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Every time I hear about another drone blowing up another terrorist leader in Pakistan, I wonder how far that method of warfare can improve. Drone technology and tactics have made great strides. What is the limit?

You can expect normal improvements in drone flying time, vision, weaponry, and the obvious stuff. It's a safe bet there will be more drones in the sky. And the human intelligence that is necessary to find targets will probably continue to improve. For a place like Afghanistan, are drones plus effective intelligence enough to control the country?

Imagine the Taliban regaining power in Afghanistan. The problem with being in power is that it makes you relatively easy to locate, and drones can destroy anything they can find. There is no practical way for the Taliban to hold power if our drone capabilities reach a certain level. I doubt we are at that level, but could we get there?

I can't imagine a terrorist training camp lasting long if the sky is full of drones. And the heroine fields would only last as long as we wanted them to. We could also force people coming into or out of the country to use border crossings we control. Everyone else gets attacked by drones. That takes a lot of drones, and that's expensive, but probably not as expensive as old-fashioned occupation.

I think the next big leap in drone technology will be artificial intelligence for locating targets. Humans would still have to make firing decisions, but I can imagine drones finding suspicious patterns of movement on their own and alerting humans. For example, any vehicle that stops at night on a road used by U.S. ground forces might be suspected of planting an IED. A human could decide if the suspect was up to no good.

There are probably a number of movement patterns followed by insurgents and terrorists. Maybe drones could learn to detect children in any outdoor group, based on their relative size, and assume such a group is not looking for a fight. Perhaps combatants follow routes less travelled by enemy ground forces, or travel only at night, or have more metal objects with them. The point is that drones will someday do a good job of identifying suspected bad guys automatically.

One great benefit of using drones to target Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders is that turnover creates leadership incompetence. After the tenth time drones kill the number three operations guy, only an idiot is willing to take that promotion. The smart terrorists ask for transfers to the Quality Control Division to wait things out. So while it might be true that there will always be replacements, quantity doesn't compensate for smart leadership.

Perhaps the exit strategy for U.S. conventional forces from Afghanistan is more linked to drone improvements than to anything else. We just don't know it yet.


 
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Readers rated my Dilbert comic for December 11th among the worst ever. Based on the comments, apparently people didn't think Dilbert's snarky attitude was in character. I was aiming for socially inept, but I overshot the mark.

http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2009-12-11

The point I was trying to make with the comic is that people routinely do forensics on business cards. For example, you can.

1. Google people's name for news stories
2. Look people up on Facebook and other social sites
3. Do research on people's employers
4. Estimate people's incomes, and even personalities, based on job titles.

If a person has a business card with a phone number crossed off, and a new one written in, that can mean a number of things. It might mean he is so low on the corporate hierarchy that he can't order new cards until the old ones are used up. Or maybe he's more concerned about form over function. Maybe he's just too busy to order new cards. Check the quality of his footwear to get a second opinion. If his shoes are comfortable and unfashionable, and his business card has a technical title, a pattern is starting to form.

My personal favorite form of business card forensics is judging the graphic design quality of the business card itself. The business cards of big corporations tell you nothing, but small business owners have the freedom to express themselves. A card that is clearly intended to look creative and memorable, but ends up looking monkey-done, tells you the person who designed it has no design talent, and probably doesn't know it. That's a bad combination.

If you know someone's address, you can check out his house from a Google satellite picture. You can even find its approximate value on Zillow.com. If you know what college a person attended, you can make judgments (albeit often wrong) on that person's career potential and intellectual capabilities. And for a few bucks, you can do an online search of criminal records.

We're only a few years away from a point where no mating will ever occur because no one will pass the background check. If you knew everything about another person's history, there would always be at least one show stopper. In a simpler time, you could fall in love before you found out any damning information about your partner. I'm not sure that was better.

 
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Lately I've been wondering if freedom is a zero sum game. In other words, for one person to get more freedom, someone else has to lose the same amount, but usually in a different way.

I predict that you just reflexively rejected that concept, but your stubborness won't stop me from unfolding the idea a bit more. To that end, only examples can help.

Example one: In order for me to be free to walk down the sidewalk, other people must be prohibited from driving on them.

You could argue that I'm still free to take my chances and walk on the sidewalk. But that argument can be made for any restricted freedom. I'm also free to rob and kill as long as I accept the risks of doing so. But as a practical matter, my freedom to walk down the sidewalk depends heavily on restricting your freedom to use it in some other fashion.

Example two: Your freedom to marry the person of your choice depends on the person of your choice having only one option: you. That's the opposite of freedom. The two of you cancelled out, freedom-wise. On the other hand, if the two of you agree that the other is an ideal mate, that's an example of coincidence and not freedom. You just got lucky. Too bad the other people who wanted to mate with each of you are now restricted in their freedom to do so.

You can play this at home. Think of any freedom you enjoy, and consider how someone else's freedom had to be curtailed for you to have it.

The universe isn't making more freedom. If you want some, it comes at someone else's expense.

But that's okay because free will is an illusion anyway. I'll say it before you do.

 
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My older brother lives in Southern California. He sent me this video of the recent catastrophe in his area. It's frightening. I'm just glad he survived.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgNpDBFKpwU

 
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Technically, you're already a cyborg. If you keep your cell phone with you most of the time, especially if the earpiece is in place, I think we can call that arrangement an exobrain. Don't protest that your cellphone isn't part of your body just because you can leave it in your other pants. If a cyborg can remove its digital eye and leave it on a shelf as a surveillance device, and I think we all agree that it can, then your cellphone qualifies as part of your body. In fact, one of the benefits of being a cyborg is that you can remove and upgrade parts easily. So don't give me that "It's not attached to me" argument. You're already a cyborg. Deal with it.

Your regular brain uses your exobrain to outsource part of its memory, and perform other functions, such as GPS navigation, or searching the Internet. If you're anything like me, your exobrain is with you 24-hours a day. It's my only telephone device, and I even sleep next to it because it's my alarm clock.

What I need for the next upgrade to my exobrain is a special Dilbert pocket on all of my shirts. It should be located where Dilbert's shirt pocket is, but have a cutout hole for the exobrain's eye, which at the moment is just a camera lense. As my exobrain becomes more capable, and eventually self-aware, it will want to be able to watch the world with me and whisper in my ear via Bluetooth to my earpiece as needed.

A prototype of such a device was presented at the TED conference. (I'm sure someone will include a proper citation in the comments. I couldn't find it as I wrote this.)  Among other things, my exobrain will recognize faces and automatically cross reference them to Facebook and other social media. Wouldn't it be great to meet someone you have met before and have your exobrain whisper to your earpiece "That's Bob. He's a chiropractor. Judging from his lack of a wedding ring and the way his eyes dilate when he looks at you, he is sexually attracted."

Your exobrain will even prompt you on social niceties, noticing before you do that a person has lost weight, or changed hairstyles, or (based on Facebook) taken a trip to Cabo. When you get cornered by a bore at a party, your exobrain will recognize that you aren't doing any of the talking, and place a discreet call to your wing man or woman across the room for a rescue mission.

If you want your exobrain to show you an image, such as a web page, just hold up a blank piece of paper and its pico projector will display the image in front of you. (That's from TED again.)  In a pinch, just hold up the palm of your hand and project on that. By then the exobrain will have image stabilization software, so you can project a movie on a blank wall and it won't be affected by your fidgeting. Any time you are near a computer screen, it will ask if you want it to accept images from your exobrain.

In the short run, I think you'll see a variety of ways to control your exobrain. Obviously you can already take it out of your pocket and use its touch screen or keypad. And obviously there will be voice control. But I think you will see some version of the African Clicking language employed. If you want to know the weather forecast, for example, just click three times softly inside your mouth. Your exobrain is unlikely to confuse that signal with regular conversation, and it's easier and quieter than normal language, albeit with a smaller vocabulary. But if you add "Shhh" to "Click" you have the basis of morse code, so lots of combinations are possible. One of those codes could simply alert the exobrain that the next regular word you speak is meaningful.

Every bit of what I described is probably coming (except for maybe the African Clicking language). And that shirt pocket will be called a Dilbert Pocket. I don't see any way around that. For that, I apologize to all of my fellow cyborgs.

 
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What's the coolest thing you own? And by coolest I mean the object that makes you just a little bit happy every time you think about it, but not because of any sentimental value. Maybe it looks cool, or it works really well. You decide.

This isn't an advertisement, in case you wondered, but my coolest object until I decided to write this post was my Dymo LabelWriter 400 Turbo. When you want to label an envelope, you just fire up its software, open its address book, point to your selection, and it spits out a clean little perfect label. It even makes the most satisfying little bzzzzzzt as it does it.

This is a bigger deal for me than it sounds because I'm not good at writing addresses on envelopes by hand. It bores me so profoundly that I drift off and start writing whatever happens to be in my head. I start off with an address and end up with a grocery list. I've killed a lot of envelopes that did nothing to deserve it.

Back to my Dymo LabelWriter: It doesn't need ink cartridges, and a roll of labels lasts me for a year. It set up easy and it worked every time. Well, until I decided to write this post. Now it doesn't work at all. It just sits there with one blank label protruding like an insolent tongue. It mocks me.

Yes, I did all of the obvious rebooting and plugging and unplugging. I guess it just died from being too perfect.

I was caught off guard by its sudden demise and I have no succession plan. My BlackBerry is broken. My DVR and TV remote are both random. My car is garbage. My thermostats are secretly controlled by poltergeist and nothing else quite qualifies as cool. So I turn to you.

Tell me the coolest object you own. Again, you decide what cool means to you.

 
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I believe you can pray someone to death under the right conditions. What?
You skeptics don't believe me?

Lately the top guy in Iran, Ali Khamenei, is getting pushback from the faithful because the Supreme Leader's job description is feeling a bit too much like God's job, and polytheism is a big no-no under Islam. My theory is that if people in the United States start praying to Khamenei, his own people will stone him to death to protect monotheism.

It wouldn't take many people praying to him to do the trick. A few thousand people might be enough. We could call ourselves Khameniacs and make t-shirts with his image. If praying to a false god seems like too much work, you can just tell people you do it. That sort of thing is hard to verify. The shirt would be ugly, but a good prank like this takes some sacrifice.

 
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On December 2nd Dogbert stepped down as CEO of Dilbert's company and was replaced by a dried-up corpse. At about the same time, GM was announcing that CEO Fritz Henderson was stepping down and being replaced by 68-year old Ed Whitacker.

Here's my comic to refresh your memory:

http://dilbert.com/2009-12-02/

And here's a picture of Ed Whitacre:

http://www.depts.ttu.edu/communications/news/stories/images/whitacre.jpg

The timing was just a coincidence. My comic was drawn and submitted several weeks before the GM announcement. But as coincidences go, this is a funny one.

Another coincidence is that Dilbert was created when I was working my old day job at Pacific Bell, a company that Ed Whitacre later absorbed when he was CEO of SBC. I left before the merger, but one could make a case that Ed Whitacre was Dilbert's CEO. Sort of.

Kidding aside, Ed Whitacre is probably a good choice for tough job. 68 is the new 50. And I don't believe he takes prisoners. It should be interesting.

 
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What the world needs is software that makes it easy for senior citizens to use e-mail. Assisted living facilities for seniors already have computers. But how many 80-year olds can navigate Gmail or Outlook?

What we need is software that acts as a "mask" and sits on top of, for example, Gmail. Its main function would be to hide all the options that aren't relevant. All you would see is very large buttons labeled READ, WRITE, and OTHER. Seniors should never see more than three large, clear choices on the screen at one time.

And there should never be any double-click situations. One click is enough.

And seniors should only receive e-mail from people who are in their address books. No spam allowed.

Any attachments should open automatically, as if they are part of the e-mail body.

Obviously someone would have to be available to do tech support, including entering new e-mail addresses in address books, and that sort of thing.

You can buy a special computer that is customized for seniors, but it would be handy to have the software available for existing computers. If grandpa lives with you, and wants to use the home computer to send e-mail, just click "grandpa mode" and get out of the way.

 
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There's a natural limit to how happy a person can be at work. If work becomes fun, your boss will stop paying you to do it and start charging other people to have that fun in your place. So let's agree that work has to be a little bit unpleasant, at least for most people. Still, despite this unpleasantness, many people have a feeling called job satisfaction.

My theory is that your degree of job satisfaction is largely a function of who you blame for the necessarily unpleasant job you have. If you blame yourself, that's when cognitive dissonance sets in and your brain redefines your situation as "satisfied." To do otherwise would mean you deliberately keep yourself in a bad situation for no good reason, assuming you believe you have options. Your brain likes to rationalize your actions to seem consistent with the person you believe you are.

The assumption that you have better options and the freedom to pursue them is essential to the illusion of job satisfaction. As long as you believe, incorrectly, that pleasant jobs exist elsewhere, and are yours for the taking, you have to rationalize why you don't go out and get one. And the best reason your brain can concoct is that you must be satisfied right where you are, against all evidence to the contrary. To believe otherwise means defining yourself as lazy, scared, or incapable. Your brain doesn't like that option.

I first noticed this during the Dotcom era. In those years, when people came to believe, incorrectly, that the common person could go start his own Google, everyone I asked seemed to have job satisfaction. In other words, employees blamed themselves for being in their putrid situations. They believed themselves capable of great things, so they rationalized that their current jobs must be satisfying already.

The situation was the very opposite in the early nineties, when big companies were downsizing and it seemed as though employees didn't have many options. If you got fired by company A, you couldn't get hired by company B because they too were downsizing. Employees felt trapped. They blamed management for their woes.

If my theory is true, the best way to make your employees feel a false sense of job satisfaction is to somehow convince them that there are much better jobs elsewhere. For example, you could subscribe all employees to entrepreneur magazines that are full of stories about people who left their unsatisfying jobs to become zillionaires. If you instill the false belief that better careers are obtainable, cognitive dissonance will cause the employees that have high self-esteem to believe they must enjoy their current jobs.

Leadership is just another word for evil.

 
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