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Last month I asked you to tell me why your project at work, whatever it is, appears to be doomed. Many of your comments became the seeds of Dilbert comics. You might have recognized them.

That experiment worked so well that it's time to try a variation. Tell me in the comments what upcoming activity at work you are most dreading, and why. Dread is funny. Be sure to use the word dread in your comment.

As you know, most problems in life are caused by sadists, nut bags, and imbeciles. Be sure to label your peers appropriately in your tale of dread.

Thank you!
 
Last night I realized I was whining too much in this blog about products that don't work. So I decided to write today's post about a product that exceeded my expectations. We designed our home with a residential elevator. We didn't want to go through all the effort of building our dream home and then decades from now need to move when stairs become an issue. I was worried about having an elevator because it seems like exactly the sort of thing that will break on a regular basis. Last night I realized my negative expectations had been wrong. I need to lighten up. That elevator has worked like a charm, and we use it all the time for moving heavy objects up and down stairs.

So, as I'm walking across the living room last night, composing in my mind today's post in praise of the elevator, Shelly tells me the elevator is broken. And so it is. I'll have to call someone about that today. So I changed my plan and decided to write about my broken elevator instead. (Every word of that is true, by the way. I was literally composing the elevator praise post in my head when it broke.)

This morning I woke up at 6 AM and walked the dog as usual. I should mention that we designed the house with an automatic dog door, which functions as advertised, except it scares the bejeezus out of little Snickers and causes her to poop in the kids' rooms. So I walk her instead. In the rain.

After the dog does her business, I visit our spiffy new coffee maker. It's terrific. I push one button and it grinds the beans, mixes it with fresh water (it's plumbed!) and produces a steaming cup of excellent java. Except lately it has only been spitting out something like brown dishwater, which I drink anyway, for the placebo effect. Today I decided to take action. So after half an hour with the manual, I corrected a setting that had somehow unraveled itself, as if by ghosts. (Yes, the coffeemaker has a setting that allows you to create brown dishwater instead of something more like coffee. I'm not clear why.)

Coffee in hand, I go to my computer to start writing. But my computer decided to reboot itself last night, against my will, for some sort of Windows update. And it locked up. So I do a hard boot. And wait. And wait. And wait, while the creative juices slowly drain from my body. Once rebooted, I try to start Firefox. And I wait, and I wait. I like to check the comments on my daily strip before I do anything else. Great, I see that my Canadian stalker is back in full force, leaving crazy comments, driving out the normals. She's been cyberstalking me for about seven years now, off and on, whenever she goes off meds. She likes to call anyone I do business with and tell them I've been sexually harassing her, sending goons to search her home, bugging her phone, and my favorite: using my comic strip as a way to send secret messages to her. The police can't help me because she's Canadian. We block her IP address on a regular basis, but she keeps changing machines.

Anyway, seven years is enough. I'm in a bad mood. So as of today, I'm declaring her my mascot. Yes, stalker, this time I am talking directly to you. For the first time, it's not the voices in your head. Leave some good crazy comments that we can all enjoy.

My strategy is to get you so wound up that your husband, if you still have one, puts you back on your meds. Nothing else has worked. Let's try this.

 
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Today United Media announced it might try to sell the licensing rights for Dilbert, Peanuts, and the rest of its licensing properties.

http://www.cnbc.com/id/35536849

United Media has been handling syndication and licensing for Dilbert for over 20 years. They plan to keep the syndication part, which involves selling and distributing comics to newspapers. The licensing group, which is potentially for sale, manages licensing of Dilbert, Peanuts, and other properties to the third parties who put it on t-shirts and calendars and whatnot. 

There's no way to predict if this is good or bad for me. It depends who buys the rights.

Response to Jengineer:

The copyright holder is said to own the work. But to commercialize the work, a cartoonist might sign a deal with a syndication and licensing company such as United Media. A contract is created that gives United Media a share of the revenue in return for selling and distributing to newspapers (the so-called syndication part), and for making and managing licensing deals with t-shirt companies, publishers, and the like (the so-called licensing business). Contracts can be transferable, so United Media can sell its entire licensing business and along with its contracts to another company if a deal makes sense.

As a practical matter, being the copyright holder is less important than whatever contracts have been negotiated to divide up the work and the revenue.

 
I've run into this situation twice in the past year: A sales person will tell me, in insincere confidence, what a jerk some other customer is. It usually comes in the form of a story that is presumably meant to amuse me, as in "You won't believe what this customer did the other day." There's usually a point to the story, such as Don't waste a sales person's time if you aren't going to spend a lot of money. Or Don't ask stupid questions. I suppose the sales person who shares these stories wants me to think he's bonding with me. But all I feel is a desire to beat him to death with whatever he's selling, while yelling "If you don't want people buying inexpensive items, why do you carry them in your f%&@ing store???"

And after he's dead, I might keep beating him while yelling something along the lines of "If your products weren't so f@&#ing confusing, maybe people wouldn't have to ask so many questions!"

On another topic, I believe there is a special place in Hell for companies that make consumer electronics with black buttons on black faceplates, especially when those products are generally used in low light situations. Is that even trying?

Let's talk about thermostats. How many people know how to program their thermostats? My guess is 30% of the public. In my last home, the interface was so random that at least half of the time we simply gave up trying to set the temperature and assumed "Something must be broken." Imagine how much energy could be saved with a little work on thermostat interfaces. The market system doesn't work with thermostats because they generally come with the house. And if you shopped for them in the store, you wouldn't get a full sense of how easy they are to use. Maybe there should be a law that says if 75% of consumers can't set the thermostat in controlled tests then those products aren't allowed on the market.

We use retractable leashes when walking our dog. The good versions of this product have a handle grip and a thumb control for stopping the leash from retracting. If you need to reel your dog in, you pull the handle while pressing the button. It's a very nice design. Recently we got one that changes things up. If your dog starts running into traffic, you have to pull on the handle while releasing your hold on the retraction button. That's right - you have to squeeze some muscles in your hand while releasing others. Try that at home. Squeeze your thumb and your index finger together while relaxing your pinky. You can do it, if you get in the lotus position and burn incense, but it's not the best design if you're in panic mode and trying to keep your dog from running into traffic. I wonder if the designers ever tested the product. And if they did, how many dogs died?

 
Think of the first 20 people you know who have had all the kids they are likely to have. That generally means people over 40. For the purposes of this discussion, exclude anyone over 70.  Add up the adults in your group. Then add up the number of offspring they produced. Is the net gain in humans sufficient to grow the population?

When I do the math with my own circle of friends, we approximately break even, after allowing for spillage and spares. It made me wonder about the rest of the world, and by that I mean people who read The Dilbert Blog. Are you reproducing fast enough to break even?

 

 
Recently, two of the smartest people that I know told me they are putting all of their money in silver and gold respectively. The thinking is that our national debt will surely crush us, along with the next wave of mortgage defaults, and the collapse of the dollar, and the drop in consumer spending, and perhaps a plague of locusts. The only option you can rule out, they believe, is that things will go well.

On one hand, I understand their points of view. I can't imagine any way the national debt can be controlled before it buries us all. My only comfort is these three thoughts:
  1. People aren't good at predicting the future, no matter how obvious the future path seems.
  2. Warren Buffett isn't putting all of his money in gold.
  3. My failure to imagine how the debt can be contained might be just that: a failure of my imagination.
It is wonderfully absurd that the best investment option my brilliant friends can think of involves trading their stock ownership of American companies into shiny rocks. While these particular shiny rocks have some practical value, so does manure, and yet you wouldn't trust your fortune to cow poop. The value of gold is derived primarily from the fact that people agree it has value, for a variety of semi-irrational reasons mixed in with a few trivial good ones. What happens to the price of gold if people simply change their minds about its value?

If things go so badly that the S&P 500 becomes permanently worthless, I have a hard time believing that the people who own gold will rule the world. I think it's more likely that the people who own steel that is conveniently shaped like guns will control everything, including all of the shiny rocks. At that point, the new currency will be something along the lines of "Wash my car and I won't shoot you in the leg."

Optimism is mostly about imagination.  For example, if you get an incurable disease, you can at least imagine someone finding a cure just in time. If nuclear war breaks out, you can imagine being part of the remnants of civilization that form the post apocalyptic society. You can imagine just about anything. But I literally can't imagine how our national debt can ever be brought under control. When I fire up my imagination generator, I just see a blank screen.

Are any of you investing in shiny rocks?
 
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My computer's memory fills up a few times a day, and then the system crashes. It doesn't seem to matter what applications I use. And closing applications doesn't free up memory. This has been true on every computer I have owned, both Macs and  PCs. Rebooting periodically is the only temporary fix. To which I say, "SERIOUSLY?? WTF???? IS THIS REALLY AN UNSOLVEABLE PROBLEM, LIKE FRICKIN' GRAVITY???"

So yesterday I did some searching and found online a piece of software that would allegedly monitor my memory use and allow me to free up the stranded parts when needed. It got excellent reviews from professionals in various magazines. The thing I knew for sure is that one of two things would happen:
  1. The software would do absolutely nothing.
  2. The software would crash my system.
On the plus side, it did not crash my system. But neither did it do anything. I just sent an e-mail to the support address to ask if the buttons are some sort of placebo or practical joke. I can press all sorts of buttons on their unfathomable interface and the little graph that shows my memory use stays exactly the same. And just to make things ironic, THE FRICKIN' THING USES MEMORY!!! It's like buying paint remover that is actually paint.

This leads me to my point. I think the problem with our economy is that most products are complete and utter crap. Suppose, for example, that I want to buy a shirt that looks okay on a guy my age. I have a choice of styles that include surfer dude, preppy douchebag, grandpa's barber, and human billboard. No one even bothers trying to make stylish clothes for the LARGEST SEGMENT OF THE POPULATION OF THE COUNTRY. Allow me to act surprised that Macy's is having trouble.

Try to buy some furniture. I dare you. It will take two months to arrive, if you're lucky. I am trying to figure out why no one jumps on the market opportunity to make furniture that can be delivered in only 6 weeks. Seriously. If the demand for frickin' chairs is that high, why aren't more people making them? Is EVERYONE busy making software that doesn't work?

How about my new printer? The box said it can fax, scan, copy, print, floss my teeth, whatever. Every time I want to print a page of text, I hold my breath and burn incense. It's an iffy proposition. I think the drivers actually rot. And God forbid I try to feed the device some important documents in the irrational hope of scanning or copying them. I kiss the documents goodbye before I send them to their destruction in the machine's bowels.

As I write this, I'm waiting for a response to why my memory-freeing software doesn't free any memory. I already know they will tell me to push exactly the buttons I already pushed, and when it doesn't work, they will act mystified and tell me they have never seen this issue before.

That's what's wrong with the economy.

 
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Now that I have a manly garage, with a manly workbench, I was delighted to receive for Christmas a Shop Vac. It's a magical device that sucks up all sorts of debris, even liquid. It has attachments for everything. I think one attachment is for haircuts, but I haven't tried it yet. The Shop Vac is gray and black and reminds me of R2D2 so much that I expect it to jack into my breaker panels and reprogram my DVR.

My point is that my Shop Vac is totally awesome. That is, unless I try to move it. It has wheels, but at the first sign of movement, the Shop Vac starts squirming and tossing off attachments like a balloonist heading into a volcano. The hose becomes like a spastic elephant trunk. It will find all of the loose objects in your garage and fling them one-by-one into oil spills and darkened spider nests. If you focus your attention on the flailing vacuum hose, the power cord will wrap itself around your legs and try to trip you into the pyramid of old paint cans. And the screaming. Good lord, the little wheels scream on the concrete floor. It's Shop Vac language for "LEAVE ME ALONE! DO NOT MOVE ME! I WILL KILL YOU WITH MY TENTACLE!"

The worst of it, if I can pick just one thing, is that the situation totally ruins my manly vibe. I live in fear that Shelly will come into the garage and see me losing a cage match to R2D2. That would totally suck, ironically.

Anyway, I've developed a truce with my Shop Vac. Now I sweep the debris from wherever it falls all the way to where the Shop Vac lives, and directly under its waiting nostril. I gingerly press the ON button along a direct vertical line so I don't awaken the tentacle of death. I still plan to use the Shop Vac for haircuts, but I'll have to put the kids on towels on their backs and slowly drag them towards the Shop Vac's waiting hose and hope for the best.

I searched the Internet for what I imagined would be the obvious set of third-party add-ons for the Shop Vac, but found none. What I want is some sort of pole attachment from the top of the Shop Vac upon which I can drape the power cord and hose while moving the Shop Vac against its will. Sort of like an IV drip scenario, but with a power cord and vacuum hose. Would one of you go invent that and get back to me?

 

 
I wonder if the most valuable knowledge you can have is the knowledge of what you're good at. For example, I doubt you are working at the very best job for your aptitude. We tend to drift into our careers. It's more luck than plan. But imagine if you were born knowing you had the natural aptitude to be the world's best brain surgeon, or guitar player, or graphic designer. On the flip side, maybe you thought you had more talent in some field than you do, and wasted a lot of time preparing for the wrong profession.

Any assessment of your own abilities is necessarily polluted by your optimism, your pessimism, your passion, and your everyday delusions. On top of that, you are influenced by other people's opinions of your abilities, and other people are just as clueless as you.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a famous cartoonist. I assume now that it was more wishful thinking than premonition. But my self-assessment at the time was that I didn't have the necessary talent. I thought I might someday be a pretty good lawyer, or a banker. So I became an economics major. I got lucky in the sense that I poked around at the wrong professions, trying this and that, including cartooning, until finally something worked. And even as my cartooning career was taking off, the majority of experts were pretty sure I didn't have the talent to make an impact. All but one syndication company rejected my original submission for Dilbert. And for the first several years, 90% of all newspaper editors didn't see any potential in it. I was sustained through those years by a handful of insightful people at United Media who thought Dilbert could someday be big.

In summary, the two opinions about your abilities that you should never trust are your own opinions, and the majority's opinions. But if a handful of people who have a good track record of identifying talent think you have something, you just might.

 

 
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I've written before about the fact that a person's name can influence his choices. Studies show that people named Dennis become dentists at a higher rate than you would expect. People also prefer to live in places that sound like their own names. Names matter.

http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/stuff_for_blog/susie.pdf

I was thinking about the naming of things while watching the debate over the iPad. And by the way, for the record, I would like to say I was wrong about the iPad being a non-genius device that consumers would compare unfavorably to a laptop. According to the media, who are desperate for a savior to their dying industry, the iPad is primarily a competitor to the Kindle. On that comparison, I predict iPad wins. Apple will nail the user interface, and make it relevant for the whole family. Kindle will mostly belong to Mom or Dad. On a cost per person basis, the iPad will actually be less expensive because more family members will share it. And Apple will make it easy for old media to make the leap to a digital-only distribution model because Jobs will make people believe it can work. Apple is the only company that manufactures belief.

Back to the names of things: Much has been made of the fact that iPad sounds like feminine protection. I get that. But how does that name influence consumer behavior? Feminine protection is generally considered essential. Perhaps that subconscious connection actually works in Apple's favor.

Consider the name Apple. An apple is the Christian symbol of an irresistible urge, whereas Kindle sounds like the unimportant twigs you use to start a fire. Kindle also sounds old-timey, as in "Grandma's got her Kindle and her rocking chair."

Compared to the Kindle, Apple wins on name, coolness, interface, cost-per-person, extra applications, web surfing, and probably its media distribution model. Kindle wins on screen readability, which is mostly relevant to oldsters. Battery life will be good enough on both.

 

 
 
 
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