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I always appreciate progress bars that tell me my software is hard at work on my behalf. Any time I have to wait without a progress bar it makes me feel anxious. If I'm expected to be bored and unproductive for a minute or two, I want reassurances that something good is happening behind the scenes.

The other day I was wondering if there could be a better kind of progress bar than the usual ones I always see. Could the progress bar simultaneously assure you it is working, give you a time estimate for completion, and also entertain you in some minimal way?

Naturally my first thought went to Dilbert characters, properly licensed of course. Imagine a progress bar that involved Dogbert using a mallet to pound the Pointy-Haired Boss into the ground; the deeper he goes, the less time left to wait.

Or imagine Dilbert giving you a non-stop series of compliments corresponding to each level of completion, such as "You look nice today," and "I think you are smarter than your co-workers." The compliments would be shallow and random, but I'll bet it would hold your attention. The same model could be used with Dogbert as a fortune teller, giving you fake predictions that do nothing but make you feel good, e.g. "Today is your lucky day."

Or imagine a standard progress bar that goes from left to right, but a Dilbert character puts on a cowboy hat, straddles the bar like a horse, and kicks it jockey style any time it slows down. That would make me happy because I get angry at the progress bar when it stalls. I'd like to see it get kicked.

I would also happily read famous quotes or answer trivia questions streamed to me from some external source. It would add a tiny delay, but the payoff would be worth it. A minute of entertainment is better than 58 seconds of boredom even if you are in a hurry.

Perhaps a Dilbert comic could be the progress bar. It reveals itself from left to right as the job is being completed. The humor wouldn't work because the timing would be ruined, but it would hold your attention just to see how it ends.

Suppose you could choose your mood before any action that requires a progress bar, and the progress bar would be based on that choice. If you say you are in an angry mood, you might see Dogbert pummeling someone while you wait. If you are in a relaxed mood, maybe Ratbert suns himself and stretches, just looking cute and goofy.

Got any ideas for progress bars? (Yes, someone might steal your idea and make a fortune. But realistically, were you going to pursue it?)
 
I plan to put solar panels on my new home when it gets built, which is bad for my wallet but good for the world. The world benefits because I will be generating about as much electric energy as I use, for once. I lose because if I could wait about three years before installing the system, the cost will probably drop so much that I will have a faster payoff. It's probably a difference of some tens of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately for me, but good for you, I'm obligated to start right away because solar panels were a condition of approval from the city, and that won't change. Nor should it. I'm helping to drive down the cost for the next person.

I was reminded of this when I heard about Al Gore's ambitious recommendation that we should attempt to generate all electricity from green sources in ten years. Many experts believe that timetable is too ambitious.

What do you think?

It is safe to assume the federal government will be more hindrance than help. Any real progress will come from brilliant individuals inventing things, funded by super rich investors. I can't see them cracking the full nut in ten years, no matter what gets invented.

Meanwhile, 99.99% of the general public is treating this as a spectator sport. It makes you wonder how you can help, since this might be the most important battle our species has known.

I can vote for the candidate who has the best energy policy, but none of them have plans ambitious enough to make a difference. And yes, I recycle. But let's face it: Recycling is the masturbation of energy policy. It might make you feel better, but it won't put a dent in global energy needs.

I wish some entrepreneur would create a way for citizens to invest in clean energy sources without having to gamble in abstractions such as the stock market or venture funds. I would love to invest in, for example, a particular windmill, or a piece of a solar farm that is generating a particular amount of energy each day. I would even invest in a few feet of new transmission cables in a specific place. I wouldn't care that it was a great investment if I knew it was directly helping save the planet.

If I could name my windmill, and see webcam pictures of it on the Internet to see how it is running, along with a widget on my desktop telling me how much power I am generating today, I would invest in it just to help save the planet, even if I knew the financial return was marginal. The same goes for investing in discrete parts of a solar farm, or any other clean energy source.

I realize windmills are expensive. But I'd be happy owning a share of a particular windmill with friends. We could name it together.

My prediction is that the brilliant scientists and the super rich investors working on clean energy can't meet the ten year goal by themselves. Some entrepreneur is going to have to figure out a way to get the other 99.99% of the country involved. If that happens, the ten year goal seems feasible to me, assuming the government stays out of the way.

 
As regular readers of my blog already know, about three years ago, out of the blue, I got an exotic voice problem called spasmodic dysphonia. I couldn't speak above a whisper for a year. Then one day, while practicing a nursery rhyme with my stepson, my voice suddenly returned to a functional level. Unfortunately, as is typical with spasmodic dysphonia, my voice only worked well in quiet, unstressful environments, and the world is not a quiet or unstressful place. I couldn't, for example, order a pizza over the telephone and expect the person on the other end to understand me. So for most of the last few years I have been the ghost in the room, listening and smiling, silently cursing my partial existence.

This week I underwent surgery that has a high likelihood of fixing the problem. The top surgeon on the planet for this procedure, Gerald Berke, M.D., at UCLA, opened my neck and rewired the nerve connections to my vocal cords. In three or four months, when the new nerve pathways regenerate, I should be able to speak again, in weak voice at first, and improving over the year.

So I find myself delirious today, for a number of reasons. I'm exhausted, and medicated, and most of all optimistic that the ghost in the room can get one more chance among the living.

Today is a good day.
 

Some of you poo-pooed my idea of surveying economists, pointing out that they have a bad track record of predicting the big things that matter, such as the credit crunch, or oil at $145 a barrel. Does that mean a poll of economists would be useless even if they all agreed?

 

As economists like to say, "It depends."

 

First, let's agree that even if experts such as doctors and lawyers and engineers are often wrong, that doesn't mean they should be ignored. What matters is that consulting with experts produces a better result on average than whatever is the alternative. Depending on the sort of question being asked, economists are likely to be more reliable than the public at large.

 

If the question involves predicting the value of the stock market next year, economists aren't any better than a monkey with a dart board. And they know it. But if the question is whether using food crops for ethanol could hurt the economy more than it helps, or whether free trade is a good idea, or whether a gas tax holiday makes sense, you would be wise to listen.

 

Economists are also historians when it comes to their field. They would know, for example, that government price controls would be a disaster because they have failed in the past. If doing X with the economy caused Y to happen the last three times someone tried it, wouldn't you like to know it? Economists already do.

 

When you are talking about the global economy, making the right decisions just barely more often than before is a huge deal. So the bar is set low for economists. They only need to be right more often than the public and the politicians. Is that so hard?


I'll blog again in a few days.

 

  

 
I often see problems in the world and wonder why someone doesn't fix them. Then I realize that I am someone, and that makes me feel bad because it is all my fault. Obviously I can't fix every problem, but I decided to try and fix one in particular.


The majority of voters say the ailing economy is the most important problem for the next U.S. president to solve. How does a voter who knows little or nothing about economics decide which candidate has the best economic plan?


As you know, the media is worthless in solving this problem because they like to give equal time to both sides, no matter how ridiculous one of the sides might be. Or worse, some media outlets make no attempt to be unbiased. Realistically, the media has no idea which economic plans are likely to work best, so even if they wanted to be objective and informative they don't have the tools or the incentive to acquire them.


The economy is arguably the most important issue in the world, having a huge impact on everything from global warming, to health care, to defense. And voters have no reliable information upon which to make decisions. Someone needs to fix that. Realizing that I am someone, I decided to take a crack at it.


At substantial personal expense I hired a professional survey company to poll professional economists and find out which presidential candidate's plans have the most support. Obviously there is a limit to how unbiased the survey can be, since economists are human, and most of them presumably belong to a major political party. We'll try to take that into account with the survey design. But no matter what the result, I think it will be useful.


For example, the idea of a gas tax holiday was condemned by economists in both major parties. I expect there are other plans that have virtually no support from economists in either camp. That would be useful to know.


But suppose economists are evenly divided on a particular tax plan. Is that useful to voters? I think it is, because the only rational thing for you to do as a voter in that situation is to support the plan that taxes yourself the least. And you can do that with a clear conscience if there is no agreement among experts that taxing yourself more will help the world in the long run.


I think we would all agree that having better information won't influence most voters. If every economist in the survey somehow miraculously supported the same candidate's positions, it wouldn't change the votes of hardcore Democrats or Republicans. But in a close election such as this one, independent voters, who I call the Rational Few, end up making the decision. I am hopeful that for that influential group, better information will lead to better decisions. If the Rational Few are indeed influenced by a poll of economists, and it tips the election, economists will forever be polled before national elections. Problem solved.


And in this way I plan to fix the economy, end the energy crisis, rationally address global warming, and provide low cost health care to all. In return, I expect the public to call me an idiot. I'm pretty sure that's why "somone" doesn't fix problems more often. But I can take it.

The survey will take several weeks to pull together. I'll give you the results when they are in.

On a separate note, I probably won't post an entry until later this week. I'll tell you what I'm up to later. It's not a vacation, but it is a good thing.

 
Later today we're getting a puppy. I haven't had one since I was a kid. Things have changed since then, according to the puppy experts. For one, we found the puppy over the Internet. That's different. But it's only the tip of the iceberg.

The experts say we are not supposed to pick up the puppy and hold it. If the puppy pushes itself out of our arms, it will try to brace its fall with its front legs, and they will break. Apparently this happens a lot.


Instead, we are advised to keep the puppy on a leash if we pick it up. That way, if the dog jumps out of our arms, we can save it by holding the leash, in much the same way the Iraqis saved Saddam Hussein when he fell through the trap door. Sounds safe to me.


We have been advised to get a special type of sugary foodlike product to give the puppy when it arrives on the plane, to prevent it from getting hypoglycemic. This has something to do with the stress of the trip and not eating for several hours. In the old days, when dogs got hungry they would eat something called dog food. But to be fair, our old family dog hardly ever used an airplane for interstate travel, at least not while we were watching.


Our first attempt at buying a little gated fence for the puppy was a failure. The puppy expert said it wasn't high enough. If the dog successfully climbs the fence, it will learn it can climb anything. Before you know it, the dog is on the roof, all hypoglycemic, with the wind ripping off its feeble limbs.


House training has changed too. You no longer whack the puppy with a rolled up newspaper when it relieves itself in the house. Now you do something more humane, called cage training. You put the puppy in a cage so small it can barely turn around. Dogs instinctively won't poop where they have to stand, so it learns to hold it until it poops on your terms.


I ask myself if I would prefer to be whacked with a rolled up newspaper when I pooped on the carpet or be forced to stay in a coffin-sized cage for several hours while desperately squeezing my butt cheeks together to keep the turtle in the shell. Which is more humane? I'm thinking it doesn't make any difference because my parents used both of those methods on me, and I turned out okay.


The dog is an Aussie Toy. According to our research, this is the very best dog in the entire world for us. It is a "working dog," meaning it was bred to be useful, presumably herding very small cows. I plan to train it to fetch tennis balls. I want it to kneel by the net like a ball girl and bring me the loose balls after each point. Maybe it could even keep score.  I haven't consulted with the puppy expert about this idea because I know she will say the dog can't participate in sports unless it is wearing a Kevlar body suit has an asthma inhaler nearby.


I'm just saying dogs are different now.

 
Last night I went with the family to see the American Idol stage show featuring the top ten contestants from the TV competition. You might wonder why anyone would go watch something he has already seen on TV. But this live performance was way different from TV. Let me count the ways:
  1. It was far more expensive.
  2. It was a five hour drive, round trip.
  3. The singers had that bewildered "What am I doing in Sacramento?" look.
  4. The sound system in the Arco Arena was like four winos farting in a steel drum.
  5. From our seats, the singers looked like colorful grains of rice.
  6. Wooden seats.

This did not deter us from our determination to enjoy being in the same zip code with manufactured minor celebrities who could not be heard above the screaming. At least we could see them on the grainy projection screens on each side of the stage. The large screens reminded me of sweet, sweet television, but without the clarity.


Two enthusiastic girls in front of us brought a huge sign that obscured my view of everything but my own clenched fists. I don't mean to be unkind, but even without the signage, these girls chewed up a lot of real estate. They were excited to be within mortar distance of actual celebrities. After letting them have their fun, I finally had to tap them on the shoulders and give the "WTF???" crotchety old coot look. This dampened their enthusiasm for a full half minute before they felt it was time to ignore me and blot out my view of the stage again. It is unlikely they are Dilbert readers, but I still think it is funny that they went to the show hoping to see unimportant celebrities while one was tapping them on the shoulder and wishing they were dead.


Still, I have to say it was worth it just to see (sort of) David Archuleta belt out a few tunes that blew the doors off the stadium and sent 8,000 young girls into premature ovulation. The winner of this year's American Idol, David Cook, ended the show with a demonstration of natural superstar charisma that was a joy to experience.


But television is good too.

 

As you know, fairness is a concept that was invented so that children and idiots could participate in arguments. I was reminded of this when thinking about taxes. According to one source, the people in the top 1% of incomes pay more federal taxes now than at any time since 1979:


http://www.factcheck.org/askfactcheck/what_percent_of_taxes_does_the_top.html


The reason the top 1% are paying more taxes is because they are earning far more money than before. So while the rich are paying a lower percentage than during Clinton's time in office, they are paying more in dollars under Bush.


In other words, each rich person is subsidizing more poor people than ever. Still, each rich person has more left over for himself than ever. If you are on the side that says that isn't fair, what percent of a rich person's income do you think should be distributed by threat of force to those in need?


50%?


75%?


90%?


Keep in mind that a person making ten million a year can get by on one million a year. So is there any good reason not to take 90%? Think about all the people it would help.

 
 

I am not what you would call outdoorsy. If I wanted anything that was outdoors, I'd hire someone to bring it inside where civilization lives. I like my shirts ironed and my plants made of plastic. If I have to go outside, I put on so much sunscreen it forms an encounter suit. I'm fully protected from all contact with nature unless an industrious mosquito tries to penetrate my hull. They usually give up in an hour or two.


Anyway, on my recent trip to Branson, we were staying at a hotel with both an indoor and an outdoor pool and spa. You already know which one I used. As I sat in the hot tub, inside the air conditioned building, I realized I was a full two layers away from nature, and I liked it. The air conditioning protected me from the heat outside, and the warm water of the hot tub protected me from the air conditioning. In time, the hot tub became too hot, and I wished I had some sort of thermos suit I could wear to take the edge off.


It's probably a coincidence, but on the way to the airport the next day I was nearly struck by lightning. It looked like a warning shot, but I'm going to call it a coincidence.

 
There were two types of interesting reactions to my last post. A number of readers think that I'm a closet Obama supporter who would never support a Republican candidate. For the record, I think neither Obama nor McCain come anywhere near the minimum requirement I would like to see in a president. For example, I'd like a president who preferred science over superstition, just to name one thing. So if you think my writing suggests that one of the candidates is slightly less unsuitable than the other, that's unintentional.


I've only once donated money to a politician, and it was McCain. But that's because I made the mistake of telling one of his fundraisers, a friend of mine, that I'd donate money if the surge "worked." Admittedly that was more like paying off a bet than supporting a candidate. But time does seem to be vindicating the surge strategy, no matter what you think of how we got into the mess in the first place.


For the record, I would support a Republican candidate in the mold of Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California. As far as I can tell, he supports whatever is common sense and good economics (as experts advise him), doesn't care much about what anyone does in his or her private life, and favors science over superstition. I'm sure he's made his share of policy boners, and you will be happy to point them out, but I use him more as an example than anything else.

In my last post I joked that Obama wants to take my money and give it to people who don't work as hard as I do. As with all gross generalizations, there are plenty of exceptions. But how does it hold up as a generalization?

When I was a kid, I was mowing lawns, working on my uncle's farm, shoveling snow, washing dishes, waiting tables, and anything else I could do to save for college. Meanwhile I worked hard enough in school to graduate as valedictorian, getting a few small scholarships that helped a lot. My mother took a job on an assembly line to help pay for my college, while my dad worked his job in the post office during the day and painted houses on nights and weekends.


In college, I generally had two or three jobs along with my full course load. After college, at my first job, I got in the habit of waking around 4 am so I could put in a good twelve hours before going to night school to learn computer programming. I tried several times to use my meager programming skills to start my own business while continuing to work full time. I almost always worked nights and weekends trying to get ahead.

Eventually I got into graduate school and worked full time while taking classes nights and doing homework most of the weekend. That was the hardest three years of my life, work-wise.


And then there was Dilbert. For the first six years I kept my day job and made Dilbert comics nights, weekends, and holidays. I didn't take a day off for about ten years. At one point I was doing all of that plus writing a book that became The Dilbert Principle. The only time I saw the sun was walking to the mailbox. And I believe that all of that hard work was necessary for the good things that happened.


The average work week is something like 35 hours. For most of my work life I worked about twice that much. I'm writing this blog post on the 4th of July, and have several deadlines to satisfy. So yes, as a generalization, Obama promises to take a large chunk of my hard-earned money and transfer it primarily to people who don't work as hard. That's just a fact.

 
 
 
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