I call it the Rule of Twelve, and it states that if you know twelve concepts about a given topic you will look like an expert to people who only know two or three. If you learn more than twelve concepts about a topic, the value of each additional one drops off considerably.

Allow me to be the first to confess that twelve is not a magic and inviolable number. It just sounds better than The Rule of Several, Give or Take Two or Three, With Lots of Exceptions. So don't get hung up on the number twelve.

The power of this rule is that seemingly impenetrable topics are less intimidating if you know there are only a dozen concepts to learn. And often the details of a subject are unimportant if you know the big concepts. Let me give you an example.

As I've mentioned, my wife and I are in the process of building a house. One of our goals was to make it as energy efficient as practical, while still having the features we wanted. And that meant learning the twelve-or-so concepts of green building that would get us where we wanted to go. Those concepts aren't neatly listed anywhere, so you have to flail around until you scare them up. For example, I spent a huge amount of time trying to figure out the best type of insulation for the walls. I looked at everything from SIPS to hippy ideas about hay and compressed dirt, to blown-in cellulose, to standard batting. And it seemed no one could give me a definitive answer on what R-value was best for a home in my area. Big developers used whatever was cheapest and met code, because they didn't have to pay the utility bills after their homes where sold. And every individual home builder and owner seemed to have his own theory on insulation type.

Eventually we talked to some engineers who explained some of the twelve concepts to us, and that made the decision easy. It turns out that in my climate, no matter how you insulate the walls, it's the windows and roof that will determine (mostly) how much heat penetrates your house. There was never a need to learn about exotic wall insulation methods. We just had to make sure we knew the twelve concepts about windows, roofs, thermal mass, orientation to the sun, chimney effect, and a few other concepts more important than wall insulation.

If someone is explaining a subject to you by listing lots of facts and examples, without explaining any of the twelve concepts, you probably aren't learning anything useful.
Suppose you hire a plumber to fix a leak. You pay him for his work and he leaves. A year later he calls back and asks if you would consider giving him additional money because you continue to get benefits from the repairs. In addition, he argues, you could help subsidize future customers that would otherwise not be able to pay for his services. Would that seem appropriate?

Now imagine he calls back every few months for the rest of your life, asking the same frickin' question every time. Would you be okay with that practice?

Private colleges do this sort of thing all the time and somehow it seems okay. It makes me wonder what-the-hell kind of brainwashing goes on in those institutions.

I have an internal conflict when my alma mater, Hartwick College, asks for money. On one hand I feel a strong, irrational impulse to give, just as they somehow programmed me to feel. On the other hand, my degree was in economics, so the rationally trained part of my brain says paying twice for a service that was rendered once is irrational. But I'm glad the school pumped out lots of psychology, nursing, and sociology majors to donate money and keep the college afloat. I'd hate to have an economics degree from a college that went out of business.
A lot of what passes as art is really an understanding of rules. Here I am using "art" loosely to mean anything from fashion to design to painting a picture. The more rules you know, the better you are as an artist.

Let me give you an example from design. Say you want to design a magazine cover about a hot new type of consumer gadget. One idea for the cover involves a picture of the gadget and nothing more. The other idea involves a picture of a person who happens to be using the gadget. Which one do you pick?

Answer: The person using the gadget.

One of the rules of magazine covers is that you want to include humans whenever possible. Humans are wired to be more interested in other humans than anything else.

My wife and I are in the process of building a home and choosing all the details that will be in it. One of the choices involves doors. If you start the process by imagining all the possible doors in the universe, the task is overwhelming. But eventually you can figure out the rules, and that narrows your decisions. For example, you want most of your doors to look the same, or at least be in the same general vein. That's a rule. And the closer any two doors are, the more similar you want them to be. That's a rule. And once you have made a decision on the general style of the home, the door choices narrow by about 90%.

In the course of my Dilbert career I've posed for literally hundreds of photo shoots. I like to observe the photographers and figure out their rules. I know they always want the lamp removed from my desk. I know they want my computer "cheated" in a way that is unnatural for the user but looks good in pictures. I know the window behind my desk is going to be a lighting problem. And I know which six-or-so positions they are going to ask me to pose in.

This all makes me wonder how far computers will advance in creating art and design. My guess is "farther than you think." The limit will be our human ability to realize when we are using rules versus something squishy like judgment or having a "good eye" for something. Once the rules are understood and programmed into computers, they should exceed our skills at everything from architecture to fashion design.
Suppose you created a Ponzi scheme that worked like this: For every dollar someone thought they were investing in your scam, you simply kept ten cents and put the rest in the bank, not invested in any way.

Every month you would generate a fake statement showing that your victims earned some healthy return, say 15%. You wouldn't need to worry about people withdrawing money because your fund would allegedly be the best around, at least according to your fake statements. And you'd still have 90 percent of the money sitting in the bank in case someone really needed some back.

This scheme would be highly illegal of course. It would also be one of the best investments anyone could have made over the past ten years, assuming few people withdrew any money. Most legitimate investment funds lost more than this hypothatical fund.

Almost everything I ever learned about investing turns out to be wrong. I learned that buying and holding a diversified portfolio of stocks was a sure winning strategy in the long run. So far, my lifetime stock investments are negative.

I learned that the safest investment is real estate, especially in California, because "they aren't making any more land." That theory hasn't worked out too well.

I learned that investing in California municipal bonds was extra safe because they were insured. That's great until the insurance companies themselves become insolvent.

So if everything that was good is now bad, is there any investment that we all assumed to be bad that is now good? (Other than stuffing cash under the mattress. Too obvious.)
Whenever I see tragedy I immediately look for the economic opportunity it creates. So when I saw this news story about a guy who shot a woman because he thought she was a monkey, I wondered how the woman, who insists she is not a monkey, can cash in when she recovers.


My suggestion is that she should approach the people who make Nair and ask to be their spokesperson. The commercial could go something like this:

Spokesperson: "Are you tired of being shot because your neighbor thinks you're a monkey? Me too. That's why I use Nair. And now I buy my fruit from the grocery store. That probably helps too."

I'm going to closely follow this case. If the shooter gets acquitted I plan to use the monkey defense if I ever get arrested for a similar crime. Obviously I would only need that defense if I shoot an unarmed citizen, but frankly the only thing stopping me now is the lack of a good alibi. This monkey thing could be just the ticket.

One problem with using the monkey alibi in a California suburb is that we don't have enough actual monkeys to make the story seem plausible. So in phase one of this plan I will need to breed monkeys in my garage and release them until some sort of critical monkey mass has been achieved. Then I'll never have to listen to someone talk on a cell phone during a movie again. I'll tell the arresting officers "I thought it was a monkey."

But with my luck there is probably some sort of law against shooting monkeys in crowded movie theaters anyway, no matter how much they deserve it. I should probably do more research.

The other day I was in a restaurant and saw a sign advertising "Sliders Fridays." From what I gathered, they offered a deep discount on tiny hamburgers, called sliders, on Friday nights. The interesting thing about this discovery is that I own the restaurant and it's the first I knew of it. (Stacey's at Waterford: www.eatatstaceys.com)

I don't just own the restaurant. I also manage it, although I use that term loosely. I've taken the concept of hands-off management to the next level. Most of the time I have no idea what the staff is up to. They organize customer events, execute marketing ideas, hire and fire, change the menu, and pretty much anything else they want. I only get involved if there is a largish expense that needs to be approved. I see the financials daily, by e-mail, but I'm mostly about the bottom line.

As a well-known critic of managers, I painted a big red bulls eye on my back when I started managing the restaurant. For the first year I was involved in the details somewhat, but primarily to establish an operating culture. I wanted to give them lots of flexibility to try new things, and even more freedom to fail. And I wanted them to feel like it was their own business.

I'm lucky because I have exceptional managers, with lots of experience, who appreciate the freedom they are getting. I think freedom partly compensates for the fact that restaurant pay isn't the best. It's a luxury not having your boss breathing down your neck. Apparently something is working because the restaurant quality is better than it has ever been, and January revenues were slightly up from last year despite the tanking economy. I'd love to take credit for that, but lately all I do is eat there.

The principles I tried to establish with the staff early on, that seemed to have stuck, include these:
  1. Have fun. Loosen up.
  2. Try something new. Often. Keep whatever works.
  3. No penalty for a new idea failing. Trying is the thing.
  4. Employees are more important than customers.
  5. Stop asking Scott for approval. Just do it.
  6. Managers get to see the financials.
  7. Being a jerk to coworkers is grounds for termination.
  8. Do whatever seems smart and fair to make customers happy.
  9. Watch the competition closely and borrow their best ideas.

It probably helps that the staff realizes that getting another job these days is a dicey proposition, and they all want to make sure the restaurant stays in business. When someone doesn't pull their weight, the staff weeds them out on their own, either directly or indirectly.

It's a fascinating exercise. Obviously it only works if you have the right people in key positions. But so far, so good.

During the Great Depression the unemployment rate hit 25%. We're flirting with 9% in California. But can you compare unemployment rates across the decades?

Obviously the unemployment rate doesn't include anyone who stopped looking for work, so it tends to understate things. That distortion is often discussed. But there's also a problem in comparing the rate across decades. There has been a huge surge in the number of small businesses over the past fifty years. Many are the "buy yourself a job" type, meaning your income during good years will be about the same as if you had a normal job and salary. But what happens if the economy sours and all of those people who appear to be working at their small businesses are actually using their savings to stay afloat? Can you really call those people employed?

I would argue that any self-employed person, and any small business owner who is losing money, or using savings to stay afloat, is functionally unemployed, or at least underemployed. I wonder what the unemployment rate would be if you included those people, so you had a better apples-to-apples comparison with the Great Depression.
I forget where I read this tip, but I have used it many times with great success. It starts with the notion that most women change their hair all the time. You might not notice, but a woman is very aware of these small deviations in everything from highlights to length to fluffiness. I'm probably not using the official hairdresser terms, but you get the idea. It's different every day, at least according to the woman who owns the hair. To me, hair is either brown or it isn't, and you either have some or you don't. The rest is beneath my radar.

So here's the tip. When you see a woman who you haven't seen for a few weeks, you can pay her this compliment, and it works every time. Say, "You've done something with your hair. I like it."

The woman will feel flattered that you noticed anything beyond her hair's very existence and its degree of brownness. She might even wonder if you can be her new gay friend. But she will confirm that something is indeed different and offer many details about how it got there. You can use that time to think about your hobbies.

So far, this idea isn't mine. I just forget where I stole it from. But I did add a twist to it that I will claim credit for. You know how embarrassing it is when you introduce yourself to someone you think is a stranger at a gathering and the person says, "We met a few weeks ago." This is a sure tipoff that you consider the person non-memorable. If the person is a woman, you can use the hair trick to save yourself. Simply look surprised that you have met before then pretend you are having a flash of recognition, and add "Of course! But your hair is different today. It threw me."

Now you have flipped it from being the idiot who can't remember a new person for a few weeks into a person who has such intense memory for detail that any deviation is the same as a mask.

Yes, I've used that method often. I can't say it works every time, but it sure beats my old method of arguing that I must look like some other person and I just arrived in town an hour ago.

You're welcome.

How bad is the economy? My wife and I have been shopping for a vehicle this week, out of necessity. I didn't see another prospective buyer at the dealerships we visited. Not one. It was a hassle trying to test drive vehicles because the batteries were dead, and even the electronic keys didn't work because they hadn't been used for so long.

I think it will be years before many new homes are built in this country. Between the price uncertainty that will linger for years, and the ever-increasing regulatory hurdles, it's no longer rational for a builder to build. My wife and I started building our home before the economy cratered, so stopping the project wasn't an option. But the process has taken over four years to get approval, and even though we do expect to finish on budget (sort of), the market price of the home will be worth maybe half what it cost to build, assuming home values keep dropping. I can't recall seeing any other homes under construction anywhere in this area.

Restaurant business is down about 40% nationwide. That puts almost all of them underwater. No independent operator who has a lease will renew it when it comes up in the next three years or so, unless they can fund the operating losses from some other source. I expect about half of all the restaurants in California to close. When that happens, it will free up enough customers for the restaurants that stick it out.

I think we'll all survive. And we'll find ways to be happy. But I don't believe the economy will roar back in 2010 as the experts are fond of predicting. I think this is the new reality until some innovation comes along to drive another bubble.

One could argue that previous economic bubbles were driven by sex, directly or indirectly. Guys bought cars to attract girls. The VCR business thrived because of porn. So did the Internet. If you want to predict the next economic boom, figure out who is inventing technology that 19-year old boys will crave in order to increase their chances for sex.

Any ideas?
Mar 2, 2009 | General Nonsense | Permalink
A reader sent this story. It helps explain why your economy is in shambles.

A new group was formed at my work called the "Business Information Group" using the acronym BIG. The Information Technology department for this group added the initials IT to this acronym. Recently they had mugs ordered with the letters BIGIT. It was only after these mugs showed up on many desks that someone from another department asked "You guys are calling yourself bigots?"

They didn't return the mugs, but they do turn them around so the letters BIGIT are not facing outward.

This reminded me of a story from childhood. In sixth grade one of the tough kids in the class decided to put on the back of his new leather jacket "Hell's Angels." But he spelled it "Hell's Angles." This misspelling was gleefully pointed out to him by the nerdier elements of the class (okay, me). Unfortnately for him, there was no way to correct it without ruining the jacket. And he couldn't afford a new leather jacket, so he lived with it. I guess he figured most people wouldn't notice. I like to think he was wrong about that.
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