the same time, so I can follow him.

I soon realized that I don't have any of the qualities necessary for finding coconut milk. I'm not a good shopper. I'm not experienced at cooking, which might give me a clue as to what section the coconut milk would be in. I have no knowledge of the store. I have no patience. I'm not a good guesser. If there's a choice that is correct and a choice that will go horribly wrong, my instincts always lead me in the direction that will be comically catastrophic. It's often not good to be me.

I was willing to ask someone for help, but all of the store employees were in their secret hiding places, and the other shoppers all seemed angry. If I had a different type of personality, I might impose on the other shoppers and not care about their angry reactions. Or I might have interrupted a checker during a transaction. But as I'm trying to tell you here, I have NONE OF THE QUALITIES NECESSARY FOR FINDING COCONUT MILK. I don't know how many more ways I can say that.

I decide to do a shelf-by-shelf search, leaving out no section of the store, no matter how unlikely. I search through the donuts and the tortillas. I rifle through the radishes. "It might be frozen" I think to myself before opening every door of every refrigerated section. After searching most of the store, I was near exhaustion - and starvation, ironically. I reached the Asian food section. I never knew that my grocery store was a racist, but there it was. My eyes gazed upon a can on the bottom shelf with mostly Japanese or possibly Chinese characters and an English title "Coconut Milk." Now I have a new problem. I wonder if any of those words mean anything I should know, such as "Not intended for use in any of the ways your wife would like," or "99% Panda urine." There were a lot of ways this could go wrong. Worse yet, there were two brands side by side. Was one of them the "right" kind and one of them the sort of thing you only buy if you have a severe case of CFS?

I choose one brand randomly and grab four cans, semi-triumphantly. I quickly locate the other items on the list and sprint for the checkout. As a precaution, I double-check my shopping list. It said FIVE cans of coconut milk, not four. Damn! I hurried back to where I found the first four, only to discover that in the past five minutes the store employees had scampered out of their hidey holes and rearranged the entire store without anyone noticing. It was like a bad dream. The Asian food section was now nothing but pickles and mayonnaise. Or maybe I am bad at retracing my steps. The point is that I have NONE OF THE QUALITIES NECESSARY FOR FINDING COCONUT MILK TWICE.

Eventually I find where the Asian food section has been hidden. I pay for my items and stride triumphantly out of the store, across the parking lot, only to discover that someone has stolen my minivan. Or maybe I forgot where I parked. Or maybe the friggin' thing was on the bottom shelf of the ever-moving Asian food section. The point is that I couldn't find it.

In past situations like this, when I needed to distract myself so I wouldn't spontaneously transform from Bruce Banner into something green, I used to check my BlackBerry to see if I had any interesting messages. But I got rid of my BlackBerry, and now I have something called an iPhone. It operates differently, in the sense that instead of being a device for communicating, it is more like carrying disappointment in your pocket. On this day, despite having both the ringer and vibration setting on, my iPhone had failed to warn me of two incoming texts and one voice call from Shelly. The first text message read "Also get lemon juice."

The items I had already purchased would have melted in the car, should I ever find it, because temperatures hovered around 100 degrees. And I couldn't take my groceries back into the store because I fear being arrested for shoplifting. Once I buy something, I spend the next six months driving in wide arcs around the store whenever I'm in the area just so no one will falsely accuse me of running out the door without paying. This is one more way in which I'm not normal. I know I had a receipt. Shut up.

Eventually I found the minivan. I drove home and tried to convince Shelly that the lack of lemon juice was Steve Jobs' fault. She didn't say anything, but judging from the way she shook her head in disgust, I think she really hates that guy.
 
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Two concepts that are exceptionally hard to define are consciousness and free will. Any attempt to define them becomes a murky soup of other words that are themselves hard to define. So I offer you a practical definition for both.

Suppose we define a creature to have consciousness and free will if it demonstrates the ability to use the external world to reprogram its own brain toward specific ends. By this definition, reading a book in order to change one's mood or gain data would be an example of both consciousness and free will. But a monkey using a stick as a tool to get bugs would be nothing more than eating. The monkey is not trying to become a smarter or happier monkey; he's just feeding his body.

My problem with free will has always been that brains are subject to the same cause and effect as all other matter. Even if you allow for some randomness at the subatomic level, and even if you allow that randomness to bubble up to the big world, it's still barely different from a lawnmower hitting a rock. A lack of predictability is different from being free to choose.

By my new definition, humans are truly different from the animals in terms of consciousness and free will because we make the most use of our surroundings as an interface for reprogramming ourselves. No animal has the equivalent of a gym or a school or a barber shop.

Some animals use their environment for playing. A dolphin might surf the waves behind a cruise ship for no other reason than to have fun and reprogram its own mind into a good mood. I'm willing to call that a limited example of both consciousness and free will.

I started thinking along these lines because I view all of my own activities in the context of how they will reprogram my moist robot brain. I ask myself how any action I might take will change either my mood or my knowledge. That's my most basic filter. I include any health-related or career-related of family-related choices to be part of reprogramming my brain. I rearrange matter in the external world in order to program my own brain.

It made me wonder if other people see the world the same way. If you look at a stack of weights in a gym, do you see heavy objects that would be unpleasant to lift, or an interface for reprogramming your own mood?

 
Cash will eventually go away. So will checks. Someday all you will need is a retina scan and a password, or an embedded chip, or something along those lines. Imagine a world where all transactions are digital. I'm not sure we know what's ahead.

For starters, you wouldn't have to prepare your taxes. All of your transactions would be reported to the IRS as they happened. Perhaps you'd have a separate password for business-related transactions to keep things straight.

I wonder how much of the budget deficit could be closed by eliminating the ability for cash businesses to lie on their taxes. It's probably a big number. A cashless world could create a huge shift of the tax burden to lower income folks who currently get paid in cash.

When you eliminate cash, you also eliminate a lot of crime. Criminals need cash to stay off the radar. In a cashless world, drug dealers and crime syndicates could try to set up fake businesses to launder their revenues, but it wouldn't work. Imagine setting up a fake dry cleaner, for example. The government could easily determine whether that business is buying the type and quantity of dry cleaning supplies typically needed, and whether the profit margins are at industry norms. All of that information would be available through the tax records. A drug dealer could pretend to be a consultant, but even then you expect a digital trail for buying printer ink, business travel, and the like. Perhaps the drug dealer's address and educational level would be tip-offs too.

Violent crime will greatly diminish too, because so much of society's violence happens in the context of criminal enterprises that will no longer be profitable or practical.

In the cashless world, you would never need to carry a wallet. You would never need to balance a checkbook or spend an evening paying bills. Many of you have already reached that point. But you'd also never have to drive to an ATM because some caveman paid you with a check, and you'd never need to wait in line behind someone who is paying by check. I can't wait.

Everyone's fear, of course, is that a cashless society is more vulnerable to government tyranny. But realistically, moving from a 95% cashless world, where we probably are today, to 100%, probably doesn't generate that much extra tyranny, unless you're a drug dealer.

There's a privacy issue, too. But as I have argued before, privacy will someday be a quaint footnote in history. When privacy goes away completely, we'll all be freer. There's only a penalty to privacy when your asshole neighbor can look down his nose at your hobbies while secretly masturbating to Field and Stream magazine. The best two situations for society are when you have either complete privacy or complete non-privacy. It's the middle ground that creates problems. That's where we are now.

Kids already have no privacy. Their texting and browsing histories can be monitored. Their locations can be tracked. And if they have a credit card, their purchasing can be tracked. In practice, parents don't take advantage of all the ways they can monitor their teens, but everyone understands that the tools exist. That generation will never have a memory of privacy as their parents knew it.

 

 

    
 
We've lived in our new home for several months now, and I'm ready to render my verdict on what design elements worked.

Sound Baffle

My home office is designed with a sound baffle. It's a 10-foot diagonal hallway between my office door and the main office space. It's a kill zone for sound waves, and it works like a charm. The house has no carpets, so sound carries, but none of it makes it to my desk. The master bedroom has the same feature.

Home Theater Location

We put our home theater in the same general area as the kitchen and family room. It seats ten, which makes it cozy enough for general TV viewing. Now that most TV shows are HD, the big screen gets used every night. If the theater were in the basement or the far end of the home, as is often the case, it would feel lonely, and only get used for movies.

The theater has a double door with a large glass oval in the center. It doesn't let much light in, and you always feel visually connected to people in the kitchen when you're in the theater.

Being near the kitchen gives you convenient access to the microwave and refrigerator. The theater is soundproofed with acoustic wall panels, so you can be blasting a movie without interrupting conversation in the kitchen. It works in reverse too. If you want to escape the noise in the rest of the house you can leave the theater sound off and be in complete silence.

TV for Parties

The living room has its own largish standard TV. That allows us to entertain around special broadcasts such as the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards. The hardcore viewers use the theater while the chit-chatters mingle in the living room, near enough to each other that there's a flow back and forth to make you feel connected. And both rooms open to the kitchen where people inevitably congregate, so the three spaces act as one for entertaining. (There's a small TV in the kitchen too.)

One mistake you see in a lot of new homes is a fireplace and a TV on the same wall. From a design perspective, the two rectangles compete. The worst solution is putting a TV above the fireplace. You have to crane your neck for viewing, and it always looks like you couldn't make up your mind what should be on that wall.

Our TV and our fireplace in the family room are on adjacent walls, so each wall has its own focal point. The L-shaped couch has one section facing the TV and the other facing the fireplace. It's the only configuration that I can imagine looking intentional.

Intercom

Our phones double as microphones for a whole-house public address system. Hit a few keys and your voice booms through the ceiling speakers throughout the house. It gets used all the time.

Cat's Bathroom

The cat box has its own space off of the laundry room, with a bathroom fan. It's out of sight and still convenient enough for cleaning.

Kitchen Cart

We designed an under-counter space for a kitchen utility cart. When you want to clean up after dinner or entertaining, you wheel out the cart and pile on the debris for a convenient trip to the dishwasher.

Multiple Recycling Bins

Our kitchen has three separate recycling and trash drawers, forming a triangle in the kitchen space. About half of all kitchen trips are to the garbage/recycling. This way you're always near one, and you rarely have to scoot someone out of the way to get to it.

Multiple Microwaves

Relative to the cost of a kitchen, microwaves are inexpensive. So we included two in the design, plus a convection oven that doubles as a third microwave. We use two or three of them at the same time quite often. It's a great convenience, especially on movie night when popcorn is in high demand.

Multiple Dishwashers

We have two dishwashers. The new ones are so quiet that you can't tell if they are running. For the price of a second dishwasher, the extra convenience is extraordinary.

Big Kitchen

Obviously the kitchen is large. We assumed it would be the most used area, and it is. The center is an oversized island with seating at one end, stove in the middle, and a second prep sink. The design attracts people to gather around it, either chatting or helping, and the hostess is facing the guests while cooking.

Rooms Omitted

We made room for the oversized kitchen and the theater by leaving out rooms you normally find in a home. We left out the fancy foyer, formal living room, and formal dining room. Our dining table, which hasn't arrived yet, will float just off the kitchen and double as the main thoroughfare for the downstairs. That way we avoid extra walls and hallways that ruin the flow of a house.

Those are some of the design elements that worked well. (Sorry, no pictures. It's still a private space.)

Update: Several of you asked to see a sketch of what the sound baffle and an ideal living area layout would look like. This doesn't match exactly our layout, but gives you the general idea of flow and placement.


 
 
 
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