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

What would happen in such a world?

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

No, I can't imagine that either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping a squatter generally sounds like this.

You: Click the Start button

Squatter: What's a Clark button?

You: The Start button

Squatter: Where do I type Clark?

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

Squatter: Click your finger? Is your name Clark?

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

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

User: Can you help me fix this computer problem?

You: No, you're a Squatter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Laval+cops+bust+office+supplies+fraud+ring/2718495/story.html

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

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

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

What rhymes with elephant?

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

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

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

"I want your ugly, I want your disease"

"I want your horror, I want your design"

"I want your love and I want your revenge"

"I want your psycho, your vertical stick"

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

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

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

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/bangladesh/7493874/Bangladeshi-man-beheaded-to-redden-bricks.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wife: "You WHAT???"

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

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

Too soon?
 
Humans are usually polite. That can be stressful, especially if some mass hole has earned a serious verbal smack down, and you're too nice to deliver it. It's bad for your health to keep that sort of venom all bottled up.

Now is your chance to let it out. Think about the last person who needed your practical and yet rudely abusive advice, and leave your monologue here in the comment section. You don't need to describe the person or the situation, unless it's absolutely necessary. It will be funnier if you start right into the abusive advice. Keep it PG-13ish please.

 
CBSSports.com contacted me last week. I assume they thought of me because I'm so sporty. They have a web service that lets you watch live college basketball games, on demand, during March Madness. The web page wisely includes a Boss Button that allows viewers to switch to a business-looking screen when footsteps approach. They asked if I would be willing to design a page that cleverly looks like legitimate work from a medium distance, and yet is clearly a joke up close.

My first reaction was one of righteous indignation. How could they expect me to be a party to wholesale theft of employee productivity? In an era when bankers and CEOs are looting the country, it was time for an honest man to come forward and say, "Enough!"

At some point, a dollar amount was mentioned, and I realized that the person who manufactures a hammer isn't at fault if someone uses it to slay a suburban family who, for all you know, had it coming. All I would be doing is designing a simple web page; I wouldn't be forcing anyone to watch incredibly exciting basketball games during work while getting paid at the same time. I call that free will, which I have been told is a good thing.

I agreed to the deal, but a tiny voice in the back of my mind kept pointing out that a hammer has many legitimate uses, whereas a Boss Button can only be used for evil. I knew that this tiny voice was either coming from my conscience, or from my dog who had suddenly learned to speak. I checked my e-mail to remind myself how much I was getting paid, yelled at the dog to stop talking, and got to work.

If you're curious about the outcome, check it out at mmod.ncaa.com. And don't blame me if the stock market crashes in March. If I hadn't designed that Boss Button page, someone else would have. And it might have been Ziggy.

I wonder how much someone would pay for a talking dog.
 
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I have a hypothesis that people instinctively want to be led by whoever has the most energy. Sometimes that energy manifests itself in fiery speeches, Hitler being a good example. Winston Churchill was famous for only needing 5-6 hours of sleep per day, and working his staff late into the night. You often hear about how much energy American presidents have for jogging, chopping wood, or campaigning. In Russia, Putin likes to be photographed with his shirt off, wrestling with bears and whatnot. French Presidents have enough energy to run the country and satisfy mistresses without missing a beat. I'll bet you could take any two candidates for president, ask registered voters which one seems to have the most energy, and the survey would predict the winner.

You might say that energy is only one of several necessary traits that a leader needs. Perhaps Churchill's lack of sleep had more to do with his workload than his energy level. Maybe the candidate who has the most energy can shake hands and kiss babies for more hours each day, and it's the campaigning that makes the difference. But I give you Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and any other bat shit crazy leader with an IQ of 90, scary hair, and nothing much else going for him but lots of insane energy.  Energy attracts followers, even when it isn't backed up by anything else.

The same theory of energy is probably true for the popularity of celebrities. The other day I found myself in a discussion with friends about what makes Paris Hilton so popular with some people, and so reviled by others. I think the difference has to do with your perception of how much energy she puts into her work. If you think she's just a lucky rich girl, coasting through life with the help of handlers, you probably have a low opinion of her. If you think that being Paris Hilton is probably a huge amount of work, and she's running her own show, and calling all the shots, you might have a high opinion of her. In other words, if you think she's a person with lots of energy, you like her more than if your impression is that she has low energy.

You've seen what happens when an energetic person enters a room. It raises everyone's energy level, and a boost of energy always feels good. Humans are imitators. When someone yawns, we yawn. When someone laughs, it puts us in a good mood. When someone is a downer, we feel down. A leader probably does little more than convey a sense that he has a lot of energy himself, which boosts the energy levels of everyone who gets that message. We like the feeling of energy, so we keep the leader in power so we'll see more of him. We're all energy junkies, and our leaders are pushers.

 
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If there's a theme to my blog posts, it's something along the lines of Complexity is Killing Us. The complexity of investment options is why you're afraid to put your money anywhere but inside an old sock. Complexity is why the healthcare system in the United States is apparently unfixable. Complexity is why scientists can't convince a large segment of the public to believe in evolution or global warming. Complexity is why your computer spends all morning begging you for updates instead of just doing what-the-frakk you want it to do. And lately, I've noticed that routine conversations have become too complicated.

In simpler times, I imagine conversations went like this:

Nobleman: "Hey, peasant, would you like a potato?"

Peasant: "Does it come with a beating?"

Nobleman: "A brief one. My arms are tired."

Peasant: "Then yes, I would like a potato."

These days, there's no such thing as a simple conversation. When you get a business call, it might start with a history of the industrial age, a complete explanation of some sort of technology, an exposition of budgetary limitations, a verbal sketch of the characters, a briefing on the politics of the situation, with a full accounting of the timing, the risks, the opportunity, so on. Sometimes you want to know all of that stuff, and you have the time to listen. Other times, you already have the information, or you don't have time to listen, or you're the wrong person. That's when you have to go for the interrupt. And interrupting is getting harder every year.

Thanks to complexity, and the impact it has on people's schedules, if you get a person's attention, you want to take advantage of it before your listener gets into an automobile accident, or has to run for another meeting, or his kid starts vomiting, or he simply can't hold his bladder one more minute. Your best strategy is to prevent the other person from talking - not a single peep - until you have said every last thing that you called to say. I believe this is a modern phenomenon. My guess is that in olden days it was customary to pause in your fire-hose-monologue now and then to let the other person ask for clarification, make a point, or just sigh. Now any pause introduces an unacceptable risk of a failed phone call. The interrupter's job is harder than ever.

I have experimented with ways to interrupt the fire-hose-monologue without seeming rude, but social conventions haven't evolved fast enough to provide a polite solution. So far, the best I have come up with is some variant on "Can I interrupt you?" But it always feels as if I just called someone a time-wasting windbag. And I've tried "Whoa, whoa," but it feels as if I'm scolding a horse.

I propose a new custom for interrupting when it's absolutely necessary. Make a beeping sound like a garbage truck when it backs up. That way it won't seem so personal. Try it and let me know how that works out for you.

 
 
 
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