Yesterday I decided to make some man points. (-1 for knowing I need them.) Recently we purchased online a big metal rack to hold free weights. (+1). The delivery guy left the package outside the door when we were gone. I wasn't strong enough to carry it inside. (-1 for having no upper body strength.) So I tipped it on its end and "walked" it into the garage. (+1 for using science to move a heavy object.)

The rack required assembly. This was a problem because all of my tools had been stolen from the garage last week. (-1 for leaving tools unprotected. -1 for having so few tools that they all fit in one basket. -1 for not replacing them the same day. -1 for not having an attack dog in the garage.)

The main tool I needed was a rather huge Allen wrench. I didn't own that sort of tool even in the days when I had tools. (-1 for inadequate toolage.) So I dropped everything, jumped in the car, and headed to Home Depot for a tool buying spree. (+1 for going on a hunt for tools. -1 for calling it a spree. +1 for intending to buy tools for which I had no immediate use.

As soon as I got to Home Depot I asked a guy who was wearing an orange apron for directions to the men's room and the tool aisle. (-1 for asking directions. -1 for having a bladder like a pregnant woman. -1 for not already knowing where the tool aisle was at my local Home Depot.)

I saw a display of hammers and acted as if I were evaluating them by lifting each one and giving it a mock motion toward, in no particular order, a nail, a victim, and beer can. I quickly found that I can't tell the difference between a good hammer and bad one. (-5). I went down the row and tossed screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, drill bits, and anything else that looked remotely useful in my cart. At the checkout counter I grabbed two Snickers and worried that maybe I'm eating too much chocolate lately. (-1)

Back home, fully tooled, I discovered that the bench was apparently used, or at least beat up pretty badly. I considered sending it back. (-1) But in the end I figured that it would just get banged up in a week anyway, so no big deal. (+3) I commenced assembly.

My first problem is that there were no step-by-step assembly instructions, just a picture of the parts along with arrows as to where they should end up. (-1 for wishing I had step-by-step directions.)  I reckoned I needed a crew of four to hold the shelves and the ends in place so I could tighten the bolts with my brand new oversized Allen wrench. (-1 for needing help.) All of the pieces of the shelf were steel and very heavy, so you couldn't hold it together with one hand while applying bolts with the other. And my garage was not outfitted with oversized clamps. (-1 for having no oversized clamps.) I considered asking Shelly for help. But if you need help from your wife at this stage of a project, you might as well use the box cutter you just bought at Home Depot to remove your own nards and keep them in a jar in the kitchen, on the spice rack between the cumin and the bay leaves. (-1 for being able to name two spices.) So I stood and stared at the various components of my potential weight rack and rotated the pieces in my mind until I could imagine a set of steps that would make a team of helpers unnecessary. (+1.)

It worked. Not only had I purchased the correct tools (+1), but I figured out a way to tilt and prop the bench parts in just the right way to make it a one-man(ish) job. Now all I needed to do was vacuum some debris left from the packaging and it was a job well done. And for that I needed...my Shop-Vac. (+1 for having a Shop-Vac.)

The Shop-Vac stared at me from across the garage. It was a Medusa-like tangle of power cord, hose tentacle, and attachments. I would need to move it nearly ten feet without strangling myself, losing an eye, or breaking an ankle. This time I wasn't afraid. My testosterone was spiked from assembling the weight rack, and from being around lots of new tools. For once, this would be a fair fight. I grabbed the Shop-Vac's hose, it countered by dropping an attachment on my foot. I yanked its power cord, and it swung around and knocked over a screen. When I went to save the falling screen, just as the Shop-Vac planned, the hose wiggled out of my hand and wiped the tool bench clean of all items weighing less than a pound. Oh, now I was in it. Soon the air was filled with curses and the sounds of screaming wheels on concrete. There were arms and hoses and cords everywhere. I moved the Shop-Vac five feet and dared to imagine victory. Then I remembered that the vacuum bag wasn't inside the Shop-Vac, because someone had borrowed the monster to vacuum water. Oh God, I would have to open it.

I ripped off its top and cleaned its insides, all the while afraid it would regain consciousness before the operation was complete, and go all Doctor Octopus on my ass. All I needed to do was slip the bag hole frame thing into a slot where the hose meets the Shop-Vac torso and I would be done. But I couldn't quite get it to fit. I tried once, twice, three times. It looked so simple, but somehow the Shop-Vac found a way to resist. I tried a 25th time, then a 26th.

After approximately the 50th unsuccessful attempt, and after a hole formed in the only vacuum bag I possessed, things went dark. I beat the Shop-Vac to death on the concrete floor, then picked up the pieces and put them in a pile as a warning to the other tools. (+10)

The broom and dustpan decided to give me no resistance.


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Mar 3, 2010 | Permalink
Curiosity is one of the most underrated phenomena in the world. It's ironic that people aren't more curious about curiosity. It's a powerful thing.

For example, if you ever wondered if someone is attracted to you, the answer lies in curiosity. If someone asks personal questions about your past, your plans, your likes and dislikes, that is an unambiguous sign of attraction. If someone tries to steer you into the bedroom without some conspicuous data gathering, that is a sign of simple horniness.

The friend variety of attraction is milder than the lover type. You can be friends with someone for years without remembering the names of his or her siblings. But if you love someone, you automatically develop a voracious appetite for information about that person.

When someone you are not attracted to talks a lot about his or her own life, you get bored to death. When someone you are attracted to talks a lot, you might find that person to be full of life, and fascinating. Attraction and curiosity are inseparable.

Let's say you're interviewing for a job. You wonder if the interviewer is attracted to you as a potential employee or just going through the motions. Look for the curiosity trail. If his questions are all of the typical variety, he's probably just moving through the steps. If you sense some questions that veer off the normal path, such as asking where you like to golf, you almost certainly have something more.

If you're trying to sell something, it is useful to judge how much the other party really wants your product. Look for curiosity. If the potential buyer says nice generic things about a product, it's not as good an indicator as if he asks a series of questions, especially if the questions include some that don't seem important to the decision. In poker terms, questions about relatively unimportant aspects of a product are the buyer's tell.

A good book conspicuously manipulates your curiosity. The writer develops a character that you are attracted to, and then creates a series of situations in which it is not obvious how things will turn out. The Harry Potter books written by J.K. Rowling are a sensational example of that simple formula. Harry is young, and kind, and cute with his glasses and mop of hair. And he's an orphan. In our culture, Harry comes as close as you can get to the sort of person that almost anyone would like. That's the first part of the formula. Then Rowling ends each chapter with a tease of danger to come, making you wait a chapter or more to find out how things will turn out for Harry. Rowling became a billionaire by manipulating the connection between attraction and curiosity.

Movie studios know how important it is to feature likeable stars in their movies. It compensates for bad writing, bad directing, and bad everything else. If you are attracted to the lead actor, your curiosity is activated. It doesn't take a lot of movie magic to make you interested in what will happen to Sandra Bullock. As soon as she appears on screen you start getting curious about her because she's so likeable.

Curiosity is rarely faked simply because people aren't generally aware that it is such a reliable indicator of attraction. Once you learn to recognize the connection between attraction and curiosity, it's like having a mild form of ESP.

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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.

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.


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.


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!
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.


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.

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?

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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