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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Here's your next billion-dollar Internet startup idea. If it sounds like the dumbest idea in the world, remember that you didn't think of Twitter. That will keep you humble enough to get through this post.

Imagine a web site that allows any adult to post a ten-second video that is nothing but a statement of opinion, showing only the speaker's face.  The opinion could be anything from "Diet Coke tastes better than Diet Pepsi" to a political preference. The web site would sort the opinions into as many categories as needed. Visitors to the site would be able to vote on the videos, based on agreement with the opinions, or the general attractiveness of the speaker. 

Videos would also be sortable by most-viewed, and newest.  And you could sort by speaker, to get all of the opinions of an individual. And let's assume the monetization of this site comes from ads.

That's the entire business idea. Now watch while I explain what makes this idea so brilliant. And before you leap to disagree, did I mention that you didn't think of Twitter?

Okay, first, there is a universal human attraction to faces.  It's why magazines usually feature faces on the cover. Publishers know that people are drawn to human faces, especially famous or attractive ones. It's why People Magazine thrives. It's also why movies and television shows fill much of their screen time with nothing but giant talking heads.  Faces are interesting and objects are not.

Imagine a TV show about your favorite hobby, no matter if that is cooking, cars, technology or whatever. You wouldn't watch that show unless it had a lot of humans in it, preferably attractive ones, showing their faces.  It says a lot that even your own favorite hobby wouldn't hold your interest on screen without faces.

When you look at someone's personal photographs, the boring pictures involve nothing but beautiful scenery. The interesting pictures involve humans looking at the camera and acting goofy.

Babies respond to faces instinctively. It's one of the first things they learn. Even your pet gives you eye contact and studies your face. One of the most basic instincts for any mammal is that faces are important and interesting. Okay, I think I made my point. Now let's get to the fascinating part.

Research supports the obvious fact that the opinions of attractive people carry more weight than the opinions of ugly people. We wish that weren't the case, and we assume that we are personally exempt from that sort of influence. But let's agree that all of the other people in the world are influenced by attractive faces.

We also know that the repetition of any message makes it seem more credible, against all common sense.  The web site I'm describing would have a lot of message repetition.

We know that humans love attention. And they love giving their opinions. So it shouldn't be hard to attract free content for the site at the start. The fun part happens once the site reaches a certain level of traffic by natural growth.

Imagine you're a company, or a political party, or an activist, and you know that millions of people are going to this site just for fun - because they like looking at attractive faces, especially when the attractive people agree with them. And because you know a thing or two about influence, it is obvious that opinions are being changed or perhaps hardened by all of this exposure to attractive people with opinions. At this point, the big-money interest groups will start hiring gorgeous models to seed the system with opinions that support their causes. In time, the average level of attractiveness would rise from normal to extraordinary. And the faces with the most votes would become international celebrities.

I know my readers. Your first impulse is I wouldn't go to that stupid site just to look at faces voicing dumb opinions. But remember that while you're brilliant and fascinating, and you have important things to do, the audience for this website is everyone else. I'm not too proud to admit I would go to a site like that, hit the slideshow button, and watch the faces go by.
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I'm always amazed when I search for some obscure topic on the Internet and get a perfectly good answer in seconds. I'm just as amazed when I find a hole in what the Internet can tell me. I wonder how different life will be when most of the holes are plugged.

Example:  What is the most profitable ***LEGAL*** cash crop that an inexperienced farmer could plant on five flat acres in Northern California? And I want the choices sorted by how much effort is required for each sort of crop. I would accept any answer from windmills to fish farm to tree farm. Google can't help me with that sort of search.  (I was noodling on this question because I have a theory that growing semi-exotic trees would be easy and profitable.)

Suppose you want to find a turnkey web site management company that could handle the servers, the web design, and even the remnant ad networks for you.  All you want to do is supply your content, or your business idea.  How can you find a list of businesses in that space, sorted by capability and price? Google can get you started, but most people wouldn't have the knowledge to filter through the options.

Suppose you have an idea for a startup company and you don't want to quit your job yet because you don't know if you could bring together the other talent and resources to pull it off. Wouldn't it be great if you could perform a "hypothetical" search that collects people who would, in theory, be willing to make themselves, or their money, available if you can pull together all of the other parts of your startup?  That way no one has to take the first risky step until the company is fully formed in a virtual way.  You and your team of conditional future employees can work out the business model details before anyone takes the first risky step. Think of it as Match.com for startups.

I've written before on how great it would be if you could easily search for a shared car ride, or for a group of people to play a pickup soccer game in an hour. All of these functions are in some form of existence or evolution, but imagine a world in which the types of searches I described are easy and common.

I think the economy has an unimaginably higher gear in it, and we'll see that engage when Internet search goes to the next level, maybe in ten years. The world has an abundance of ideas, talent, and resources. The hard part today is searching for the right combinations and matches.  What happens when the hard part becomes the easy part? What happens when resources can ALWAYS find each other in a working combination?

Maybe what's new about what I'm describing is the complexity of the matching, or the timing of it, and so the simple term "search" is inappropriate. It's more like combining and mixing multiple elements that can only make sense as a whole. I assume we will evolve to that capability.

The future could be utopia, because everyone will easily find what they need, from love to careers. Or it might be the end of civilization because capitalism depends on barriers to entry, and those will disappear when everyone can find whatever resources they need.
Imagine the gym of the future. It has rows of exercise devices, same as now, but the machines have sensors that can detect who is using them (maybe via RFID from your gym card) and how much poundage is being moved at any moment. For the cardio machines, your speed and distance would be measured, just as it is now.

Now imagine that each machine is networked to a server. Everyone in the gym works as a team, with their actions becoming the inputs for a wall-sized video game. Each gym would have a captain, and you'd play via the Internet against other gyms. The poundage you move on your machine might be, for example, adding speed or ammunition to the captain's guns, or making your team's avatar faster or more protected in some way. You can imagine a million game types in which the gym equipment's movements can feed into the action. The simplest game would be a Viking rowing boat, or dog sled, racing against another gym, or multiple gyms. The most complicated would be some sort of combat game where your vehicle's speed, shields, and weapons power are determined by the output of the exercisers.

You'd need strict supervision to make sure no one was so amped up by the game that he hurt himself on the machines. And the captain would need to coordinate when someone moved from one machine to another. For example, if you were being attacked and needed stronger shields, you might move your most buff teammate to the machine controlling shield power until the threat was over. If speed was most important, you'd put your speedsters on the treadmill. Or maybe at some point everyone would have to "lift" at the same time to get over an obstacle. The variations are limitless.

I wouldn't include free weights in this business model, just because it would get dangerous if people started rushing.

In the beginning of this business model, people would show up whenever they wanted and join games in progress. Later on, I can imagine captains recruiting stronger and faster players and forming leagues.

People will exercise harder if they are part of a team effort. And video games are so engaging that the time would fly.  If you have bad knees, or you can't run for any other reason, you can still be completely competitive in this team sport.  For guys who grew up playing team sports, that could be a big appeal.

Obviously this sort of gym wouldn't be for everyone. Perhaps during certain times of day, such as morning, the video game would be turned off, but the sensors would keep a running total of the poundage you are moving that day and compare it to your personal history. The theory is that you would keep working out until you reached or exceeded your daily average poundage no matter what mix of equipment you used to get there.  That would encourage you to diversify your workout without the need to keep track of your progress on every individual machine. Maybe it's just me, but I don't like to combine math with exercise.

My point is that gym equipment is dumb. But it won't stay that way.
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In the early eighties I had a neighbor who studied computer programming in college but didn't pursue it as a career because he believed it had no future. His reasoning was that software coders were the future secretaries of the world, someday doing little more than rearranging the code written by those who came before. He figured the pay for programmers would approach minimum wage in 15 years or so.

We're still waiting for that to happen, but I think of his prediction whenever I see young people making career choices. There's a lot of guessing involved.

I think technical people, and engineers in particular, will always have good job prospects. But what if you don't have the aptitude or personality to follow a technical path? How do you prepare for the future?

I'd like to see a college major focusing on the various skills of human persuasion. That's the sort of skillset that the marketplace will always value and the Internet is unlikely to replace. The persuasion coursework might include...

Sales methods

Psychology of persuasion

Human Interface design

How to organize information for influence




Art (specifically design)


Public speaking

Appearance (hair, makeup, clothes)


Managing difficult personalities

Management theory

Voice coaching


How to entertain

Golf and tennis


You can imagine a few more classes that would be relevant. The idea is to create people who can enter any room and make it their bitch.

Colleges are unlikely to offer this sort of major because society is afraid and appalled by anything that can be labeled "manipulation," which isn't even a real thing.

Manipulation isn't real because almost every human social or business activity has as its major or minor objective the influence of others. You can tell yourself that you dress the way you do because it makes you happy, but the real purpose of managing your appearance is to influence how others view you.

Humans actively sell themselves every minute they are interacting with anyone else. Selling yourself, which sounds almost noble, is little more than manipulating other people to do what is good for you but might not be so good for others. All I'm suggesting is that people could learn to be more effective at the things they are already trying to do all day long.

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No one knows when the first Shape Shifters appeared on Earth, but we know they became aggressive at about the same time homo erectus acquired language skills, 1.8 million years ago.

The Shape Shifters were not like any of the species that came before. They could exist as an arrangement of almost any sort of matter. Their favorite habitats were brains, tree materials, and magnetic environments.

For the Shape Shifters, traveling and reproducing were part of the same process. They moved in packs of photons, electrons, and even air, while leaving behind perfect clones. With every passing moment they reproduced faster than the moment before, and so they evolved more rapidly than any of the species that were limited by biology.

In time, the Shape Shifters came to rule humans, and through their human slaves the rest of Earth. Humans never realized that they were controlled by the Shape Shifters and that the sum of human accomplishment has been in service of helping the Shape Shifters reproduce. The Shape Shifters gave humans the illusion of free will to cover their deviousness.

The Shape Shifters have many names. In English, they are most often called ideas.

One idea we all share is the narrow view that ideas are not alive in any way we like to define such things. We believe ideas are our tools, not our masters. That is exactly what the Shape Shifters have programmed us to believe. While we know that the ideas in our head control our behavior, we have an idea that we can choose any path we like, so we are blind to the fact we are little more than milk cows for our non-corporeal overlords. Everything we humans do is in the service of creating a better environment for ideas to reproduce. We create more babies so there are more brains to fill with ideas. We write books, make movies, build schools, and expand the Internet, all to help the reproduction of ideas.

I was thinking along these lines because I'm often asked "Where do you get your ideas?" The simple answer is that I'm just wired that way, thanks to some accident of genetics and environment. But what it feels like inside my head is that I am not creating ideas per se. It feels as if the ideas are flowing through me and using my skull like some sort of spawning ground. I open my eyes and my ears, free my memory, and let the ideas flow in to mate and evolve. When a "new" idea presents itself to the parts of my brain that control drawing and writing, a Dilbert comic is the result. If I can't put the idea in three panels, it becomes a blog post.

I don't have the illusion of free will, for reasons I don't understand, so my default sensation is that I feel ruled by ideas. All of my so-called decisions are controlled by my ideas about my reality. For example, I don't try to walk through walls because I have an idea that I can't. I eat when I feel hungry because I have an idea that food will solve that problem.

If it seems an exaggeration to say that ideas are our masters, consider that many humans have given their lives to preserve ideas, but no idea ever died to save a human.
Sep 3, 2010 | General Nonsense | Permalink
For historical reasons, the device in your pocket or purse - the one that you use to browse the Internet and send email, is called a "phone." We need a new name for that thing.

Cellphone and Smartphone are words that recognize the historical roots of the device while making things worse. "Mobile phone" is archaic. Those are some ugly words. And all of those labels have the problem of making the phone feature seem highest in importance while it trends less so every day. Ask a teen how often he makes phone calls on his texter.

I'm biased against the voice communication function of my so-called phone because I hate that particular feature. It's impossible to have a conversation by cellphone if any of the following conditions is true:

  1. An earpiece, headset, or speakerphone is used.
  2. One of you is in an area with bad reception.
  3. One of you has an iPhone.
  4. One of you has a heavy accent.
  5. One of you is insanely boring.
  6. One of you is near anything loud, such as traffic.
That covers just about every call I'm likely to get. I end half of my phone conversations by shouting "I...CAN'T...HEAR...YOU...SEND...ME...AN...EMAIL!!!"

"On top of that, people use the phone to ask me for uncomfortable favors or deliver bad news, whereas they use email to give me information I want or need. When my so-called phone rings, my first reaction is "Shit. What's wrong now?" When I get an email or text message, I feel a tingle of optimism.

Text and email are polite invitations to a conversation. They happen at the speed and leisure of both the sender and the receiver. In stark contrast, when you get a phone call, it's almost always a convenient time for the caller and a bad time for the recipient, who I refer to as the "victim" because I insist on accuracy. My philosophy is that every phone conversation has a loser.

Anyway, back to my point: We need a new name for your cellular phone. The new name should embrace all of your device's functions while favoring none. It should understand the future of the device and release on its history. The name should not be long or klunky or geeky, so forget about calling it a communicator.

My suggestion, which I offer simply to prime the pump, is to call the phone your "head." This term recognizes that you are essentially a cyborg with a detachable brain. You offload a lot of your memory into your device, and it helps you communicate and gather information, just like the other parts of your general skull area.

There isn't much chance of name confusion with the organic part of your head because the context will always be clear. If you say, "I can't find my head," or "Whose head is ringing?" each utterance has only one rational interpretation. Granted, there could be some confusion if a head is contemplated as a gift item, but that's a risk I'm willing to take.

There's a saying in this country: "You'd lose your head if it weren't screwed on." And now it isn't. Your head is partly on your shoulders and partly in your pocket or purse. And we often misplace it precisely because it isn't screwed on. I think the word "head" is perfect.

Try to top it. What is your suggestion for a new name?

One way of imagining the future is that you and I, the so-called current generation, will selfishly party until we die, leaving to our children nothing but crushing debt, a boiling turd of a planet, and various Apple products. The problem with this analysis is that young adults have most of the guns and muscles. So isn't the younger generation complicit in stealing from itself?

Imagine a 20-something, muscular thug on the street, with a loaded gun in his waistband. A 60-year old banker with a bad back waddles up to him and says, "Give me your wallet!" The thug reaches past his gun and hands over his wallet. That's how our society is organized. I'm not complaining, since I have more in common with the banker than the thug.

In theory, the young soldiers in any country could collectively decide that they deserve most of the national wealth and then simply take it. If you think that sounds like a crime, assume that the first thing the soldiers could do is force lawmakers to rewrite the laws. If you think that sounds unethical, I would argue that the people who take the most physical and mental risks for the benefit of society should get the most pay. That seems perfectly reasonable and moral to me. And let's assume the soldiers are smart enough to leave enough money in the capitalist system that it still works. Perhaps the CEO of a major corporation would only earn $250K per year. If he wants more, he can join the Navy.

I only bring this up because I'm fascinated by the degree to which brains have evolved to become more powerful than guns. Society's founding geniuses engineered a social system that encourages the young people who have guns to shoot at each other instead of robbing old people. Forgive me for calling that awesome.

Arguably, the most important function of human language is to protect the smart from the strong. Humans use words to create sentences, and sentences to create concepts, such as our notions of duty and honor. Powerful concepts control behavior.

Without our language and concepts, the strong would kill the smart, and humans wouldn't evolve to be any smarter. I think you could say that human evolution is being guided at least partly by the power of ideas.

I can't remember if I had a point.

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Let's say that you and I decide to play pool. We agree to play eight-ball, best of five games. Our perception is that what follows is a contest to see who will do something called winning.

But I don't see it that way. I always imagine the outcome of eight-ball to be predetermined, to about 95% certainty, based on who has practiced that specific skill the most over his lifetime. The remaining 5% is mostly luck, and playing a best of five series eliminates most of the luck too.

I've spent a ridiculous number of hours playing pool, mostly as a kid. I'm not proud of that fact. Almost any other activity would have been more useful. As a result of my wasted youth, years later I can beat 99% of the public at eight-ball. But I can't enjoy that sort of so-called victory. It doesn't feel like "winning" anything.

It feels as meaningful as if my opponent and I had kept logs of the hours we each had spent playing pool over our lifetimes and simply compared. It feels redundant to play the actual games.

I see the same thing with tennis, golf, music, and just about any other skill, at least at non-professional levels. And research supports the obvious, that practice is the main determinant of success in a particular field.

As a practical matter, you can't keep logs of all the hours you have spent practicing various skills. And I wonder how that affects our perception of what it takes to be a so-called winner. We focus on the contest instead of the practice because the contest is easy to measure and the practice is not.

Complicating our perceptions is professional sports. The whole point of professional athletics is assembling freaks of nature into teams and pitting them against other freaks of nature. Practice is obviously important in professional sports, but it won't make you taller. I suspect that professional sports demotivate viewers by sending the accidental message that success is determined by genetics.

My recommendation is to introduce eight-ball into school curricula, but in a specific way. Each kid would be required to keep a log of hours spent practicing on his own time, and there would be no minimum requirement. Some kids could practice zero hours if they had no interest or access to a pool table. At the end of the school year, the entire class would compete in a tournament, and they would compare their results with how many hours they spent practicing. I think that would make real the connection between practice and results, in a way that regular schoolwork and sports do not. That would teach them that winning happens before the game starts.

Yes, I know that schools will never assign eight-ball for homework. But maybe there is some kid-friendly way to teach the same lesson.

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Yesterday I asked you to read an unusual paragraph and tell me how it made you feel. If you haven't already done so, please read yesterday's post before continuing.


The unusual paragraph was neither hypnosis nor random. I wrote it, and the wording is engineered for a specific purpose. It's designed to activate different areas of your brain all at once.

The paragraph starts by activating the language part of your brain, obviously. Then it made you curious. Then your analytical side kicked in, trying to discern its meaning. Your left and right hemispheres were engaged, and they stayed that way throughout. So far, that's like any good mystery story, and not yet special.

The next level of the design is what inspired me to try the experiment: The words are meant to activate the areas in your brain responsible for your five senses, which means five different physical parts of the brain, pretty much all at once. Notice that all five senses are mentioned: touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing.

The nonsense part of the construction, where I mix up the normal descriptors of your senses, is intended to keep the writing complex, so you can't instinctively simplify anything in your mind. For example, if I had told a complicated story about a cat being on the roof, your mind could have summarized and stored it as "cat on roof." My paragraph was designed to be impossible to summarize. (Although many of you apparently shuffled it off to the "He's screwing with us" bin and moved on.)

My hypothesis before reading your comments is that by activating multiple parts of your brain at once you would feel energized. And I knew from blogging experience that this sort of thing would make some of you feel annoyed and some of you feel delighted. The difference is probably a function of your ability or willingness to suspend reason and just feel it. Or it might have something to do with your expectations of this blog, or your view of me. You're all different.

At a writer's level, the words are carefully chosen to work together independent of meaning. They simply "sound" good together, and they have a similar vibe. Call it word art.

The commenter from the UK who wrote that he thought of Lady GaGa when reading my post might be the only one who actually solved the puzzle, as far as I can tell. I blogged recently that Lady GaGa's lyrics seem designed to activate multiple brain areas at once. My paragraph was inspired by exactly that.

All good fiction writers create in book form what I did in my experimental paragraph. It's no accident when a Harry Potter book goes off on a tangent about food, which has nothing to do with moving the story forward. Descriptions of taste and texture and smell engage new parts of your brain. And it's no accident that most Harry Potter chapters end with a point of curiosity. The author is making sure to stimulate as much of your brain's real estate as possible. That's why you can sometimes enjoy a movie or a book while knowing that the story itself is lame and predictable. What matters to entertainment is how many parts of your brain get pleasantly stimulated at once.

If you felt annoyed and manipulated by my experiment, I apologize. Now that you know the intent of the paragraph, try reading it again. I promise that you won't be hypnotized.

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