If a well-dressed stranger walks up to you at the mall and asks for a dollar, with no reason given, you're unlikely to hand it over. But if the same person asks for a dollar and gives a specific reason, such as "...because my wallet was stolen and I need gas to get home," you're far more likely to hand over your money. (See the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Cialdini.)

After the U.S. midterm election, the question of raising taxes on the rich, or allowing the so-called Bush tax breaks for the rich to expire naturally, will be hotly debated. You might think this sort of tax law would easily pass, given that 98% of the voters are not rich.  But it won't work that way. The people who pay the most taxes also have the most control of the government. So in my imaginary role as president, I fantasize about how I could convince the rich to accept higher taxes on themselves. I think the key is in how specific the president gets about the purpose for the new taxes.

As it stands, Obama's likely proposition is that the rich will pay more taxes and the money will be distributed in some hard-to-fathom way across numerous budget categories, many of which the rich believe to be overfunded. Or maybe the tax revenue will be put toward reducing the deficit, which is a debatable and intangible benefit. Those are hard propositions to sell: "Give me a dollar and I will use it for miscellaneous."

Now imagine that instead of proposing to spray the new taxes into the general budget miasma, the President cleverly ties the new tax revenue to one specific category, such as national infrastructure. That funding would be a clear boon to employment, at least in the long run, and no one can argue against the need to improve our infrastructure.  And arguably, the rich would benefit disproportionately from any infrastructure improvements.

But here's the best part, from a psychology perspective. Imagine that anyone rich enough to qualify for this Infrastructure Tax gets to use all roads and bridges without paying a toll for the following tax year. Each rich taxpayer family gets two of those little transmitters that go on your windshield to automatically signal toll booths that they are paid up. (We have those toll transmitters in California. I assume they will be everywhere soon.)

Obviously the rich will pay far more in taxes than they will save on bridge and road tolls, but people like any sense of privilege. I think it would make the tax increase go down easier. Every time the rich crossed a bridge they would feel special. That is clearly illogical, but psychology isn't about logic.

Society has accepted the notion that the rich can be taxed at a different rate than other people. I think we should consider the idea that the rich should be taxed in a different fashion than everyone else too, as a purely practical matter.
I've been staring at a half-written comic that I'm trying to finish. It calls for Dilbert to insult someone at a meeting. The problem is that I concocted an insult that I love too much, and unfortunately it's too edgy for a comic strip. Now I can't move on because it's stuck in my mind. My solution is to release the thought in this post and hope that by doing so it will free me to imagine something more appropriate.

The insult is a derogatory reference to a person's brain. And the phrase is...

                           shoulder turd

I feel better now. Thanks for listening.
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Think about the most recent meeting you attended. Leave a comment below describing the worst person at the meeting. Be as unkind as you like.

In this context, "worst" could mean anything, such as most disruptive, dumbest, craziest, slowest talker, or anything else that drives you crazy.

Yes, I will be mining the comments for Dilbert comic fodder. Thank you in advance. But I think it will also be funny in its own right.
I discovered as a child that the user interface for reprogramming my own brain is my imagination. For example, if I want to reprogram myself to be in a happy mood, I imagine succeeding at a difficult challenge, or flying under my own power, or perhaps being able to levitate objects with my mind.  If I want to perform better at a specific task, such as tennis, I imagine the perfect strokes before going on court. If I want to fall asleep, I imagine myself in pleasant situations that are unrelated to whatever is going on with my real life.

My most useful mental trick involves imagining myself to be far more capable than I am. I do this to reduce the risk that I turn down an opportunity just because I am clearly unqualified. So far, this has worked well for me. I pursued a career in cartooning despite having no artistic talent. When a publisher asked me to write a book, I quickly agreed, despite having no relevant writing experience. When a business group asked me to give a humorous paid speech to their members, I said yes, despite having no meaningful experience at that sort of thing. If you spend a lot of time imagining you can run twenty miles, it makes the idea of running only ten miles seem entirely feasible.

As my career with Dilbert took off, reporters asked me if I ever imagined I would reach this level of success. The question embarrasses me because the truth is that I imagined a far greater level of success. That's my process.  I imagine big.

I've never admitted this before, but my favorite imaginary scenario involves being elected President of the United States.  I choose that job as the target of my imagination because I am spectacularly unqualified to hold public office. If I can successfully imagine being a great president, I won't have trouble imagining I can succeed at lesser tasks.

Some of you reading this blog would probably be good at the job of being president if given the chance. So for you, imagining success as a national leader might not be much of a stretch. But I am blessed with absolutely none of the qualities necessary for leadership. That's exactly why I choose to imagine it.

Let me give you an idea of how unqualified I am to be president. First, I'm not good at remembering names. Or faces. Or countries.  My staff meetings would be a whole lot of "Maybe we should bomb what's-his-face's country. You know, the one that grows the coconuts. Or maybe they manufacture tractors. I remember that their leader had a funny hat. Make it happen."

I'm not charismatic. If I were to stop at diners as part of my campaign, people would ask me for coffee. It would be one bad photo op after another.

I can't ask people to sacrifice their personal interests for the greater good. It feels evil.

I couldn't force myself to spend time doing useless tasks such as visiting victims of natural disasters or working on a peace plan for the Middle East.  I would argue that napping would be a better use of my time. And I would make matters worse by showing research to back my point.

I wouldn't be able to get through an entire press conference without saying "Blow me."

I would declare war on Pakistan because I like truth in labeling.

Obviously I couldn't last a full term in office, much less get elected. But that doesn't stop me from imagining that someday the American flag will have my face where the stars used to be.

Imagine big. You might surprise yourself.

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I remember reading about the history of a product called Hamburger Helper. The first iteration of the product did poorly, researchers discovered, because it was viewed as too easy to prepare. Women -  who did almost all of the cooking in those days - didn't feel as though they were "cooking" if all they did was heat up something from a package. So, in one of the most brilliant marketing moves of all time, the makers of Hamburger Helper decided to render the product less convenient. Now you needed to buy your own hamburger meat, brown it, and combine it with the Hamburger Helper seasoning and noodles. That change made the product a huge success.

Keep that in mind, now fast forward to today. Parents are busier than ever, but they still want to feel as though they are "cooking" something for the family. Beyond that intangible, people want to tweak their food for their own tastes - maybe add some spice, subtract some broccoli, whatever. You also have your special diet needs within a family, with maybe one vegetarian, one person with lactose intolerance, one athlete who needs lots of protein, and one person who can't stand the smell of cilantro.

This is where Internet Cooking comes in. Imagine with me...

You're still at work, with some downtime before a meeting. You have five minutes to cook dinner for the family, via the Internet, to be delivered whenever you specify. Imagine a website that allows you to prepare a meal on the screen, in an animated way, so you can see yourself adding a pinch of garlic to the animated pot, perhaps starting from an online menu and tweaking it. When you're done cooking your animated meal, your exact cooking directions are transmitted to a local kitchen-business that follows your steps. They cook your meal and load it on a truck that delivers to your neighborhood.

Best of all, your user profile on the system takes into account all of your family's finicky eating preferences. You can pick from recipes that meet everyone's needs, or build as many separate meals as you like. After you have tweaked a recipe once, and liked the outcome, you can just select it again next time from your history, or tweak it further to try something new.

You might be experiencing some justifiable skepticism about whether this business model could work. I assume it all depends on volume. But I thought that about Webvan too, may it rest in peace, so don't assume I'm good at this sort of predicting.

The thing that gives this idea some hope is that the user interface would give the customer the sensation of cooking, sort of. And it would solve a host of dietary issues.  If you add those benefits to the obvious convenience, it might be enough to generate volume. Not sold yet? That's okay because I'm not done selling.

Now imagine you can do the cooking on your iPhone. When you want to add salt, you shake the phone and it makes the salt shaker sound. When you want to mix your ingredients, or use a blender, it makes those sounds too (optionally). Your cooking times would be fast-forwarded, so you get the fun of preparing the meal, complete with motion and sound, and it all takes minutes.

Now do you buy it?

Don't lie. You'd pay extra for it.

I've been thinking about the practicality of a new American revolution, and wondering if there's any way to do it without shooting people.

The American government has proven itself unable to govern, as evidenced by the fact that there's no plan for closing the budget deficit. If we had two rational and competing plans from the major parties, or even one imperfect plan, I would consider that some form of government. But no plan means we're effectively ungoverned.

You might argue that the government is mostly working, and the budget deficit is just one wrinkle that will get ironed out in time. But given that we're in a budget death spiral that will eventually derail every other function of society, I would say that all we're talking about is a timing issue. By analogy, maybe your brain can remain conscious for a second after your head gets chopped off, but as a practical matter, you're not less dead.

It's no surprise that our system doesn't work. It was designed hundreds of years ago, and it gradually worsened over time, just like everything else that was designed hundreds of years ago.  It's the ultimate legacy system, bloated and hopelessly in need of replacement. And now, thanks to the brainwashing that all American kids get about the magic and wonder of our political system, and the near Godliness of our Founding Fathers, we're unable to see the system itself as entirely broken.  Instead, we assume the problem is that the people within the system are corrupt or incompetent. Or maybe the problem is the Tea Party, or the crazy Liberals, or anything but the system itself. There's plenty of blame to spread around, but a good system should be excreting the crazies instead of embracing them. Why can't we have that system?

If you want to bring a social gathering to a full stop, suggest that the Chinese system of government is the best model for our modern age. Contrary to popular belief, their system is not a dictatorship, because the top guy only keeps his job if the guys below him think he's doing it well. It's more like a corporate structure in which smart and knowledgeable people choose the best within their ranks based on ability. You can fault the Chinese leadership for a lot of things, but you can't fault them for being impractical. They have a political system that, as far as I can tell, puts science over superstition.  And over time, I would expect their human rights issues to improve simply because doing so is smart government.

[Disclaimer: What I know about China would fit in a very small Tupperware container while leaving plenty of room for a sandwich. So if you disagree with my characterization of China's government, please correct me in the comments below.]

Obviously a bloodless revolution in America wouldn't get far with a slogan such as "Be More Chinese!" And our government is too constipated to make incremental improvements in itself. I've already ruled out killing people. So how can you get there from here?

Suppose, just as a mental exercise, a new set of geniuses, call them the Founding Fathers Version 2.0, hold a convention and come up with a new form of government that fits the challenges of the modern age. Then, after a lengthy public debate, a constitutional vote is held in which every citizen can decide on keeping the old system or moving to the new one. If the new one wins, a transition plan is drawn up, and the move is made over maybe five years, so there is limited shock to the system.

Let's agree that this scenario is hugely unlikely. But can we afford to not try it when the alternative is no government at all? What would Thomas Jefferson and my cousin John Adams say if they were here today?

I'm not good at buying gifts. I start worrying about Christmas in April, and by the time October rolls around I'm in full panic mode. Call me spontaneous, but I prefer when my failures surprise me, not when they are scheduled for December 25th every year.  By this time of year I feel as if I'm tied to the railroad tracks, I hear a whistle in the distance, and it probably isn't Santa.

When it comes to gifts, they say it's the thought that counts, but I can't even get that part right. Whatever the hell I'm doing is more like the Dalai Lama clearing his mind and meditating, but without the relaxing part.  When I try to think of an appropriate gift for my wife, all I see is nothingness. The problem might have something to do with my own view of material goods. I can walk through a shopping mall for hours without seeing anything I'd want to own more than I'd want to lug it back to the car.

For example, if I see a shirt that looks nice, I can't imagine why I'd want to own it. I already have shirts that keep me warm.  It won't make me look more attractive, unless I wrap it around my face, and I buy two more to stuff in my shoes so I'm taller. For some reason my wife prefers it when I have new shirts, which is exactly why I get shirts for my birthday, shirts for Christmas, and shirts for Valentine's Day. And I have been led to believe there is a holiday called National Shirt Day.

I am guessing that some of you have the same gift-buying problem that I do, minus the crazy parts. I propose that we stick together and come up with some sure-fire gift ideas to make our own lives easier. I will prime the pump with this suggestion, and you can thank me later. It's a company that sells sterling silver necklaces, hand-stamped with (wait for it...) the names of a woman's children:

         Hayjac Designs

Aside from the obvious brilliance that jewelry is always a correct gift for women, when you add the names of her children, it takes it to another level.  That's the "thought" part you keep hearing about. I am told that sterling silver works for just about every woman and goes with just about every casual outfit. Plus, unlike a ring or clothing, there are no sizing issues. I already got this gift for my wife last year, so I can't use it again. (Full disclosure: Shelly told me to buy it for her.)

Okay, now it is your turn. Leave your gift ideas in the comment area, with links if you have them. The ideal gift idea should show some sort of thought, have no sizing issues, and be priced in the spouse-gift range.  Put some thinking into it because in all likelihood you're deciding what my wife will get for Christmas for the next ten years.
Is it just me, or have cellphones become useless for voice conversations? To be fair, cellphones do work in limited situations, such as: "I WILL BE THERE IN TEN MINUTES! TEN MINUTES! I SAID I WILL BE THERE IN TEN MINUTES! HELLO? CAN YOU HEAR ME? FUCK THIS STUPID PHONE, I'LL TEXT YOU! AND I'M DRIVING, SO I MIGHT BE DEAD IN TEN MINUTES!"

Generally speaking, a cellphone conversation is a frustrating failure if any of these conditions is true.

1.       You have a weak signal.

2.       You are using an earpiece or headset.

3.       The other person has a weak signal.

4.       The other person is using an earpiece or headset.

5.       The other person has a cell phone (delay problem).

6.       You are multitasking and can't think.

7.       The other person is multitasking and can't think.

8.       You are in a noisy environment, such as Earth.

9.       The other person is in a noisy environment, such as Earth.

10.   You get another call you have to take.

11.   The other person gets another call he has to take.

12.   You have a dying battery.

13.   You have a phone that drops calls for no good reason.

14.   The other person has a phone that drops calls for no good reason.

15.   The other person has a dying battery.

16.   You are in a restaurant and you're not a jerk.

17.   The other person is in a restaurant and isn't a jerk.

18.   There is a child within 100 yards of you.

19.   There is a child within 100 yards of the other person.

Yes, that covers almost every situation. And the list goes on.  In my life, voice calls using cellphones fail more often than they succeed, and the situation is getting worse. There was a time when most cellphone calls involved a land line on the other end, so at least one end of the conversation was likely to be trouble-free.  Now most of the calls I fantasize about making would be between my cellphone and another cellphone. I don't like those odds. So I send text messages instead.

For important calls, I use a land line that serves as my fax line. If I receive a call on my cellphone, I try to keep it short, or I call back from my fax line. Or I beg for an email that gives me whatever information I want. My situation is worse than most because I have an iPhone, and it decides on its own when my calls are done, no matter how strong the signal is. (I suspect that my ear is using the touchscreen without authorization from my brain.)

While voice calling is getting worse, texting is becoming easier. More smartphones have full keyboards. And texting isn't the huge inconvenience that phone calls are. I explained in another post that all phone calls have a victim, i.e. the person receiving the call. You're ALWAYS in the middle of doing something else when someone calls to yack. The worst offenders are the people in cars who don't have satellite radio, or books on tape, and they're just calling to make their drive less boring.

Texting is way better. It can fill in all of the tiny spaces in life while you're waiting for something else to happen and a voice call would be too large for the space. When I get a text alert, it always makes me happy, even before I read the message. When my phone rings, I think, Uh-oh, what fresh hell is this?

Another great advantage of texting is that it thwarts bores. Bores love voice conversations. In a pinch, they will send you overlong emails. But texting forces boring people to be brief.  How great is that?

In a situation in which both I and the other person have smartphones, I always choose texting over a voice call. In time, everyone with whom I want to communicate outside of a business context will have a smartphone, and I'll never need to make a cellphone-to-cellphone call again. Kids are already there.  Wireless voice calls are dinosaurs, and that big shadow you see is a meteor.

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Imagine you’re sitting down to eat, but before you take a bite, you whip out your smartphone, fire up a special app, and take a picture of your food. The app identifies the food types by appearance, then calculates the size of your portions, and estimates your intake of calories, carbs, protein, vitamin, mineral, sugar, salt, and so on. Later you can review your data in a variety of ways. You can see your calorie intake for the day, or compare yourself to other people who are your same age, size, activity level, and so on.

At the end of a meal, if you have some food left, you can snap another picture so the app can calculate the net of what you actually ate.

If it seems impossible that an app could recognize food types, consider that software can already recognize faces, voices, specific songs, and fingerprints. Recognizing broccoli can’t be that much harder. And anything that has a label or a wrapper, such as Diet Coke or a Snickers candy bar, would be relatively easy for the app to identify.

Soups and casseroles would be harder to identify and analyze. The app might ask you to supply some information on the main components of the dish.  If you said it was a casserole with potato, chicken, and garlic, the app would know that garlic is a minor ingredient and potato is the main ingredient. It might even look at similar recipes in its database and take an average.

The app would not be perfect at estimating, even with your frequent tweaks. But it would be far better than your own guessing.  And it would be great at telling you where your diet is lacking. You might think you have a good diet, only to discover that you aren’t getting enough variety of fruits and veggies.

Now imagine that an accessory for this app is a small waterproof motion detector that you can clip to your footwear. It comes with a watch that also has motion detection. When your smartphone is nearby, the two motion detectors wirelessly download how much movement your arms and legs have experienced that day.  That would be a rough proxy for exercise. You would have to add any data for weight training because that doesn’t require much movement.

Now your app has your total nutrition and exercise profile. You could round out its knowledge by telling it your age, weight, gender, whether you smoke, and other relevant health questions. From that point on your app could predict your life expectancy and even your odds of dying from specific types of preventable diseases. Perhaps your watch could display both the current time and how many days you have left if you keep living the way you are.

Two factors that most influence human behavior are the ability to measure progress and the framework used to rank performance. This app solves both problems. Allow me to expand on this.

I’ve noticed that losers compare themselves to the average of other people, whereas winners compare themselves to their own natural potential. The loser can find comfort in knowing there are plenty of other slackers, and he is average (good enough) among them. The winner compares his progress to his personal potential and doesn’t stop until he achieves it.

Researchers have found that simply being near overweight people has a large influence on your own weight. This is probably a result of looking around and deciding that eating a little extra is normal, and good enough. The app I described would change your point of reference by continually reinforcing your own potential.  In time, your frame of reference would be less about your chubby friends and more about how you are doing compared to your own best, as measured by your app.

In your opinion, this app is…

1.       Inevitable?

2.       Already available?

3.       Impossible?

4.       Impractical?


Update: Someone is already working on food identification.




Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I will now present my case that leadership is a form of mental illness. To begin, let's divide the leaders of the world into two groups: friends and enemies. Please forgive me for taking a U.S.A.-centric approach in this argument, as it is just for simplicity.

In Exhibit One, we note that the leaders of countries we consider enemies are undeniably bat-spit crazy.

Kim Jong-il: crazy midget

Ahmadiniejad: crazy holocaust denier

Khadafy: designs his own hats

The list of crazy enemy leaders is long:  Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Hussein, Stalin, Khomeini, and so on. I would be willing to bet that you have never heard anyone describe the leader of an enemy country as level-headed, as in "He wants to kill or enslave everyone I love. He seems like a reasonable guy."

The leaders I named are quite obviously psychopaths and nut-bags. That's exactly what made them dangerous enough to be enemies.  But it is worth noting that the people who have been led by those psychopaths and nut-bags probably thought the leaders of the United States were, at various times, pathological liars, astrology followers, and end-timers.

I think the evidence is clear: The leaders of enemy countries are always crazy. And logically, since every national leader is someone's enemy, all national leaders are crazy. The only exception to the rule is the leader of neutral Switzerland, who is actually a refrigerated chocolate rabbit.

Sometimes you think the leader of your own country is crazy, especially when that leader is not a member of your own political party. Take President Obama, for example.  He's a radical Islamic sleeper cell terrorist who plans to destroy the United States by expanding health care coverage. That guy is frickin' nuts.

For this discussion, I think it is useful to consider the grey area - our frenemies, such as Karzai in Afghanistan. He designs his own hats, which is a big red flag for crazy. But because he's allegedly on our side, we don't call him crazy. We say he's a snappy dresser.

Here's a little test that you can try at home: Design your own special type of hat and wear it all the time. See if the people who already hate you say you are crazy or well-dressed.

Let's talk about corporate leaders. A CEO has something called a "vision." That is a view of the future that is not supported by evidence. Coincidentally, that's a fairly standard definition of insanity. A CEO can sometimes be faking insanity, by lying about having a vision, so sorting the delusional nuts from the plain-old pathological liars can be problematic. Sometimes a CEO gets it right, when reality coincidentally turns into something a lot like his vision. But being right once in a while doesn't mean you're psychic. It just means there are a lot of blindfolded monkeys throwing a lot of darts and one of them killed a stranger carrying a bag of money.

The primary function of a CEO is hurting other people, specifically the stockholders and employees of competing companies. He wants to take their market share, their wealth, and their happiness. And a CEO isn't too affectionate with his vendors and employees either. Psychologists will tell you that one test to see if you are dealing with a future serial killer is his willingness to hurt animals without remorse.  I'm not saying CEO's are that bad. But let me ask you this: When you need someone to feed your cat, or watch your dog while you're on vacation, do you ever consider asking a CEO?
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