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This weekend my wife and I survived a gauntlet of death. It's called a vacation. If you have never had a vacation, allow me to explain how this works.

You select a vacation destination based on the sort of accidental death that you find most appealing. If you like being kidnapped, you might choose Mexico. If you like plunging to your death on rocks, you might try mountain climbing. For our weekend, we chose drowning, with a kicker that in most cases it would be preceded by a fall from a great height. It's called Lake Tahoe, and apparently it's a popular form of euthanasia. We could hardly find a dangerous ledge that was unoccupied.

Just to make things interesting, we were on the Nevada side of the lake. Nevada isn't big on safety laws. In Nevada, when you rent a kayak, you have the option of wearing a life jacket, keeping it with you in the kayak, or, in my case, imagining that it is behind you while it's actually back at the beach.

Legend has it that mobsters used Lake Tahoe for years to dispose bodies because it's very deep. It's also very clear. I never saw what might be called scenery during my kayak trip. I was busy looking for sloppy informants beneath my kayak. I never saw any bodies. Neither did I see any fish. Not one. Apparently the water is too cold for fish. At least that's how it felt. I calculated that I could survive less than five minutes if my kayak tipped over. My wife jumped out of her kayak and went swimming for four-and-a-half minutes. For Shelly, cheating death is a form of relaxation.

We spent many hours at the beach absorbing deadly solar rays. I believe that Shelly could actually walk on the surface of the sun and come away with a beautiful golden tan. By way of contrast, my skin is so brittle that my body doesn't cast a shadow. The photons burn right through me without so much as the courtesy of slowing down. Shelly put a nice topper on her tan while I lost most of my kidney function scurrying from umbrella to tree shade.

We signed up for massages because I thought that would be a good way to relieve my vacation stress. The spa attendant showed me to my robe and, recognizing my name from the sign-in sheet, asked if I was the creator of Dilbert. I unwisely said I was. Now, for those of you who have not had the opportunity to be a minor celebrity, let me explain that getting naked in this circumstance is awkward. But I powered through it and looked forward to my massage.

My massage therapist was in her seventies and weighed about 90 pounds. Apparently she graduated from the massage school of "making it up as you go." The alleged massage felt like a farmer was slowly strangling a chicken on my back. I could feel something boney happening back there, and maybe a beak was involved, but I can't say it relieved my stress.

On our last day at the lake we asked for directions to a scenic hiking trail. Allow me to set the scene. Imagine the narrow two-lane winding road along the lake, most of it on cliffs with no railings, crammed with people illegally parked on both sides, pedestrians darting to and fro, and bicyclists on every blind curve.  Now imagine a delivery van close behind us, in a hurry, as I search for the alleged hiking trail entrance according to these directions: "You'll see a green gate with no signs. It's right after you pass the only place you can park."

Shelly is all in. We're going to locate this hiking trail and we're going to somehow sense it just in time to find the only parking place left in Nevada. Our parking spot might require one wheel to be placed over a ledge, perhaps two, but we can do this.

I have a vivid imagination. It's great for making comics, but not so good for vacationing. I begin to imagine a future in which Shelly shouts "THERE IT IS! THE GREEN GATE! STOP, STOP, STOP!!!" At which point I apply the brakes too quickly, the delivery van behind me pushes our minivan off the ledge, and I finally get to see one of those mob informants up close.

Call it good luck or good karma, but we didn't see the green gate soon enough to initiate the death plunge. We settled for a less popular trail a few miles down the road. The only catch is that it wasn't so much a hiking trail as a nearly vertical dirt slope shaped like a ski jump. The difference was that instead of a graceful landing in snow, you had a 50% chance of screaming all the way to an icy death in the lake. That's called hiking.

Anyway, we survived, against all odds. I call that a successful vacation.

 
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Last night my wife convinced me to watch the finale of The Bachelorette. (Spoiler alert) It's a so-called reality show in which one woman chooses a man from an initial group of 24. On the first episode, the bachelorette gave a "first impression rose" to the guy who stood out from the pack in a positive way. By the final show she had decided that the man who made the best first impression was in fact the best of the bunch. The chosen guy was clearly the most handsome of the bachelors, so it wasn't a huge surprise.

But it made me reflect on how many times my own first impressions are accurate. Consider movies. I can tell you whether or not I will like an entire movie within the first two minutes, with perhaps a 95% success rate. In fact, that first two minutes is probably more predictive than the movie trailer.

It's the same with books. I can open a book to any page, read any half-dozen sentences, and come away with an accurate idea of how much I might enjoy the entire book.

Cars, homes, pets - it's the same thing. Whatever I like in the first minute, I usually like forever. Assuming most of you are the same way, to some degree, what does it say about people?

One theory is that we're good at predicting the quality of things from scant clues. But can you really tell if a movie will have a good plot, which presumably matters, from the first two minutes?

A second theory is that we make up our minds about things based on the first few irrational cues, and everything that follows is rationalization. So if there's something in the first two minutes of a movie that I like, for whatever subconscious reasons, I later think that the directing, acting, and plot were also good (enough), even if on some objective level they were not.

As part of my training for hypnosis, years ago, I learned that human brains are rationalization machines, not logic machines. That's hard to accept, especially in yourself. Your brain tells you otherwise. It insists it is completely rational.

Do you believe you have been rational in your important decisions in life?

 
The common view is that sometimes you have stress and sometimes you don't. But where does the stress go when you don't have it?

My theory is that stress is a universal constant. If you have less of it at any given moment, then other people must be taking on more to balance things out. For example, let's say you go on vacation. While you're on the beach, your coworkers are trying to handle their own workload plus the projects you left behind. You haven't reduced stress; you've simply transferred it to your coworkers. And if you work alone, as I do, you can frontload your stress to get ahead of deadlines, but you can't reduce the total amount.

Suppose you have a non-injury accident in your car. You're all stressed out, and the universe is temporarily out of balance. Then the tow truck shows up. He's the happiest guy you've ever seen because he's making a good profit from your misfortune. Soon the stress level at a local auto repair shop will go down because they will have a new customer. And the suppliers for that body shop will get paid, and so on down the line.

All of our institutions are set up to ensure the efficient balancing of stress across humans. Consider capitalism. Every sale of stock creates one winner and one loser. Every promotion leaves someone behind who is jealous and resentful. Every bid you win means more work.

On a monetary level, Capitalism isn't a zero sum game. In principle, while the rich get richer, the poor can be getting less poor. But with wealth comes extra stress. As soon as you shed the stress of starving, you take on the stress of a higher level of responsibility. You can get rid of certain causes of stress, but you can't get rid of stress itself. The universe makes sure that new stress always finds you.

Sports are designed to create as many losers as winners. The relief of victory is exactly matched by new stress in the losers.

Entertainment, such as a movie or TV show, is generally designed to generate stress in the viewer and then release it at the end. The total amount of stress balances out.

You can see this continuous rebalancing of stress in your own life. Every time you put some huge, hairy, stressful problem behind you, another appears as if from nowhere. The new source of stress might be a "good" one, as in planning for a wedding, or wondering how you will perform in a new job. But stress it is, nonetheless.

Moreover, in times when chance alone does not provide you with enough stress to replace what you had, you'll do some dumbass thing to increase your own stress level. You'll sign up for skydiving lessons, walk through the bad part of town, or insult your boss. Stress must be served.

Conservation of stress is another clue that we live in a programmed existence, subject to certain rules and limits established by the author of our reality. I say that because it is exactly how you would program such a world if you were the author. You wouldn't let the characters in your world rest, as that would be somewhat pointless. You would make sure the environment provided a steady flow of stress so the characters could feel alive, and could fully exercise their personalities.

I realize that most of my readers believe reality is nothing more than an ever-evolving "dumb" universe. That's a highly plausible view, if you like your explanations complicated. If you like a simpler explanation, you have The Boltzmann's brain paradox:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boltzmann_brain

As a writer (sort of), I lean toward the more interesting notion that we're a simulated (programmed) world left behind by advanced humanoids that shed their bodies billions of years ago. Our simulated world is the closest they could come to immortality. They were romantics, much like ourselves, and couldn't stand the thought of being separated from their loved ones for eternity. So in our programmed little world, when we feel a special connection to another, it's because we knew that person when we were real, and the program allows us to feel it again as if new. Thus, when you meet your soul mate, it is a reunion of sorts. And it will happen over and over, in each subsequent life the program provides for you.

Yes, I saw Inception yesterday. Now excuse me while I go spin a top.

 
When an appraiser looks at a home to determine its market value, he's looking at simple factors such as size, type of construction, number of rooms, neighborhood characteristics, and whether or not it is located near a pig farm. I'm oversimplifying, but not by much. Here's a typical home appraisal form.

http://www.howstuffworks.com/framed.htm?parent=&url=http://www.freddiemac.com/sell/forms/pdf/72.pdf

I'm fascinated by what is NOT considered when looking at a home's value:

-        View

-        Energy efficiency

-        Maintenance needs

-        Fire risk

-        Beauty

-        Flow of space

-        Livability

-        Sun orientation

-        Kitchen layout

Prior to building our current home, we looked at a lot of nice homes that were for sale. I was amazed that so many high end homes were ugly and unlivable. It was as if there was no correlation between price and quality. Homes with similar square footage were priced about the same, even if one was spectacular and the other was not.

My plan to stimulate the economy is to fix the home appraisal system. Imagine how many homeowners would upgrade their homes if they knew that doing so would increase the eventual sale price. As things stand, why would you make your home more energy efficient, or more livable, or upgrade your kitchen if you might move in a few years?

Perhaps the appraisers of the future would need to be experienced contractors or home designers themselves. And maybe all home appraisals would require three independent opinions to balance the subjectivity. Maybe the appraiser has to stay in the home overnight. No system would be perfect, but if homeowners knew they could get a better return on their home improvement expenses, it would stimulate the economy like crazy.

 

 

If you know someone who works in H.R., or someone who is somewhat evil for other reasons, or someone who likes cats, send them a link to the new Catbert T-shirts then demand a favor in return, because you deserve it.

It's a little-known fact that most t-shirts of this sort are purchased as gifts. It's like a greeting card that says, "The message on this shirt reminds me of you." So if your reaction to these shirts is something along the lines of "I wouldn't wear it," you're not understanding the product. The relevant question is whether you know someone who would be amused to get a Catbert shirt as a gift.

I'm especially interested in which of the four messages you think is the best for a Catbert shirt.



 
One of the biggest problems with the world is that we're bound by so many legacy systems. For example, it's hard to deal with global warming because there are so many entrenched interests. It's problematic to get power from where it can best be generated to where people live. The tax system is a mess. Banking is a hodgepodge of regulations and products glued together. I could go on. The point is that anything that has been around for awhile is a complicated and inconvenient mess compared to what its ideal form could be.

My idea for today is that established nations could launch startup countries within their own borders, free of all the legacy restrictions in the parent country. The startup country, let's say the size of modern day Israel, would be designed from the ground up for efficiency. Buildings and cars would be so energy efficient that the startup country could generate all the power it needed from sun and wind. The extra power created during the day would be stored as heat in molten salt, or maybe by pumping water up to a mountain lake. (Both energy storage methods are already being used in places.)

The entire banking system would be automated. There would be no cash in the start-up country. You wouldn't need to "apply" for a loan because the virtual bank would always have a current notion of your credit-worthiness. If you need a mortgage, just type in the address of the home you want to buy and your pin code. The bank automatically checks your income and expenses from your bank account records, along with your employment status and credit background. You have your loan in less than one second. And you don't need to sign anything.

The tax code in the startup country would be simplified to the point where residents might forget it exists. I won't argue the flat tax versus sales/use tax here, but the point is it could all be collected automatically by the virtual bank. There would be no such thing as an accountant or tax auditor in this new country. (I have argued before that the government could be the only insurance company, for every sort of risk, from health to fire to auto, with its profits substituting for taxes. That's another discussion.)

The Fire Department would be tiny. You can design modern homes to be virtually fireproof. And let's say cigarettes are banned, because we can, to further reduce the fire risk.

In my book The Dilbert Future I imagined a world with cameras in every room, and on every street corner, recording all the time, but encrypted so that literally no one could view the video without a court order. You wouldn't need much of a police force in that scenario because every crime would be on video, along with the entire escape route, all the way to the criminal's bedroom. Maybe that's too Big Brother for you, but if you reflect on how much privacy you've already given up to technology, it's not that much of a stretch.

Most of what is scary about the government having power is the lack of transparency. The startup nation would have full transparency. Any citizen could log on to his computer and see what court orders had been issued for what videos and why.

Campaign contributions would be eliminated because all campaigns would happen on the Internet so that running for office would cost next to nothing. Once elected, any citizen would have access to the elected politician's full banking records, including investments.

I could go on, imagining every element of the startup country as an optimal design, from its local government to the layout of its streets, to the livable nature of its homes. The point is that the startup country could be awesome. And only the most employable folks would be allowed in at the start, so the economy would be blazing, mostly from IT jobs and light industry.

Arguably, China accidentally performed a variant of this experiment with Hong Kong. Oversimplifying the history, Hong Kong was part of China and leased to the United Kingdom for 99 years, like a startup country within a country. When the lease expired, China presumably made a fortune by getting it back in a far more robust form than it could have generated within the Chinese system.

A startup country designed today could, in fifty years time, become a tax-generating windfall for the parent country. And it would also test a lot of concepts for building, banking, economy, energy, and lifestyle.
 
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My theory is that a typical human understands only three ways to interact with another person.

Pushover: I'll do whatever you want.

Negotiator: I'll do this if you do that.

Bully: Do what I want or there will be consequences

People change modes depending on circumstances. A parent, for example, can't afford to be a Pushover, or a Negotiator, with a small child. The parental role is a Bully role by definition. It's the only way it can work. "Do what I say or I will take away a toy."

One person might be a Bully in one context, and a Pushover in another. If you're locked into one mode all the time, you're probably experiencing some friction.

A person in the military might take the Pushover role with a superior, the Bully role with subordinates, and the Negotiator role with peers. I'm making no judgment on the ethical or functional value of any of the roles. They all have a legitimate place.

The Bully role takes some explaining. Almost any human interaction has an implied penalty if it makes another person unhappy. Sometimes the penalty is emotional, in the form of withdrawn affection, less attention, or fewer future favors. Other times it can be more explicit, as in "Do this or you're fired." Don't get hung up on the word "bully." It simply refers to someone who promotes a "do this or else there will be a penalty" environment.

Bullying isn't necessarily bad. Sometimes the only way to stop another person from doing something harmful is by threatening consequences. Bullying is society's boundaries and its glue. The Police have to be Bullies to do their job. In the rare cases that negotiation is called for, a special Negotiator steps in.

The value of the Adams Model of Personal Interaction, if any, is in understanding what modes of interaction are likely to work together. Obviously two Bullies will make bad partners. Two Pushovers will get nothing done. A Negotiator won't do well with either a Pushover or a Bully, because neither will negotiate.

A Bully and a Pushover can do well as long as the Pushover keeps his ego in check. Some Pushovers enjoy the role.

Two negotiators can do well together, if they don't exhaust each other, and they negotiate fairly.

While people can move easily from one mode to the other, I suspect everyone has a go-to mode when the situation is ambiguous. You have to start somewhere. I wonder if most tension in this world comes from people who get locked into their go-to mode and don't recognize when it's time to change modes.

 
A few of you wondered what I meant by active listening in the context of a conversation. Maybe you want to be a good listener without being bored out of your frickin' skull. I'll tell you how.

The worst kind of listener is the topic hijacker. Let's say you enjoy snowboarding and you're listening to a neighbor describe his new gas grille. Don't do this move:

Neighbor: My wife got me a new grille for my birthday.

You: Really? I got a new snowboard. Let me tell you about it...

That's just being a jerk. Active listening, as I choose to define it, involves asking questions to steer the conversation in an entertaining direction without being too obvious about it. Using my example, let's say you have no interest in hearing about the wonders of barbecuing, but you don't want to be a blatant conversation hijacker. You might steer the conversation thusly.

Neighbor: My wife got me a new grille for my birthday.

You: Does that mean you do most of the cooking now?

Neighbor: Ha ha! Yes, I think it was a trick.

You: If you do the cooking, who does the dishes?

Neighbor: Well, usually the one who doesn't cook does the dishes.

You: Do you enjoy cooking?

Neighbor: Not really.

You: Your wife does. So you're getting screwed when she does the cooking and you do the dishes because she enjoys her end of it.

Okay, maybe in this example the conversation will lead to your neighbor getting a divorce. As a general rule, the more dangerous or inappropriate the conversation, the more interesting it is. You'll have to use your judgment to know when you've crossed the line.

Also as a general rule, conversations about how people have or will interact are interesting, and conversations about objects are dull. So steer toward topics that involve human perceptions and feelings, and away from objects and things.

You also want to avoid any topic that falls into the "you had to be there" category. For example, if someone is describing a vacation, avoid asking about the food. Nothing is more boring than a description of food. Ask instead if the person answered email from the beach. That gets to how a person thinks, and how hard it is to release a habit. And it could provide an escape route to move the conversation to yet another place. Sometimes it takes two or three bounces to get someplace of mutual interest.

You've heard of the Kevin Bacon game, where every actor is just a few connections away from Kevin Bacon. Likewise, you almost always have something interesting in common with every other person. The trick is to find it. As with the Kevin Bacon game, you'd be surprised at how few questions it takes to get there.

When I was doing a lot of travel for book tours and speaking, I spent many hours with cab and limo drivers. I discovered two questions that would almost always lead to something interesting:
  1. Where did you grow up?
  2. Have you driven anyone famous?
I heard amazing stories of political exile, rock star antics, and war. It was great stuff. Most people have at least one good story in them. And you can usually find that story by asking where the person lived and what their parents did for a living.

Watch how this works. If you leave a comment, mention where you grew up, and what your parents did for a living. Notice from the other comments how often at least one of those things is interesting or has a connection to something you care about.

 
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Imagine an advanced alien life form that materializes on Earth in the middle of a popular dance club. The alien has a cloak of invisibility and observes the humans dancing. He is here to watch and learn. My question is this: Would the alien ever learn to distinguish good dancers from poor dancers?

Now suppose the alien leaves the club and finds a bar that is open late. He observes a lot of what we call "conversation" happening. The alien's universal interpreter device allows him to understand the content of the conversations. My question is this: Would the alien ever learn to distinguish a good conversationalist from a poor one?

I started thinking about this after reading that people with Asperger syndrome have trouble understanding the subtleties of human social interaction. That skill doesn't come as a package deal with general intelligence. The advanced alien can't figure out who the good conversationalists are, nor can the fellow with Asperger syndrome even if he has an otherwise exceptional IQ.

Now suppose we gave both the alien and the Asperger guy some rules about dancing and some rules about conversation as benchmarks by which to sort the good from the bad. Would it help them?

With dancing, you could point out that the movement of your hips should be timed with the beat, and that the level of motion should be somewhere in a range that is neither too quiet nor too frenetic compared to the other dancers. You could throw in other rules as well, such as no finger-pointing, no white-boy overbite, no excessive repetitiveness, no monopolizing the entire dance floor, and so on. You might have dozens of rules when you are done, but the highly intelligent alien and the Asperger guy (probably an engineer) could learn them all fairly quickly. And from that point on, they could discern good dancing from poor dancing. They might even be able to imitate it, with some practice.

Consider conversation. How many times have you been in a restaurant and victimized by the loud guy at the next table dominating the conversation without the benefit of being entertaining? It seems somewhat common that people who are neither alien nor Asperger syndrome types have no conversation skills. Indeed, it appears that many so-called normal people don't even understand the concept of a conversation.

A conversation, like dancing, has some rules, although I've never seen them stated anywhere. The objective of conversation is to entertain or inform the other person while not using up all of the talking time. A big part of how you entertain another person is by listening and giving your attention. Ideally, your own enjoyment from conversation comes from the other person doing his or her job of being interesting. If you are entertaining yourself at the other person's expense, you're doing it wrong.

You might think that everyone on earth understands what a conversation is and how to engage in one. My observation is that no more than a quarter of the population has that understanding. I was solidly in the conversationally clueless camp until I took the Dale Carnegie course, in which one small part of the learning dealt with the mechanics of conversation. It was a life-changing bit of knowledge.

Prior to the Dale Carnegie course I believed that conversation was a process by which I could demonstrate my cleverness, complain about what was bugging me, and argue with people in order to teach them how dumb they were. To me, listening was the same thing as being bored.  I figured it was the other person's responsibility to find some entertainment in the conversation. That wasn't my job. Yes, I was that asshole. But I didn't know it. The good news is that once I learned the rules of conversation, I was socially reborn. It turns out that active listening is more fun than talking, although sometimes you need to guide the conversation toward common interests.

Three-quarters of the people reading this post just thought "Uh-oh. I didn't know conversation had rules."

 
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I'm sure you're all following the iPhone 4 story. If you hold the phone a certain way, it drops calls.

In a press conference on the subject, Steve Jobs said, "We're not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy."

Jobs got a lot of heat about his response. Where was the apology? Where was the part where he acknowledged that the buck stops with him, and that Apple made a big mistake that never should have happened? That's public relations 101, right?

I'm a student of how language influences people. Apple's response to the iPhone 4 problem didn't follow the public relations playbook because Jobs decided to rewrite the playbook. (I pause now to insert the necessary phrase Magnificent Bastard.) If you want to know what genius looks like, study Jobs' words: "We're not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy."

Jobs changed the entire argument with nineteen words. He was brief. He spoke indisputable truth. And later in his press conference, he offered clear fixes.

Did it work? Check out the media response. There's lots of talk about whether other smartphones are perfect or not. There's lots of talk about whether Jobs' response was the right one. But the central question that was in everyone's head before the press conference - "Is the iPhone 4 a dud" - has, well, evaporated. Part of the change in attitude is because the fixes Apple offered are adequate. But those fixes easily could have become part of the joke if handled in an apologetic "please kick me" way.

If Jobs had not changed the context from the iPhone 4 in particular to all smartphones in general, I could make you a hilarious comic strip about a product so poorly made that it won't work if it comes in contact with a human hand. But as soon as the context is changed to "all smartphones have problems," the humor opportunity is gone. Nothing kills humor like a general and boring truth.

I've wondered for some time if Jobs studied hypnosis, or if he's some sort of freakish natural. And I wonder how much of his language is planned versus off-the-cuff. He speaks and acts like a master hypnotist. (For new readers, I'm a trained hypnotist myself, and it definitely takes one to know one.)

I have long had a name for Jobs' clever move. I call it the "High Ground Maneuver." I first noticed an executive using it years ago, and I've since used it a number of times when the situation called for it. The move involves taking an argument up to a level where you can say something that is absolutely true while changing the context at the same time. Once the move has been executed, the other participants will fear appearing small-minded if they drag the argument back to the detail level. It's an instant game changer.

For example, if a military drone accidentally kills civilians, and there is a public outcry, it would be a mistake for the military to spend too much time talking about what went wrong with that particular mission. The High Ground Maneuver would go something like this: "War is messy. No one wants civilians to die. We will study this situation to see how we can better avoid it in the future."

Notice that the response is succinct, indisputably true, and that the context has been taken to a higher level, about war in general. That's what Jobs did. It's a powerful technique, and you can use it at home.

There's a limit to the method. I don't think that BP could have gotten away with it as a response to the oil spill because the problem was so large and it seemed unique to BP. But if they had tried the High Ground Maneuver, it would have looked like this: "All of the easy sources of oil have been found fifty years ago. If the oil industry stops taking risks, many of you would be out of work in less than a decade. We all want a future of clean energy, but no one sees a way to get there as quickly as we need to. We will do everything we can to clean up the spill, and to make things right with the Gulf economy."

Someday business students will read about Steve Jobs' response to the iPhone 4 issue and they will learn that the High Ground Maneuver (probably by some other name) became the public relations standard for consumer products companies from that day on.
 
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