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Lately I have been wondering whether online reviews should remain legal.
Yeah, I know. That just set off all of your alarms.

Free speech, etc., blah, blah.
It helped when I bought my barbecue, etc., blah, blah.
It’s easy to tell the useful ones from the bad ones, etc., blah, blah.
It keeps the seller honest, etc. blah, blah.

I will stipulate that all the obvious arguments in favor of online reviews are valid. But there are a few things you might not know.

Keep in mind that I get reviewed online often, for Dilbert and non-Dilbert books, my restaurant, and anything else I seem to do. I could be accused of being biased, and obviously I am, but I’m also experienced in a way that you probably are not. And luckily my positive reviews have far outpaced the bad ones. I should be a fan of the system.

I also consult online reviews for just about anything I intend to consume, so I am no stranger to their utility. I’d miss them if they were gone.

My argument for making online reviews illegal is that illegitimate reviews have a huge potential economic impact. For example, when I published my book that was a collection of blog posts (Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain), I got hammered with one-star reviews from people who loved the writing from which it came. Their gripe was that, in their opinion, blog material should remain free and online. I had somehow violated a rule I didn’t realize was a rule, and so I was punished with negative reviews. The one-star reviews dragged down the average star rating on Amazon and presumably influenced other buyers.

Any controversial writer – and I sometimes fall into that category (Google "God’s Debris"), gets one-star reviews from people who want to suppress certain points of view. Online reviews are the digital equivalent of book burning. True Believers from the left and the right pile in to drive reviews low enough to sink book sales. It is activism masquerading as reviews.

As a restaurant owner, you learn that many local businesses have anti-Yelp teams. When a negative review appears on yelp.com, they call their crew of fake reviewers to give glowing reviews and push the negative one down. And by the way, the negative reviews are often from the customer-from-Hell types who were drunk at the time of the alleged “dirty look” from a hostess or whatever sets them off to say the cheesecake was chewy. Most online reviews are entirely legitimate, but you would be surprised at how many are not.

As an amateur hypnotist and a professional writer, I’m a longtime student of how people choose their words. I feel I can identify fake reviews, at least some of the time, which might explain why I’m more alarmed than you. Still, I’ve purchased items with high reviews and realized later that I was obviously duped. There’s a fine line between good marketing and grand larceny. If you think you’re smart enough to tell the difference, you might be giving yourself too much credit.

If your argument in favor of online reviews is that they are helpful more often than not, I would submit that there is no way to measure that. My gut feeling is that enough people have crapped on the beach to make sunbathing no longer fun.

If your argument is that freedom of speech is enough of a reason to allow online reviews, that’s a kneejerk reaction. One must weigh the benefits versus the costs and decide if the destruction of millions of jobs, which I’m sure is the case, and widespread fraud, which is also clearly the case, is worth the freedom.  

If it were up to me, I would allow online reviews to remain legal. I value the freedom higher than the costs. I’m sure that’s where most of you come down too. But if you think it’s a clear call, you might be naïve.

 
I suppose it's the Dilbert cartoonist in me, but I can't help seeing world affairs as essentially a bunch of middle managers sitting around a rectangular table coming up with clever ways to convince the masses that turds are diamonds.

I assume that usually the bureaucrats produce rubbish, the same way it goes down where you work. But every now and then, the blind squirrel finds his nuts, so to speak. For example, the Axis of Evil is one of the best turds-are-diamonds ever. It sounds great rolling off your tongue. It's instantly memorable, fresh, and awesome all at once. It turned a bunch of unrelated security problems into something sexy. Love it or hate it, you have to admit it was effective leadership.

And so I imagine the members of the so-called Axis of Evil trying to come up with a similarly awesome label for us, as payback. But it's not as easy as it seems. That's why I laughed when I saw this New York Times article in which Iran's state run media referred to America as part of the "triangle of wickedness." Apparently the triangle includes America, Israel, and Miscellaneous.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/13/world/middleeast/13iran.html

I will allow that there are some translation issues here. Triangle of wickedness probably sounds way more awesome in Farsi. But it does make me wonder what phrases they considered before they landed on the Triangle of Wickedness.

One clue is that they had to add a miscellaneous category just to get the threat level up to triangle. Otherwise the labeling options are limited to Duo of Duplicity, or the Gruesome Twosome, or the Twin Terribles. See? It's harder than you think.

I was also amused by Iran's accusation that America and Israel killed a random college professor just because, if anyone asked, he could do a good job of explaining what a nuclear bomb is. I assume our next targets are everyone who has access to Wikipedia. That's exactly the sort of evil you would expect from the um. Conjoined Corrupters?

 
I wonder what kind of tricks the CIA is using against Al Qaeda these days.
If I were in the CIA, I would try to flood the terrorist communication channels with false orders. Some of the false orders would be simple stuff, such as "Everyone gather by the big rock and wait for a big delivery of explosives."

Other times you might say, "Salame is a mole for the CIA. He must die." I figure the terrorists are like any other bureaucracy, and the workers will focus first on whatever is sitting in front of them while ignoring long term planning. And it's probably fair to assume that, like your workplace, no one really trusts anyone else. I think you could keep terrorists busy killing each other until they run out of recruits.

Terror networks are perfect targets for false communications. First, the real orders sound exactly like pranks. It would be hard to sort out the evil mastermind plots from the CIA practical jokes. For example, if you get the order to shove C4 up your ass and yell WALAWALAWALA while running toward a heavily armed American Checkpoint, is that a real one or a prank? It's hard to tell.

Second, the lines of communication within terror networks are presumably ever-changing, and necessarily involve strangers who wouldn't recognize the voice or face of the other. It wouldn't take many stories of CIA compromises to the system before no terrorist trusts anything he hears. Any real orders would be ignored.

I assume the terrorists are avoiding electronic communications because those would be the first channels the CIA compromised. This puts the terrorists in the position of trying to run a virtual meeting with operatives across the globe by sending human messengers. Assuming these terrorists are no more capable than your own coworkers, you know exactly how that's working out for
them:

Abdullah: Your orders are to blow up the Belgian Embassy in Waziristan.

Salame: What is a Belgian?

Abdullah: I think it's some sort of American. Or a waffle.

Salame: I don't think there are any embassies in Waziristan.

Abdullah: Maybe it was someplace else. It started with a W. Or an M.

Saleme: Perhaps you could get clarification and come back.

Abdullah: Fine. I'll see you in four months. Oh, and Bin Laden wants your status report in front of his cave by 8 AM.
 
It's time for another round of Why it's doomed. Leave a comment telling me what you are doing at work right now, and describe why you suspect it is likely to turn out bad. Be sure to point fingers. It will be funnier if you start your explanation with "It's doomed because."

The best ones will reveal the general sloth, selfishness, and incompetence of your coworkers, boss, or yourself.

I promise to make some comics from the best ones. Doom is funny.

 
Humans are obsessed with their weight. I think a big part of that obsession is the simple fact that weight is easy to measure. Scales are relatively cheap, accurate enough, and sitting right on the floor next to your shower when you need them. And you don't even need a scale to tell you when you're putting on a few extra holiday pounds. Generally speaking, we care most about the things we can easily measure, even if we know other things are more important.

The measurement bias is one of the problems with selling a concept like global warming to the masses. Individuals can't measure global warming, and it doesn't change much from day to day. Many people aren't even sure it's happening. That's why a link that a reader left in this blog's comments caught my attention. I don't have any affiliation with the company I'm going to mention, and have no opinion on its products or pricing. But I love the concept. It's a way to measure your household energy use and compare it to
your peers.

http://www.wattvision.com/

The service is in beta, and you can think of ten ways you'd prefer to see the data, but it looks like a step in the right direction. As soon as people can easily measure their energy use, it will become as much an obsession as weight and baseball stats and the stock market.

I harp on this theme a lot. I think that government in particular needs to provide a web-based dashboard of stats to its citizens so we can see how the country is doing. Trend graphs would be ideal. That would make clear where we need to put more resources. But it would also expose which politicians
aren't doing their jobs, so I doubt the government will ever create such a tool. And if a private group creates the dashboard, the data will be presented in a biased way. It's a tough nut to crack, but one that seems
essential to me. If you look at the evolution of democracy, the next logical step is providing useful data to the voters.


 
I have a theory that humans have a natural impulse to create things that are versions of themselves, or parts of themselves. For example, a computer is like a brain, the Internet is like a central nervous system, and Facebook is like your personality. Most forms of entertainment involve fictitious people. Creation is simply imitation with constraints.

Arguably, there aren't that many basic concepts in the universe, and the human body has some of the best. Complex inventions would necessarily mimic the popular systems in a human. But it feels as if something more basic is at work. It feels as if we are limited to creating only things that have some analogy to our human experience. Perhaps everything else we create is by accident.

I was thinking about this the other day as we entered the final surge to get our new home constructed and approved before Christmas. It took 4.5 years to get to this point. A year ago, we planned to do the entire construction in 12 months. Everyone told us it was an impossible deadline. Well, almost everyone: Our builder told us from day one that we would be hosting our family in the new home on Christmas day. We didn't know if he was the last optimist in the world or the best builder in the universe. But we liked his
style.

There have been complications along the way. Man, have there been complications. Every step has been like planning a walk on Mars. For example, the power company wouldn't give us electricity until the city's
building inspector approved the home for occupancy. And the building inspector wouldn't approve the home until the power was on. (Huh?) Now multiply that problem times the 400-or-so people who worked on the project, either directly or indirectly. And imagine Shelly and me trying to pick everything from the color of the outlets to the curvy shape on the top of the baseboards.

For the past month, dust was literally rising from the construction zone. Workers were on top of each other. Our builder, who is the most gifted project manager I have ever witnessed, was solving a seemingly unsolvable problem every ten minutes. All knowledgeable observers told us we wouldn't be in by Christmas. It simply wasn't possible. It wasn't even close to possible.

We scheduled the movers for the weekend before Christmas, and e-mailed party invitations to family members for Christmas eve. We didn't want our builder to be the last optimist in the world.

Ten days ago, we didn't have a driveway. Rain was forecast. Lots of it. The sky turned grey. Neighbors saw worker's trucks lined around the block. They knew we were serious about getting in by Christmas. They also knew it was impossible. The rain alone would be enough to stop us. You can't move
furniture over mud. You need a driveway.

We started packing our boxes.

The rain came. The driveway guys had huge plastic tarps. They worked between wet spells. The sound of drilling, sawing, and some of the most creative cussing you have ever heard emanated from the property. I guess no one told the crew working on the project that finishing by Christmas was impossible.

About a week ago, in the evening, I got a voice mail from our builder, Dave. He said, in construction lingo, that the panel was hot. We had power. It was the last major obstacle to occupancy. Inspections and approvals would follow quickly.

I can't fully describe how the news made me feel. It was powerful. When the house became part of the electrical grid, it was as if it became alive. The HVAC units rumbled and the structure breathed. Warm water circulated throughout the floors of the home to keep it at the perfect temperature. Soon after, the equipment rack in the wiring closet lit up, and the house had a brain. The brain connected to the Internet and became part of the world. It was a stucco baby delivered by 400 doctors.

I volunteered to run an errand soon after getting the news that the panel was hot. I didn't want anyone to see me cry. I turned on the radio, pointed our Honda minivan South on Tassajara, and fell apart. I was feeling the pure joy of creation. Shelly and I had created a home that has a life of its own, and by design it is imbued with our personalities. It will outlive us, and a few generations after us.

The movers estimated that we had 17,000 pounds of furniture and boxes to move from our old home and my old office. We thought we might have time to unpack some of them before our 35 relatives arrived and wondered what they were going to eat for Christmas Eve. We would need to lift and push and pull
that 17,000 pounds ourselves about three more times after it got inside the house, and we needed to do it over a weekend. It was clearly an impossible task. Then Shelly told me that we were going to get a Christmas tree and decorate that too. That's how we roll. If it doesn't seem at least a little bit impossible, we're not interested.

Construction continues while we live in the house, but we don't mind. Relatives are already heading this way. The tree looks great.

Have a great holiday season. And thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for reading Dilbert. You created a house.

I need a nap.

 
Every time I hear about another drone blowing up another terrorist leader in Pakistan, I wonder how far that method of warfare can improve. Drone technology and tactics have made great strides. What is the limit?

You can expect normal improvements in drone flying time, vision, weaponry, and the obvious stuff. It's a safe bet there will be more drones in the sky. And the human intelligence that is necessary to find targets will probably continue to improve. For a place like Afghanistan, are drones plus effective intelligence enough to control the country?

Imagine the Taliban regaining power in Afghanistan. The problem with being in power is that it makes you relatively easy to locate, and drones can destroy anything they can find. There is no practical way for the Taliban to hold power if our drone capabilities reach a certain level. I doubt we are at that level, but could we get there?

I can't imagine a terrorist training camp lasting long if the sky is full of drones. And the heroine fields would only last as long as we wanted them to. We could also force people coming into or out of the country to use border crossings we control. Everyone else gets attacked by drones. That takes a lot of drones, and that's expensive, but probably not as expensive as old-fashioned occupation.

I think the next big leap in drone technology will be artificial intelligence for locating targets. Humans would still have to make firing decisions, but I can imagine drones finding suspicious patterns of movement on their own and alerting humans. For example, any vehicle that stops at night on a road used by U.S. ground forces might be suspected of planting an IED. A human could decide if the suspect was up to no good.

There are probably a number of movement patterns followed by insurgents and terrorists. Maybe drones could learn to detect children in any outdoor group, based on their relative size, and assume such a group is not looking for a fight. Perhaps combatants follow routes less travelled by enemy ground forces, or travel only at night, or have more metal objects with them. The point is that drones will someday do a good job of identifying suspected bad guys automatically.

One great benefit of using drones to target Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders is that turnover creates leadership incompetence. After the tenth time drones kill the number three operations guy, only an idiot is willing to take that promotion. The smart terrorists ask for transfers to the Quality Control Division to wait things out. So while it might be true that there will always be replacements, quantity doesn't compensate for smart leadership.

Perhaps the exit strategy for U.S. conventional forces from Afghanistan is more linked to drone improvements than to anything else. We just don't know it yet.


 
Readers rated my Dilbert comic for December 11th among the worst ever. Based on the comments, apparently people didn't think Dilbert's snarky attitude was in character. I was aiming for socially inept, but I overshot the mark.

http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2009-12-11

The point I was trying to make with the comic is that people routinely do forensics on business cards. For example, you can.

1. Google people's name for news stories
2. Look people up on Facebook and other social sites
3. Do research on people's employers
4. Estimate people's incomes, and even personalities, based on job titles.

If a person has a business card with a phone number crossed off, and a new one written in, that can mean a number of things. It might mean he is so low on the corporate hierarchy that he can't order new cards until the old ones are used up. Or maybe he's more concerned about form over function. Maybe he's just too busy to order new cards. Check the quality of his footwear to get a second opinion. If his shoes are comfortable and unfashionable, and his business card has a technical title, a pattern is starting to form.

My personal favorite form of business card forensics is judging the graphic design quality of the business card itself. The business cards of big corporations tell you nothing, but small business owners have the freedom to express themselves. A card that is clearly intended to look creative and memorable, but ends up looking monkey-done, tells you the person who designed it has no design talent, and probably doesn't know it. That's a bad combination.

If you know someone's address, you can check out his house from a Google satellite picture. You can even find its approximate value on Zillow.com. If you know what college a person attended, you can make judgments (albeit often wrong) on that person's career potential and intellectual capabilities. And for a few bucks, you can do an online search of criminal records.

We're only a few years away from a point where no mating will ever occur because no one will pass the background check. If you knew everything about another person's history, there would always be at least one show stopper. In a simpler time, you could fall in love before you found out any damning information about your partner. I'm not sure that was better.

 
Lately I've been wondering if freedom is a zero sum game. In other words, for one person to get more freedom, someone else has to lose the same amount, but usually in a different way.

I predict that you just reflexively rejected that concept, but your stubborness won't stop me from unfolding the idea a bit more. To that end, only examples can help.

Example one: In order for me to be free to walk down the sidewalk, other people must be prohibited from driving on them.

You could argue that I'm still free to take my chances and walk on the sidewalk. But that argument can be made for any restricted freedom. I'm also free to rob and kill as long as I accept the risks of doing so. But as a practical matter, my freedom to walk down the sidewalk depends heavily on restricting your freedom to use it in some other fashion.

Example two: Your freedom to marry the person of your choice depends on the person of your choice having only one option: you. That's the opposite of freedom. The two of you cancelled out, freedom-wise. On the other hand, if the two of you agree that the other is an ideal mate, that's an example of coincidence and not freedom. You just got lucky. Too bad the other people who wanted to mate with each of you are now restricted in their freedom to do so.

You can play this at home. Think of any freedom you enjoy, and consider how someone else's freedom had to be curtailed for you to have it.

The universe isn't making more freedom. If you want some, it comes at someone else's expense.

But that's okay because free will is an illusion anyway. I'll say it before you do.

 
My older brother lives in Southern California. He sent me this video of the recent catastrophe in his area. It's frightening. I'm just glad he survived.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgNpDBFKpwU

 
 
 
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