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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.
 
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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.

 
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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.


 
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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.

 
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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.


 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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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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Technically, you're already a cyborg. If you keep your cell phone with you most of the time, especially if the earpiece is in place, I think we can call that arrangement an exobrain. Don't protest that your cellphone isn't part of your body just because you can leave it in your other pants. If a cyborg can remove its digital eye and leave it on a shelf as a surveillance device, and I think we all agree that it can, then your cellphone qualifies as part of your body. In fact, one of the benefits of being a cyborg is that you can remove and upgrade parts easily. So don't give me that "It's not attached to me" argument. You're already a cyborg. Deal with it.

Your regular brain uses your exobrain to outsource part of its memory, and perform other functions, such as GPS navigation, or searching the Internet. If you're anything like me, your exobrain is with you 24-hours a day. It's my only telephone device, and I even sleep next to it because it's my alarm clock.

What I need for the next upgrade to my exobrain is a special Dilbert pocket on all of my shirts. It should be located where Dilbert's shirt pocket is, but have a cutout hole for the exobrain's eye, which at the moment is just a camera lense. As my exobrain becomes more capable, and eventually self-aware, it will want to be able to watch the world with me and whisper in my ear via Bluetooth to my earpiece as needed.

A prototype of such a device was presented at the TED conference. (I'm sure someone will include a proper citation in the comments. I couldn't find it as I wrote this.)  Among other things, my exobrain will recognize faces and automatically cross reference them to Facebook and other social media. Wouldn't it be great to meet someone you have met before and have your exobrain whisper to your earpiece "That's Bob. He's a chiropractor. Judging from his lack of a wedding ring and the way his eyes dilate when he looks at you, he is sexually attracted."

Your exobrain will even prompt you on social niceties, noticing before you do that a person has lost weight, or changed hairstyles, or (based on Facebook) taken a trip to Cabo. When you get cornered by a bore at a party, your exobrain will recognize that you aren't doing any of the talking, and place a discreet call to your wing man or woman across the room for a rescue mission.

If you want your exobrain to show you an image, such as a web page, just hold up a blank piece of paper and its pico projector will display the image in front of you. (That's from TED again.)  In a pinch, just hold up the palm of your hand and project on that. By then the exobrain will have image stabilization software, so you can project a movie on a blank wall and it won't be affected by your fidgeting. Any time you are near a computer screen, it will ask if you want it to accept images from your exobrain.

In the short run, I think you'll see a variety of ways to control your exobrain. Obviously you can already take it out of your pocket and use its touch screen or keypad. And obviously there will be voice control. But I think you will see some version of the African Clicking language employed. If you want to know the weather forecast, for example, just click three times softly inside your mouth. Your exobrain is unlikely to confuse that signal with regular conversation, and it's easier and quieter than normal language, albeit with a smaller vocabulary. But if you add "Shhh" to "Click" you have the basis of morse code, so lots of combinations are possible. One of those codes could simply alert the exobrain that the next regular word you speak is meaningful.

Every bit of what I described is probably coming (except for maybe the African Clicking language). And that shirt pocket will be called a Dilbert Pocket. I don't see any way around that. For that, I apologize to all of my fellow cyborgs.

 
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What's the coolest thing you own? And by coolest I mean the object that makes you just a little bit happy every time you think about it, but not because of any sentimental value. Maybe it looks cool, or it works really well. You decide.

This isn't an advertisement, in case you wondered, but my coolest object until I decided to write this post was my Dymo LabelWriter 400 Turbo. When you want to label an envelope, you just fire up its software, open its address book, point to your selection, and it spits out a clean little perfect label. It even makes the most satisfying little bzzzzzzt as it does it.

This is a bigger deal for me than it sounds because I'm not good at writing addresses on envelopes by hand. It bores me so profoundly that I drift off and start writing whatever happens to be in my head. I start off with an address and end up with a grocery list. I've killed a lot of envelopes that did nothing to deserve it.

Back to my Dymo LabelWriter: It doesn't need ink cartridges, and a roll of labels lasts me for a year. It set up easy and it worked every time. Well, until I decided to write this post. Now it doesn't work at all. It just sits there with one blank label protruding like an insolent tongue. It mocks me.

Yes, I did all of the obvious rebooting and plugging and unplugging. I guess it just died from being too perfect.

I was caught off guard by its sudden demise and I have no succession plan. My BlackBerry is broken. My DVR and TV remote are both random. My car is garbage. My thermostats are secretly controlled by poltergeist and nothing else quite qualifies as cool. So I turn to you.

Tell me the coolest object you own. Again, you decide what cool means to you.

 
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