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There's a fine line between crazy and entrepreneurial. If you bark at the moon to make it go away, you are considered crazy. But if you start a business for which there is less than a 5% chance of success, you are considered an entrepreneur.

If you feel the need to turn a light switch on and off exactly seven times before leaving a room, you have OCD. If you need to run exactly five miles every day before breakfast to feel right, you are considered disciplined and athletic.

On one hand, it is clearly different to engage in activities that have no practical value versus ones that do. Or ones that might. But what if the reason you engage in practical activities has nothing to do with your ability to reason, and everything to do with being lucky that your particular brand of crazy has some utility? That blurs the line.

I often think I was one lucky break away from being the crazy uncle who couldn't stop drawing pictures. For me, drawing was as much a compulsion as a career decision. From my earliest age, I drew on everything that would stand still. It's an extraordinary bit of luck that my compulsion turned out to be practice.

Warren Buffett modestly says he was lucky that his brain is wired in a way that suits the times. A few hundred years ago he would have been the crazy peasant who was always talking about ways to increase crop production if only he had the capital.

A Muslim, a Christian, and a crazy guy walk into a room. The one thing you can know for sure is that at least two out of three of them organize their lives around things that aren't real. And that's the best case scenario. Atheists would say all three have some explaining to do. And atheists are the minority, which is the very definition of abnormal.

My wife and I often have very different recollections of events. And not just the little details. Sometimes our shared memories don't even feature the same mammals, themes, or points. The scary part is that we don't realize these differences until we have some reason to compare memories, which doesn't come up that often. Every now and then there will some independent way to verify whose memory is accurate, and it is sobering to discover how many of the problems are on my end. A lot of my so-called life is apparently a patchwork of delusions.

The best you can hope for in this life is that your delusions are benign and your compulsions have utility.

 
 
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I got a strong reaction when I criticized Gmail's interface. A few people mentioned that you can activate hot keys so you can just press the r key to reply. Fair enough. I burrowed into the Settings and activated the hot key feature. It was a good idea, but nothing happens when I press r. You'll tell me this is a case of operator error, which obviously it is, and that is my point. Why is it so easy for the operator to make an error?

Someone mentioned that clicking the big unlabeled white box under the message is one of several ways to initiate a reply. I had always wondered why that big white space was there. This invites the obvious question WTF? How is a user supposed to know that a big unlabeled white space is a reply button, especially when it is right below the button labeled REPLY that seems to do the trick all by itself? And that REPLY button is not to be confused with the other REPLY button at the upper right, which brings me to my next point.

You might think that having more than one REPLY button would make it easier to find at least one of them. After all, two is better than one. But that's not how your brain is wired. Allow me to give my favorite overused example from writing:

If you say, "The ball was hit by the boy," it means exactly the same as "The boy hit the ball." But the first example makes your brain work harder to untangle the meaning. You're wired to first figure out who is the subject, then figure out what that person is doing. As a writer, you try to be conscious of anything that makes the reader work too hard. Likewise, as an interface designer, you presumably do the same thing. To that end, I want just ONE way to reply to email, damn it. If there is more than one way, I have to make a decision. That's working too hard. I'm no interface design expert, but I have to think that putting two buttons with overlapping functions on the same page is a "don't."

One commenter on this blog confessed to being the designer for the Gmail interface and listed his credentials. Assuming that message came from a real person, and I think it did, I am forced to reassess my sweeping statement that no qualified person worked on the interface design. Now my assumption is that there was a management failure. Either Google didn't do usability testing on civilians, perhaps because of budget or timing issues, or management interfered with the design in some other way. That's my best guess.

A number of people snarkily noted that there are usability issues with Dilbert.com. Of course there are. We don't do formal usability testing, as it would be cost-prohibitive, and it could take months. So we fix the big bugs and save up the usability comments for the next revision. Inevitably the new version introduces new confusions while fixing the last ones. I imagine that 99% of web sites are designed without rigorous usability testing in a lab setting.

One of my corporate jobs, in my previous life at the phone company, involved working closely with Pacific Bell's Usability Testing Lab, so I got to see how useful that process was. A highly qualified interface designer can only get you halfway to where you want to be. You need usability testing for the second half. The Gmail interface looks half done to me.

 
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Today I went on a scavenger hunt. Specifically I was trying to find the "reply" button on my Gmail interface. The damn thing keeps moving, depending on the length of the message. And it's pretty well hidden in a forest of 40-some buttons sprinkled around the page that do all sorts of things I rarely or never want to do. Three of those buttons are different ways to get you back to the inbox.

To be fair, Gmail is lightning fast, and free. But did anyone with training in interface design even look at Gmail before it launched?

The Reply button has a left arrow next too it. The forward button has a right arrow. Would it kill Google to let me use the left and right arrow keys on my keyboard to do those functions, given that they already teased me about it?

I won't say the interface design is bad, because that would imply that someone in the relevant field actually tried to make it user friendly. It looks to me as if that step got skipped.

I mentioned in this blog the other day that my new elevator for my house needed repair. It's actually a terrific product, and the repair person was there the next day making a very minor repair (some sort of door sensing magnet came loose) and I was all set. It was all covered under warranty. Best yet, they tried to talk me through a fix on the phone, just to see if it was a case of user error or a simple reboot situation. That part was all good.

Then I got a call from the elevator's service and warranty department, I presume. The representative asked if I had seen information on their service contract. I said I had, and I would consider it when my two year warranty expired. That's when things started to go bad.

The rep explained that the warranty is void unless I get the elevator serviced twice a year, even if the problem I experience has nothing to do with maintenance upkeep.

What?

So my option was to call them to do regular service twice a year, which would cost about $800 per year, depending on what minor things they needed to lube or poke or whatnot. And I would have to remember to schedule the visits. They wouldn't remind me, out of spite I presume. If I forget to have it serviced, my warranty is void.

Or, the rep explained, I could get a $1,700 service contract for two years and they will do all the regular service and repairs for me. In other words, if I pay $1,700 they will honor their two year warranty.

It gets better. The rep explained that if I pay for a service contract during my warranty period, they will give me a discounted service contract after the warranty is over, an offer that I can't get if I wait. In other words, I will pay MORE per year for service during my warranty period than after.

This is another example of Not Even Trying. I would have looked favorably on the service contract if it had been packaged in less of a f*^$#-you way. Now I actually prefer to pay more, if needed, just so I don't feel like I got jail raped.

 

 
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Last month I asked you to tell me why your project at work, whatever it is, appears to be doomed. Many of your comments became the seeds of Dilbert comics. You might have recognized them.

That experiment worked so well that it's time to try a variation. Tell me in the comments what upcoming activity at work you are most dreading, and why. Dread is funny. Be sure to use the word dread in your comment.

As you know, most problems in life are caused by sadists, nut bags, and imbeciles. Be sure to label your peers appropriately in your tale of dread.

Thank you!
 
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Last night I realized I was whining too much in this blog about products that don't work. So I decided to write today's post about a product that exceeded my expectations. We designed our home with a residential elevator. We didn't want to go through all the effort of building our dream home and then decades from now need to move when stairs become an issue. I was worried about having an elevator because it seems like exactly the sort of thing that will break on a regular basis. Last night I realized my negative expectations had been wrong. I need to lighten up. That elevator has worked like a charm, and we use it all the time for moving heavy objects up and down stairs.

So, as I'm walking across the living room last night, composing in my mind today's post in praise of the elevator, Shelly tells me the elevator is broken. And so it is. I'll have to call someone about that today. So I changed my plan and decided to write about my broken elevator instead. (Every word of that is true, by the way. I was literally composing the elevator praise post in my head when it broke.)

This morning I woke up at 6 AM and walked the dog as usual. I should mention that we designed the house with an automatic dog door, which functions as advertised, except it scares the bejeezus out of little Snickers and causes her to poop in the kids' rooms. So I walk her instead. In the rain.

After the dog does her business, I visit our spiffy new coffee maker. It's terrific. I push one button and it grinds the beans, mixes it with fresh water (it's plumbed!) and produces a steaming cup of excellent java. Except lately it has only been spitting out something like brown dishwater, which I drink anyway, for the placebo effect. Today I decided to take action. So after half an hour with the manual, I corrected a setting that had somehow unraveled itself, as if by ghosts. (Yes, the coffeemaker has a setting that allows you to create brown dishwater instead of something more like coffee. I'm not clear why.)

Coffee in hand, I go to my computer to start writing. But my computer decided to reboot itself last night, against my will, for some sort of Windows update. And it locked up. So I do a hard boot. And wait. And wait. And wait, while the creative juices slowly drain from my body. Once rebooted, I try to start Firefox. And I wait, and I wait. I like to check the comments on my daily strip before I do anything else. Great, I see that my Canadian stalker is back in full force, leaving crazy comments, driving out the normals. She's been cyberstalking me for about seven years now, off and on, whenever she goes off meds. She likes to call anyone I do business with and tell them I've been sexually harassing her, sending goons to search her home, bugging her phone, and my favorite: using my comic strip as a way to send secret messages to her. The police can't help me because she's Canadian. We block her IP address on a regular basis, but she keeps changing machines.

Anyway, seven years is enough. I'm in a bad mood. So as of today, I'm declaring her my mascot. Yes, stalker, this time I am talking directly to you. For the first time, it's not the voices in your head. Leave some good crazy comments that we can all enjoy.

My strategy is to get you so wound up that your husband, if you still have one, puts you back on your meds. Nothing else has worked. Let's try this.

 
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Today United Media announced it might try to sell the licensing rights for Dilbert, Peanuts, and the rest of its licensing properties.

http://www.cnbc.com/id/35536849

United Media has been handling syndication and licensing for Dilbert for over 20 years. They plan to keep the syndication part, which involves selling and distributing comics to newspapers. The licensing group, which is potentially for sale, manages licensing of Dilbert, Peanuts, and other properties to the third parties who put it on t-shirts and calendars and whatnot. 

There's no way to predict if this is good or bad for me. It depends who buys the rights.

Response to Jengineer:

The copyright holder is said to own the work. But to commercialize the work, a cartoonist might sign a deal with a syndication and licensing company such as United Media. A contract is created that gives United Media a share of the revenue in return for selling and distributing to newspapers (the so-called syndication part), and for making and managing licensing deals with t-shirt companies, publishers, and the like (the so-called licensing business). Contracts can be transferable, so United Media can sell its entire licensing business and along with its contracts to another company if a deal makes sense.

As a practical matter, being the copyright holder is less important than whatever contracts have been negotiated to divide up the work and the revenue.

 
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I've run into this situation twice in the past year: A sales person will tell me, in insincere confidence, what a jerk some other customer is. It usually comes in the form of a story that is presumably meant to amuse me, as in "You won't believe what this customer did the other day." There's usually a point to the story, such as Don't waste a sales person's time if you aren't going to spend a lot of money. Or Don't ask stupid questions. I suppose the sales person who shares these stories wants me to think he's bonding with me. But all I feel is a desire to beat him to death with whatever he's selling, while yelling "If you don't want people buying inexpensive items, why do you carry them in your f%&@ing store???"

And after he's dead, I might keep beating him while yelling something along the lines of "If your products weren't so f@&#ing confusing, maybe people wouldn't have to ask so many questions!"

On another topic, I believe there is a special place in Hell for companies that make consumer electronics with black buttons on black faceplates, especially when those products are generally used in low light situations. Is that even trying?

Let's talk about thermostats. How many people know how to program their thermostats? My guess is 30% of the public. In my last home, the interface was so random that at least half of the time we simply gave up trying to set the temperature and assumed "Something must be broken." Imagine how much energy could be saved with a little work on thermostat interfaces. The market system doesn't work with thermostats because they generally come with the house. And if you shopped for them in the store, you wouldn't get a full sense of how easy they are to use. Maybe there should be a law that says if 75% of consumers can't set the thermostat in controlled tests then those products aren't allowed on the market.

We use retractable leashes when walking our dog. The good versions of this product have a handle grip and a thumb control for stopping the leash from retracting. If you need to reel your dog in, you pull the handle while pressing the button. It's a very nice design. Recently we got one that changes things up. If your dog starts running into traffic, you have to pull on the handle while releasing your hold on the retraction button. That's right - you have to squeeze some muscles in your hand while releasing others. Try that at home. Squeeze your thumb and your index finger together while relaxing your pinky. You can do it, if you get in the lotus position and burn incense, but it's not the best design if you're in panic mode and trying to keep your dog from running into traffic. I wonder if the designers ever tested the product. And if they did, how many dogs died?

 
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Think of the first 20 people you know who have had all the kids they are likely to have. That generally means people over 40. For the purposes of this discussion, exclude anyone over 70.  Add up the adults in your group. Then add up the number of offspring they produced. Is the net gain in humans sufficient to grow the population?

When I do the math with my own circle of friends, we approximately break even, after allowing for spillage and spares. It made me wonder about the rest of the world, and by that I mean people who read The Dilbert Blog. Are you reproducing fast enough to break even?

 

 
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Recently, two of the smartest people that I know told me they are putting all of their money in silver and gold respectively. The thinking is that our national debt will surely crush us, along with the next wave of mortgage defaults, and the collapse of the dollar, and the drop in consumer spending, and perhaps a plague of locusts. The only option you can rule out, they believe, is that things will go well.

On one hand, I understand their points of view. I can't imagine any way the national debt can be controlled before it buries us all. My only comfort is these three thoughts:
  1. People aren't good at predicting the future, no matter how obvious the future path seems.
  2. Warren Buffett isn't putting all of his money in gold.
  3. My failure to imagine how the debt can be contained might be just that: a failure of my imagination.
It is wonderfully absurd that the best investment option my brilliant friends can think of involves trading their stock ownership of American companies into shiny rocks. While these particular shiny rocks have some practical value, so does manure, and yet you wouldn't trust your fortune to cow poop. The value of gold is derived primarily from the fact that people agree it has value, for a variety of semi-irrational reasons mixed in with a few trivial good ones. What happens to the price of gold if people simply change their minds about its value?

If things go so badly that the S&P 500 becomes permanently worthless, I have a hard time believing that the people who own gold will rule the world. I think it's more likely that the people who own steel that is conveniently shaped like guns will control everything, including all of the shiny rocks. At that point, the new currency will be something along the lines of "Wash my car and I won't shoot you in the leg."

Optimism is mostly about imagination.  For example, if you get an incurable disease, you can at least imagine someone finding a cure just in time. If nuclear war breaks out, you can imagine being part of the remnants of civilization that form the post apocalyptic society. You can imagine just about anything. But I literally can't imagine how our national debt can ever be brought under control. When I fire up my imagination generator, I just see a blank screen.

Are any of you investing in shiny rocks?
 
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My computer's memory fills up a few times a day, and then the system crashes. It doesn't seem to matter what applications I use. And closing applications doesn't free up memory. This has been true on every computer I have owned, both Macs and  PCs. Rebooting periodically is the only temporary fix. To which I say, "SERIOUSLY?? WTF???? IS THIS REALLY AN UNSOLVEABLE PROBLEM, LIKE FRICKIN' GRAVITY???"

So yesterday I did some searching and found online a piece of software that would allegedly monitor my memory use and allow me to free up the stranded parts when needed. It got excellent reviews from professionals in various magazines. The thing I knew for sure is that one of two things would happen:
  1. The software would do absolutely nothing.
  2. The software would crash my system.
On the plus side, it did not crash my system. But neither did it do anything. I just sent an e-mail to the support address to ask if the buttons are some sort of placebo or practical joke. I can press all sorts of buttons on their unfathomable interface and the little graph that shows my memory use stays exactly the same. And just to make things ironic, THE FRICKIN' THING USES MEMORY!!! It's like buying paint remover that is actually paint.

This leads me to my point. I think the problem with our economy is that most products are complete and utter crap. Suppose, for example, that I want to buy a shirt that looks okay on a guy my age. I have a choice of styles that include surfer dude, preppy douchebag, grandpa's barber, and human billboard. No one even bothers trying to make stylish clothes for the LARGEST SEGMENT OF THE POPULATION OF THE COUNTRY. Allow me to act surprised that Macy's is having trouble.

Try to buy some furniture. I dare you. It will take two months to arrive, if you're lucky. I am trying to figure out why no one jumps on the market opportunity to make furniture that can be delivered in only 6 weeks. Seriously. If the demand for frickin' chairs is that high, why aren't more people making them? Is EVERYONE busy making software that doesn't work?

How about my new printer? The box said it can fax, scan, copy, print, floss my teeth, whatever. Every time I want to print a page of text, I hold my breath and burn incense. It's an iffy proposition. I think the drivers actually rot. And God forbid I try to feed the device some important documents in the irrational hope of scanning or copying them. I kiss the documents goodbye before I send them to their destruction in the machine's bowels.

As I write this, I'm waiting for a response to why my memory-freeing software doesn't free any memory. I already know they will tell me to push exactly the buttons I already pushed, and when it doesn't work, they will act mystified and tell me they have never seen this issue before.

That's what's wrong with the economy.

 
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