A lot of what passes as creativity is just combining things that aren't normally combined. For example, my parents are in town this week, at the same time the iPad was launched, which made me think a lot about the physical form that products take. And because of the iPad launch, there's a lot of talk about the iPhone too. At 6:30 AM, all of those ideas combined in my head, somewhat automatically, and I drew a comic in which Dilbert invents a cell phone in the form factor of an old man's head. You'll see it on March 23rd.

Comic characters work best when they have well-known mental flaws. Dilbert's flaw is that he sees the world in terms of function while being somewhat oblivious to things such as beauty and social convention. To Dilbert, a phone that looks like an old man's head has no obvious downside. Once I had the idea of a phone that looked like an old man's head, I imagined how each of the Dilbert characters would react to it, and I laughed to myself when I thought that Dilbert wouldn't see anything wrong with the idea. Creativity is the combining of wrong things. Art is recognizing the physical sensation that the wrong combination gives you. In this case, my own physical response to the idea told me it was a keeper. Your mileage might vary for this particular comic, as is always the case, but if I keep to the system, I'll get you sooner or later.

Someone asked me in a recent comment on this blog if I come up with the titles for my posts before I write them. Usually I do. If I can't capture the essence of my idea in a few words, it probably isn't worth writing. A title is a good first test of an idea's worthiness. (And more broadly, anything that can't be described briefly is probably a bad idea.)

But I often change my working title after I write a post. For example, my recent post titled "Like a Night Watchman" was originally titled "Into the Well." My first take at describing what it feels like to be a writer involved a well metaphor. I lower myself into the well, deeper and deeper, until all outside stimulation is gone. That's the best description of what it actually feels like to shut out the world. But the night watchman metaphor was more visual and seemed friendlier. Falling into a well is scary. I thought it would distract from the point. A big part of writing is removing distractions.

Jan 28, 2010 | Permalink
I think you can predict acceptance of a new product by what people will compare it to. For example, the iPod was compared to all of the other ways you could organize and carry your music around, and the iPod was just plain better.

Then Apple introduced the iPhone. It was compared to other phones, and in that comparison it won easily, unless you expected to do a lot of e-mail.

Yesterday, Apple introduced the iPad. What do you compare it to?

The iPad borrows a little from phones, and a little from laptops, and a little from their own iPod and iTouch, and a little from the Kindle. It's better in some ways than all of those things, but less portable than its smaller cousins, less functional than a laptop, and more expensive than a Kindle. There's no comparison that is a clean win.

I think the human brain will automatically compare the iPad to a laptop, mostly because of the size. And I think most people will come to the conclusion that since an iPad won't replace your laptop, and it's too expensive for a toy, it has no place.

Betting against Steve Jobs is a fool's game. But the iPad doesn't feel like a genius creation. I think Jobs was focused on his health when the iPad was conceived.  It looks like committee work to me.
I keep getting unexplained bankcard services fees on my business checking account, somehow related to selling some of my original art a few years ago. I contacted my bank to clear it up. My bank could find no record that I ever had a merchant account with them. Nor could they find any record that I have a current checking account with them. They did acknowledge billing me for the services they say I don't have.

Allow me to say that again: My bank can't find any record that I have a checking account with them, searching either by my name or my account number. As I write this, it still isn't cleared up.

In the end, it will turn out to be something simple. I probably called the Bankcard Merchant Services department instead of the Merchant Services Bankcard department, and they can only see certain types of accounts, or some such thing. I don't think my money actually disappeared. The real problem is that the world has become so complex that simple tasks are nearly impossible.

I recently got a video switching device, professionally installed, that lets multiple televisions in the house display what is playing on, for example, a DVD player in another room. We just built our home, so we had the luxury of wiring it for that sort of function. It's a great idea, except that when I turn on the TV in one room it sometimes randomly turns on a TV in another. A team of very smart and experienced technicians have been trying to solve that bug for a week. In the end, I'll just live with it, or stop watching television, whichever is easier. Complexity transforms the simple into the impossible.

I went to upgrade a family member's cell phone the other day. I knew exactly what I wanted. The store even had it in stock. Still, the transaction took 90 minutes. It had something to do with using the upgrade of one family member for the phone of another, which ended up killing the wrong phone, hosing e-mail on my BlackBerry, and a host of other issue before we got it all working. Complexity made the simple nearly impossible.

Lately I've been trying to get all of my insurance issues sorted out. I need about seven different types of policies for various car risks, house risks, business risks, and personal risks. So I ask my insurance guy a question, and he passes the question to the carrier, and by the time I get the answer, I forgot what I asked. Worse yet, I have three more questions. Insurance documents keep piling up on my desk. Some want payment, some want inventories, some want data, some need review, and maybe signatures. I don't even know where to start. The complexity has overwhelmed me. So I just stare at the pile and hope a meteor doesn't strike the house.

I'd like to have an iPod. It would be great for working out. But I know that heading down that road would be disaster and heartache. Sure, it would be a simple task if it were just me. But the kids have iPods, and share an account, and there are gift cards, and limitations on porting to different devices, and a computer that only works half the time, and lord knows what other problems are lurking. The one thing I know for sure is that I'm not going to plug an iPod into the computer and happily download music with a few keystrokes. It would be more complicated than the Normandy Invasion. Instead, I just live without music. And exercise. So I suppose complexity is actually killing me now.

It was never a fair fight.

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When you lack a particular skill, you are often curious what it would feel like to have it. For example, I marvel at people who can sing in key, or even recognize the right key when they hear it.  I suppose it's more about feeling the music than thinking it. So I wonder what that feeling is like.

My little window of talent involves selecting the right words to make things sound either funny or compelling. I'll get to that in a minute.

My job also involves drawing, but that's not so much a talent (obviously) as it is a simple skill that I developed through practice. If I have any talent in that area, it involves knowing how to make the drawings fit the way I write. I could draw in a lot of different styles, albeit just as poorly as the one I use now, but my current style might be the only one that fits my writing.

Let's forget about the drawing part of my job and talk about word selection. In that area, I can actually feel a sensation that is like no other in my life. And I wonder if it is what musically inclined people feel when they write the perfect melody, or what athletes feel when they are in the zone.

I can literally feel words. And I wonder if it is a mild form of synesthesia, a condition where people have a form of crosstalk in their senses. A person with synesthesia might perceive certain words or numbers to have colors. Or they might perceive a particular month or a year as having something like a personality or a location.


My relationship with words is that I can feel them more deeply than most people. At least that is what I think is happening. To me, the word aura feels beautiful, but when I see osso bucco on a menu, I feel as if I have been slapped by a crabby skunk.

By the way, I experience the words "osso bucco" the same way I experience the words "crabby skunk." The words and their meanings are completely different, yet the feeling I get from them is the same. I probably store those words in the same parts of my brain.

I'm reading Andre Agassi's autobiography, Open. I assume it is ghost written, since Andre is barely educated, he says. My first reaction to the writing style was that it is heavy handed, and it bothered me. In time, I realized the writing style evoked the same feeling in me that Agassi evokes as a public persona. It was a perfect match. I assume Agassi's publisher hooked him up with a world-class ghost writer, and it shows. The writer found a style that fits the subject, probably leaving a lot of writer's ego at the curb. It's brilliant work. The book is fascinating.

People often ask how I get into the writing frame of mind. To me, it feels like being the night watchman in a museum. My job is to make sure all the doors are locked, and the blinds are pulled, and the lights are out. As a writer, you need to shut out all of the distractions from your other senses. I make sure I'm not hungry, tired, uncomfortable, or listening to anything. Then, like the night watchman, I go room by room with my flashlight until something scares me, surprises me, or makes me laugh. I have to feel something. And when I do, that's the part I keep. Then I wrap up the inspiring words in ordinary words, to form sentences. That part is more craft than art.

Writers tend to work early in the morning, or late at night, when brains are naturally able to focus deeply on one thought. In the middle of the day, distractions are unavoidable. I wonder if anything worthwhile has ever been written in the afternoon.

The other day I tried to change my address through a company's web site and it wouldn't accept my new address because I "already have a phone number." WTF??? I tried various workarounds including no phone number, and a fake phone number, but it insisted that once you have a phone number, and the system knows it, you can never change your address. So I asked myself, am I the first person who ever owned a phone and wanted to change his address?

On a daily basis I am astonished by the bad design of things. In my last home, the switch for the garbage disposal was on a panel with a light switch, and looked just like it. Approximately 50% of the time I turned on the light when I wanted to dispose of something, and vice versa. I tried to memorize which switch was which, but I always got confused by my own memory tricks. Were the switches ordered the way I thought they should be, and that was my memory trick, or were they ordered the opposite of how I would have done it, and THAT was my memory trick.

So now we have a button on the countertop for the disposal. It's obviously not a light switch, which is good. But when you press it with your inevitably food-dirty fingers, I imagine debris falling into its little well hole until someday the button just decides not to work. I wonder how that meeting went when someone suggested putting the button where it would be guaranteed the most slime. Did no one raise a hand to suggest that might be a bad idea?

Our new light switches have light indicators to tell you when a switch is turned off. That's right: The "on" light indicates that the switch is off. At least that's how my brain has interpreted it nine hundred times in a row. I understand that they want to make it easy to find the switch in the dark. But did they ever test how people use these things? And while I know the off indicator light uses almost no power at all, I can't get past the fact that it's sitting there wasting energy while its only function is to confuse me up to three dozen times per day.

Perhaps my biggest interface pet peeve is alarm clocks in hotels. I stare at the controls for about ten minutes, give up, unplug it, and use my BlackBerry as my alarm clock. I have to unplug it because the last guy might have accidentally set it for 3 AM.

What is your biggest interface peeve?

I got the flu recently, with all of the usual symptoms. But one symptom fascinated me: I lost all ambition. I didn't want to work, eat, read, talk, or even exist. For several days I had no long term goals, no short term goals, and no desires whatsoever, except to nap.

I'm a goal oriented guy. I can usually tell you exactly what I want right now, in ten minutes, and in ten years. That's not always a good thing. It's more of an itch than a positive quality. Losing the itch, even temporarily, was a strange feeling. It was like inhabiting someone else's brain for a week.

As soon as my body's natural defenses overran the flu, my baseline ambitions came flooding back. But it left me wondering if ambition could be directly manipulated by pharmaceuticals. I was the same person when I was sick, give or take some chemistry.

Obviously caffeine and amphetamines can give you the energy to accomplish your goals, but is energy all one needs to have ambition in the first place? I don't think so, because when I'm tired I still have ambitions; they just seem harder to pursue.

At about the same time, I was noticing that people can exist in the same general place and yet inhabit different time. Some people live for the moment, others are stuck in the past, and some live in the future. You can identify people's time zones by their conversation. People who live in the past will compare everything now to something that went before, or tell you how the past made them what they are. The lucky people who live in the present will talk about their immediate environment. And the people living in the future will talk about their plans or predictions.

My hypothesis is that your temporal frame of reference gets set when you're very young. If your earliest years were great, perhaps you get accustomed to living in the now, especially if things remain good for you. If your early life was painful, maybe you focus on the future as a way of escaping the now. And maybe the people who live in the past had good early years and not-so-good adulthoods.

Putting together the first and second part of this post, I wonder if ambition can be adjusted by teaching someone to live in the future. It feels like an entirely trainable skill. If you spend enough time thinking about how things can or will be, I suppose it becomes a habit. And to the extent that you think you can influence that future, perhaps you become ambitious as a side effect.

Obviously it could be the other way around. Maybe ambition is something you're born with, and having that quality causes you to focus on the future. My guess is that a person's time preference comes first. And I also believe that imagination is a skill you develop by focusing on the future, whereas a good memory is caused by focusing on the past.

My questions to you: Do you live in the future? And if so, would you consider yourself relatively ambitious and imaginative? And how's your memory?

Please summarize your answer thusly:

Time preference: future
Ambition: high
Memory: good
Lately I have been wondering whether online reviews should remain legal.
Yeah, I know. That just set off all of your alarms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salame: What is a Belgian?

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

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

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

Saleme: Perhaps you could get clarification and come back.

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

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

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

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