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A spy informs me that one firm is already telling its employees to avoid shaking hands as a way to lower the risks of swine flu. I can see this sort of policy catching on. My informant wonders what sort of greeting should replace the handshake. I'm on it.

There are few times in history when you have a chance to create a new and lasting custom. I say we put our collective minds together and come up with a business greeting that involves no skin-to-skin contact and no exchange of bodily fluids.  I will open the bidding by suggesting the forearm bump. I already use this method jokingly with my friend who has germ issues. It's like crossing swords except you cross your sleeved forearm. The cooties don't have time to penetrate two layers of sleeves. Or so he thinks.

This new swine flu greeting still needs something extra, such as both people saying, "Huzaaa!" when their forearms touch.

An alternate move would involve making a fist and holding it up to your snout sideways, as if you are forming a pig's snout, snorting then finishing with a fist bump. That's still hand-on-hand contact, but at least it's the clean side.

Who has a better idea for a handshake replacement?
 
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The human mind is wired to accept ridiculous reasons as if they are legitimate. Studies have shown that people are more likely to agree to a favor if the word "because" is used in the request. It doesn't seem to matter what follows that word. As long as the sentence is in the form of a reason, people accept it as though some actual reason is present. (See the book Influence.)

I've often used this method. I think I've mentioned these uses before, but I will reiterate to set up my larger point.

Guys tend to argue over who picks up the check after dinner. In cases where I know this situation is likely to arise, I prepare a ridiculous "because" reason that I trot out when the moment is right. After allowing the other guy or guys to make their ceremonial attempt at paying, I say something like "I'll pay today because this is the seven month anniversary of when you bought your car. Congratulations." I'm exaggerating slightly, but it isn't hard to come up with some trivial reason why you should pay. The funny thing is that any reason you offer will settle the discussion. It works every time.

Another situation in which the ridiculous reason works is when a large dinner group is being served and only half of the people have their dishes. Everyone sits there staring at their food as it cools, trying to be polite. In these cases I say loudly "According to etiquette, you can start eating as soon as three people have been served." Everyone instantly digs in. I think I read that rule of etiquette somewhere, but it's clearly a random number. There is nothing special about three. Ridiculous reasons win again.

I mention these examples because I think the world needs another ridiculous rule to solve some big problems. And it's no fair saying my new rule is ridiculous because that's exactly the point. The new rule would be this: Any land controlled by a country for 50 years straight is legitimately theirs. It's like a statute of limitations for armed resistance.

Obviously the people living in the disputed lands will reject this rule when it kicks in. It's really for the benefit of others who might be inclined to help the continued struggle for independence. Most struggles depend on outside help. This rule allows the outside helpers to withdraw without being dishonorable.

While the 50 year rule is clearly arbitrary and ridiculous, our minds allow us to accept such things as if they are real rules. So in time it might influence the inhabitants of the disputed lands to accept their situation. Realistically, if a country is controlled for 50 years, it's probably going to stay controlled. Continued resistance doesn't benefit anyone.

Consider all of the international struggles that involve lands conquered more than 50 years ago, or approaching that. The partisans need a reason to stop fighting that doesn't sound like they are a bunch of quitters. Honor is at stake. The 50 year rule is the non-reason reason.

I am aware that this rule, if followed, would sanction enormous unfairness, subjugation, apartheid, and worse. But those things would happen with or without the rule. The only difference is how many innocent people die trying to change a situation that is unlikely to change.
 
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As regular readers know, I don't generally explain my comics. But I'm going to make two exceptions. I think they deserve it.

My comic on 4-21-09 featured an Elbonian pig that no longer needed to play fetch because of the economic downturn. Huh? That doesn't even make sense, does it?



The intended but failed joke was that in Elbonia their pets are pigs. Thus the pig was practicing his fetching. You see, fetching doesn't come naturally to pigs. They need to practice on their own. But that's not the joke. The joke was that in good times the pig is a pet and in bad times he's dinner.

This wasn't my best work, according to the comments online, and I am forced to agree. Some readers were confused. Others imagined a cleverer joke than I actually wrote, based on a strip years earlier where the pig was minister of finance for Elbonia. That theory held that his bad job performance was catching up with him.

My second failed strip of late involved Dogbert trying out the flash feature on the company's new cell phone. This one didn't work but it's only half my fault this time.



The problem this time is that the outside service that adds color to daily strips (mine and others) decided the dead guy should be Dilbert, and they colored his necktie to conform to that theory. The dead guy is supposed to be Ted. I never color anyone's tie with Dilbert's distinctive style for exactly this reason. (I only color the Sunday strips myself.) Correct coloring wouldn't have been enough to save this comic, but it didn't help either.

You might wonder why I go through patches where Dilbert comics mostly suck for a few weeks, such as this one, and patches where I seem to be on top of my game. Some of it is probably just a matter of diet, exercise and sleep. But the bigger part is that I try different ways to go at the comics for a few weeks at a time. Notice that both of the comics that failed are missing an action scene that is implied. In the pig strip you don't see the future dinner preparations, and in the camera flash scene you don't see the flash itself happening. In both cases someone expires, and in both cases the topic is more fantastical than the usual office happenings.

The comics I am drawing now, that will run in late June, are back to standard office material. If I did too much of either the fantastic or the mundane it would cause a sort of snow blindness for the material. And I've found that the best way to draw young males into reading the strip is to kill some characters now and then. So while the quality of the strip has been down for the past few weeks, young readership probably went up.

I might be crazy, but I'm crazy like a pig.

 
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I'm always fascinated when an incremental change to an existing technology creates a new application. For example, you can browse the Internet with your phone, but its usefulness is limited to times when a regular computer isn't handy. Eventually, when your phone's browser speed approaches the speed of your regular computer, you won't bother getting off the couch to check something online. That's like a new application.

I was reminded of this while trying to make choices for the home we're building. As you might imagine, there is a huge amount of home-related information online. But if you want to Google up some ideas for decorating a tall wall, you're out of luck. If you want to see a bunch of cabinet types that fit with our look, you have to go on a scavenger hunt online. The Internet is surprisingly unhelpful for house design. But over time it will evolve into that application.

I predict that by the year 2030 or so you will be able to design an entire home online without much help from architects, designers, engineers, or landscapers. That expertise will all be handled with software, the same way TurboTax took over for the expertise of tax preparers.

As I work through the home design process, I'm struck by the fact there are so many clear rules. The process begs for programming more than art. For example, you want your kitchen near the interior door from the garage, and you want your washing machine relatively near the bedrooms, and so on. I should be able to tell my software my requirements for number of bedrooms, budget, and features, and have it spit out all the designs that meet my criteria. The software would optimize the house shape and orientation for my lot size and even make sure the plumbing distances were minimized. The program could make sure the design met all the local codes and restrictions. And it would be the greenest home that is practical.

The user would still make the final aesthetic decisions, but choosing only from a menu of homes that met his criteria. And he could walk through a 3D model before making any decisions. If he decided to add a bathroom, the entire floor plan would reconfigure to accommodate the change without breaking any rules.

So if your kid wants to become an architect, consider talking him out of it.
 
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Yesterday my post was about preserving your knees so you can enjoy your body for the long term. Several people expressed the opposite philosophy, that you should enjoy life now, even if it means more health problems later. I hear that same philosophy when I get into discussions about proper diet. But it seems to me that unless you are already taking heroin, you aren't being true to your own philosophy. You should be enjoying a good high now, not worried about what happens later.

I rarely make an important decision without considering the 60-year implication. My cash flow projections for retirement end at age 110. That's why the house we're building has an elevator.

I've always been this way. When I was in second grade I was already planning for my life as it is now, spending hours each day drawing comics. I assumed that would be my job. My focus changed by high school, to becoming a lawyer, so I buckled down and got good grades, figuring I'd need them. Things change, but I always have a plan.

The downside of planning so far ahead is that you worry more, and you probably enjoy today less. The upside is that your golden years might be a bit shinier. I'm not saying my approach is the best, but I don't think it's fair to call the "live for today" approach any kind of philosophy unless you're also quitting your job, having unprotected sex with strangers, and snorting coke. Junkies have a philosophy. You have rationalizations.
 
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Yesterday I was chatting with a fellow in his thirties who was complaining about his knees. He's training for a big race, running several times a week, and that's a lot to ask of knees, especially if you're sporting a few extra pounds.

He's a smart guy, successful in his career, knows where he's going, with a lovely wife and kid. Apparently he sets high goals and is willing to push through the pain to achieve them. I admire that.

But I also wonder if he's made a good engineering choice for his body. As regular readers know, I see the human body as a moist robot. Happiness is a function of making sure the chemistry of your brain has the right mixture of raw materials. And to get there you need to make good engineering choices plus have a little luck.

As I see it, this fellow has chosen the one sport most likely to destroy his knees: running long distances on pavement. That's like building a skyscraper on a sand foundation. He runs a high risk of blowing out a knee or two, leading to less exercise, higher weight, health issues, and ultimately a suboptimal mixture of brain chemicals. I'll bet you can name three friends who have already taken that path.

By way of contrast, much of my life is designed to protect my knees. My preferred sport is tennis, so we're building a court at our future home that will have a relatively cushioned surface. It makes a big difference on knees, and it's the main reason we're building a home instead of buying one.

My other major exercise is indoor soccer on artificial turf, which is surprisingly easy on the knees unless I get a kick or a twist. The new artificial turfs are better engineered to avoid the injuries typical of the earlier versions. You can run all day on it and the knees feel great.

My non-sport cardio exercise involves a recumbent bike, which is ideal for knees. My doctor recommended it for that reason. Our new home will also have a pool, so I will add swimming to the mix. And I put a lot of effort into staying within my recommended weight range because experts say every pound on your buttocks feels like five to your knees.

You could argue (convincingly) that my choice of soccer isn't a good risk for my knees. But the over-30 league isn't that dangerous, relatively speaking, and I've dropped four pounds since the season started. Okay, okay, I agree that's a rationalization for "I like to play soccer." But you see the point. Be good to your knees or.

 
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Companies merge every day. Maybe it's time for countries to do the same, voluntarily. For the sake of discussion, let's say the two countries are the United States and China.

Obviously there are too many obstacles, all psychological, to ever allow this to happen. But it makes me wonder what the benefits could be if it happened.

You could start the discussion by imagining that the U.S. and China would maintain their own leaders and laws much the way a state has a governor and its own local ordinances. The new unified Super Government would only deal with the big issues of global security, trade, and accelerating the benefits of leveraging the resources of both countries.

The Super Government would probably need to be made of equal members from the U.S. and China, and require a 75% majority for any decisions. That limits any actions to things clearly benefitting both groups.

The first obvious benefit to this arrangement is that you wouldn't point nukes at your own nation. Second, international trade negotiations would be easier. Few countries could afford to piss off both the U.S. and China. And I am assuming there could be substantial benefits to closer economic and environmental cooperation.

You could argue that the U.S. and China can already get those benefits by agreeing to any actions that are in their mutual interest. But there is something about being labeled the same country that makes agreement more likely. For example, I know that some states in the U.S. get a bigger piece of the federal spending pie, but I'm not bothered because somehow it's all in the family.

Maybe a U.S. and China merger allows for an elegant solution to the Taiwan situation. Toss Taiwan into the merger, giving them one or two representatives in the Super Government, and a veto over any decision directly affecting their people. On one hand it's effectively no change at all, while on the other hand the leaders of China could say they unified Taiwan with China. Ta-da!

You can find lots of reasons why a merger among very different nations wouldn't work. That's no challenge. The fun part is that this thought experiment demonstrates how much we sacrifice to the limitations of human psychology. When you define some other group as part of your own, everything changes while nothing changes.
 
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I wonder if the right to freedom of speech is becoming functionally obsolete. If you break it into its parts and examine it, there isn't much to it anymore.

For example, as I have blogged before, if you criticize your government in any public way, it's bad for your business because all of the people who hold opposing viewpoints will prefer to take their money and job offers elsewhere. In most cases the threat of economic loss controls individuals from piping up too often. Every now and then you get a Joe the Plumber who can make some money off of speaking up, but it's rare.

There are plenty of professional pundits who will happily take sides on TV, radio, blogs, in newspapers, and in books. But most consumers of such opinions are true believers of one side or the other. Freedom of speech is somewhat useless if all it does is reinforce your existing viewpoints. And if all the media serves to do is give you a steady stream of biased information, it's functionally useless.

Assuming my enlightened readers are intellectual mavericks who sample the opinions from all sides, the Internet is making freedom of speech obsolete for you. And by that I mean there is no point in having a right allowing something that can't be stopped. It would be like banning gravity. For the true seeker of knowledge, the Internet allows one to find all variety of opinions, ranging from wisdom to fabrication. The law couldn't stop it if it tried.

Some countries censor their media and try to censor their Internet. I have to assume censoring the Internet can't work in the long run. There will be too many workarounds and too many criminals to prosecute. Those countries will learn that it is easier to control the information at the source than to control the media. As long as there are pundits willing to get paid for spreading the government's agenda there will be enough public doubt to keep revolution from happening. America leads by example in that department. (I can say that without repercussion because it isn't party-specific.)

Freedom of speech goes beyond criticizing the government. It also includes censorship of art deemed obscene. But in time the Internet will make that a meaningless right. Everyone will have instant access to any art or images they want.

This leaves us with the right to burn a flag or the right for special interest groups to donate money for campaigns. In 500 years no one but historians will remember that those rights sprang from the by-then-obsolete notion of freedom of speech.
 
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Yesterday's blog about China was more fun than I expected. Just to be clear, I prefer the American system of government. But as regular readers know, I like to defend the opposite views from whatever I hold. It's a good test.

Many of you pointed out the problem of corruption in China. One source says it might amount to $86 billion per year, or 10 percent of government spending.

http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=19628&prog=zch


Therefore the Democratic/Republic form of government is better than Chinese communism, right?

I would argue that corruption is independent of the form of government. Corruption is just as much a crime in China as it is in the U.S. The difference is the effectiveness of enforcement. If you look at America early in this century, corruption was rampant, probably on the level of China today, yet our system of government was the same as now.

Consider that our system of government took more than 200 years to beat corruption down to its current level. China's political system is relatively new and their country is relatively huge. The only relevant question is whether corruption in China is trending better or worse. And I don't know the answer to that. Do you?

You can't measure trends in corruption by dollar amount. If corruption stays at a constant rate, the dollar amount would be growing. So someone Google me up a good statistic on Chinese corruption trends.

 
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China
Apr 9, 2009 | General Nonsense | Permalink
I don't understand a lot of things. Recently I realized I don't understand the Chinese form of government. This seems important because China will someday buy whatever is left of the United States. Any way you look at it, China is the major economic force of the future. I feel as if I should understand how they roll.

I suspect that if you quizzed most Americans, they would say China is a communist dictatorship. I had a hunch there was more to China than the cartoony image I learned in school. So I spent five minutes with Google to see what I could learn.

First of all, there are 1.3 billion Chinese, but only 73 million of them are members of the Communist Party. The party has a monopoly on power. They decide who gets to run for office. The Communists manage a vast bureaucracy that apparently has provisions for weeding out the idiots. I make that assumption based on the fact that the country functions at all, given its size and complexity. Check out this chart of the Chinese government.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chinese_political_system.jpg


Although the Communists run the show, I assume most citizens have the right to join the party and work their way up the ranks. So merit appears to be important in their system. Obviously any big political system will have its share of corruption and favoritism. It's unclear to me if China is better or worse than the United States on those measures. But I imagine that getting caught with your hand in the public till in China means death. Here it means reelection. Advantage China.

Chinese citizens can vote for their local leaders, at least from the slate of candidates deemed appropriate by the party. And those local leaders in turn select higher level leaders, and so on. Is that less fair than the political systems in so-called democratic countries? Philosophically, it might be less fair. On a practical level, that's not so clear.

As far as I can tell (in five minutes) you don't get to be the head guy in China unless the Communist Party supports you. So it's far from a dictatorship. And the party has a huge incentive to pick the most effective leader. There's a lot to like about that system.

Unlike the political system in the United States, the Chinese don't base policy on superstition. They are more pragmatic. If you think God is talking to you, you probably don't go far in the Communist Party. Advantage China.

Obviously you have to include in this discussion the issues of human rights. China comes up short on that measure compared to western democracies. But what is less clear is whether the majority of Chinese would prefer it otherwise. Perhaps they appreciate the lower crime rate, for example.

If the Chinese had a more free press, would the citizens be better off? I appreciate the free press telling me that Governor Blagojevich tried to sell political influence. But in China he would already be executed, whether I read about it in the newspaper or not. Advantage China.

China's government is more like a large business enterprise. IBM doesn't have a free press reporting about its manager's decisions, but that doesn't make them less effective. They weed out the crooks and idiots in their ranks because it is in their best interest to do so. China's Communist Party apparently has a similar system. Would a free press make much difference in their case?

I started this discussion by admitting my ignorance. That situation hasn't changed much since I wrote this blog post. Feel free to correct any misconceptions here.

 
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