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Yesterday I made dozens of decisions, on topics as varied as Dilbert licensing, landscape design, marketing, and investing. In all cases I was operating with incomplete information, which is typical. As a practical matter, most decisions happen without the benefit of all the data you would like.

It made me reflect on all of the little rules one develops over the years for handling decisions without the benefit of sufficient data. You always start with the easy questions, such as...
  1. What do the experts say you should do?
  2. How much experience do the experts have with this question?
  3. Does the expert have a conflict of interest?
  4. What's the worst thing that could happen?
  5. How easy is it to switch course if you choose wrong?
  6. What information can you find on the Internet?
  7. Who has made this choice before? Were they satisfied?
  8. If I delay, will I learn something more that is useful?
  9. Is there a way to do a limited test?
  10. Does the decision make logical and mathematical sense?
  11. Do the experts make this choice with their own money?
  12. What do the well-informed people in my situation usually do?
  13. What does the competing vendor say about this vendor?
  14. Have I seen all of the alternatives?
Those are the questions with relatively clear or quantitative answers. It's the next category of questions that intrigue me, because they involve pattern recognition, and I can't always tell whether I am being influenced by fear and bias, or keen intuition informed by my experience. The questions in this category look like this...
  1. Does this situation follow a pattern I've seen in scams?
  2. Is someone giving answers that seem intentionally vague?
  3. Is information conspicuously missing?
  4. Is someone trying to rush me?
  5. Could someone unscrupulous easily take advantage of me?
  6. Have I regretted this sort of decision before?
  7. How do I imagine other people will react to this decision?
  8. If the expert is so smart, why isn't he rich?
 
What questions would you add to the list?

 
Several years ago I wrote a non-Dilbert book called God's Debris. I called it a "thought experiment" because I used hypnosis techniques in the writing to give readers a euphoric mental sensation, as if they were learning some deeper truth about reality. Evidently it worked. Many people tell me they have reread God's Debris four or five times just for the buzz.

For others, God's Debris is like eating an onion. People who are on the outer fringes of either dogmatism or skepticism find it hard to relax and simple feel ideas that don't seem right to them. And if you have a doctorate in philosophy, or the like, you might not get the full impact of the book, in the same way that a guy taking an LSD trip doesn't need a bong hit. But if you don't fall into one of those categories, God's Debris can be an interesting experience.

Until now, there was always one thing holding back the full impact of God's Debris: The physical process of reading makes it difficult to fully relax at the same time. That's why I'm excited that God's Debris is finally available as an audio book, both on iTunes and Audible.com. Now you can slip in your ear buds, sit back, close your eyes, and take a 2-hour and 44 minute mental flight.

After an extensive search of voice talent, I chose DC Goode to narrate. In case you wondered, hypnosis requires no special type of voice. I chose DC because he made the material come alive. It's a rare talent.

If you recommend the audiobook to anyone, let me know how they experienced it. You can e-mail me at dilbertcartoonist@gmail.com.


Search for God's Debris on iTunes, or Audible.com at:

http://www.audible.com/adbl/site/enSearch/searchResults.jsp?D=Gods Debris&Ntt=DC Goode&Dx=mode matchallpartial&Ntk=S_Narrator_Search&Ntx=mode matchallpartial&y=9&N=0&x=2&BV_UseBVCookie=Yes

  (Warning: I don't recommend listening to it while driving.)
 
I'm trying to come up with a good Halloween costume. I prefer something topical and funny. I don't want to be the guy who shows up at the party wearing sweat pants and says he's a baseball player. Maybe you can help.

One idea is to wear a Barack Obama name tag with my regular clothes. Then I'll wait for someone to say, "Barack Obama? How's that Barack Obama? I had such high expectations for your costume and all you did was...oh, wait. I get it."

Do you have a better idea? (Dressing as a Dilbert character is too obvious.)

 
 
The other day I was reading some first-hand accounts of the war in Afghanistan, in Newsweek, as told by several Taliban fighters. Throughout their stories they would refer to various Taliban leaders, and Newsweek would parenthetically point out that said leaders had been killed by Predator missiles. And today I read somewhere that 14 out of 20 Al Quaeda leaders in that neck of the woods have been taken out by Predators.

This made me wonder about the future of the war. Let's assume the conflict drags on forever, technology keeps improving, and the American public loses all interest in funding the hunt for terrorists. What then?

My prediction is that millionaires will start buying time piloting Predator-like drones (drone clones) from home, the same way big game hunters buy licenses. You'll be able to literally fly the drone from your laptop, supported by mercenaries on the ground in the ungoverned region of Pakistan. For a substantial fee, the mercenaries will help you launch and refuel the drone, and act as spotters to help you find terrorists. The wealthy hunter at home will stalk the terrorists via remote control and wait for a clean shot, then BAM!

Your first reaction to this plan is that it would be highly illegal and often unethical, especially when the wrong targets are attacked. But that doesn't mean my prediction is wrong. The customer would be involved in this activity via the Internet, the same way you might access a gambling website if you lived in a town where gambling was illegal. If some country passes a law against remote terrorist hunting via Internet, the wealthy hunter can simply go somewhere that the law doesn't exist, such as Las Vegas. And the mercenaries would be operating in a part of the world with no functioning government. So I don't see the law being an obstacle.

At the moment, I assume this sort of business model would be uneconomical, even for the very wealthy. Drones and mercenaries don't come cheap. But drone technology will continue to drop in price while improving in performance. And mercenaries won't be that expensive once the Pakistani locals start filling those jobs.

Any country with a military capable of stopping the mercenaries will have no incentive to do so, since killing terrorists serves the interest of all existing governments.

I'm guessing that a private citizen can't legally buy a Predator, but as other countries start producing drones, which seems inevitable, it won't be that hard for mercenaries to get them.

What part of my prediction is unreasonable?

 
I was delighted to learn that The Economist ranked the business school where I got my MBA (University of California at Berkeley - Haas School of Business) as number one in the United States.

http://www.economist.com/business-education/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14632300

This makes me proud, even though there are a few minor differences in the program compared to when I attended. For example, the classes are now held in different buildings. The coursework is different. The textbooks are different. The entry requirements are different. I attended the evening program. And all of the professors are different. But the name of the school is totally the same! I'M NUMBER ONE! WOO-HOO! GO BEARS! I think this moves me one step closer to that Nobel for economics.

The rankings of business schools are highly reliable because they are derived by asking the opinions of students who have attended upwards of one business school each! You might think someone would crosscheck this sort of survey result with the psychology departments at those same universities. But on the face of it, I don't see any problem with asking students if they made (cough, cognitive dissonance, cough) wise decisions.

Kidding aside, I do credit Berkeley's MBA program for my success with Dilbert. It trained me to think more like a business person than an artist. For example, an artist listens to his inner calling and hopes the public agrees. A business person listens to the audience and gives them what they want; that's the approach I took. In 1993 I opened a direct line to Dilbert readers through e-mail, and adjusted the content according to their feedback. That was one of maybe a dozen key business decisions that helped Dilbert break through a crowded field. I joke about getting an MBA so I could become a cartoonist, but business school was literally the competitive advantage that made Dilbert a success.

You are what you learn.

 
From an Article in the New York Times, here is one of the coolest theories I've ever heard that isn't already an episode for Star Trek. This quote sums it up:

"A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the (Large Hadron) collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather."

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/13/science/space/13lhc.html?_r=3&hpw#articleBodyLink

Obviously the phrase "abhorrent to nature" has no precise meaning in science. So I figure if we're tossing out sensational interpretations I should add one of my own. As regular readers of this blog know, I believe our reality is a holographic simulation, and you and I are just software running within it. Our creator, or creators, who presumably had bodies like ours, made this simulated universe so they could live forever, in a fashion, because their own reality was about to be annihilated in some sort of cosmic catastrophe. Or maybe we're someone's seventh grade science project. The point is that we only think we are real because that's how we were programmed.

Or if you prefer a less "Superman's exploding planet" version of that idea, from someone with more credibility than me, check out Boltzmann's Brain theory:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/15/science/15brain.html

If we are a software program, we might be constrained, perhaps by rules of the program, to stay within certain parameters of enlightenment. For example, we might be restricted from discovering that our reality is a simulation. And the Large Hadron Collider might be testing the limits of our allowed enlightenment. So you might expect some paradoxical, illogical, frightening thing to happen when knowledge starts to approach the programmed forbidden zone of knowing.

But apparently speculation about our software simulation reality is still allowed by the program as long as you mock me in your comments to prevent the idea from spreading.

 
During the peak ratings years of The Jerry Springer Show -- an alleged reality show -- a fight would break out among the guests during almost every episode.

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

It seemed obvious to me that these fights were orchestrated by the producers. What are the odds that a fight would break out during every episode and yet no one would ever get hurt or arrested?

The surprising thing is that everyone I talked to about the show during its glory years believed the fighting was genuine and spontaneous. I found that level of gullibility to be mind boggling.

Likewise, when big name TV magicians perform spectacular tricks on TV, such as making a jet disappear, and the witnesses on the scene act amazed, it's obvious to me that those people are in on the trick, and/or their comments of amazement are taken out of context. The magician's only obligation is to entertain the gullible viewers at home. Paying actors to claim they don't know how the jet disappeared, and filming reactions out of context, is the easiest way to do it.

All of this gets me to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Both of them have been in the news a lot for their outspoken and controversial views. And once again, people don't seem to understand that their jobs are entertainment, nothing more.

I enjoy sampling the content from the far left as well as the far right. When I listen to Limbaugh, I generally have two reactions:
  1. I don't agree with the viewpoint expressed.
  2. This man is an entertainment genius.
Talk show hosts have no legal or ethical obligation to do anything but entertain. And judging by their successes, Limbaugh and Beck are brilliant at their jobs. I find it mind boggling that anyone believes a TV talk host is expressing his own true views.

You could make a case that the things Limbaugh and Beck say influences the gullible masses in ways that are not helpful to society. But that's probably true of every pundit, left or right. It's a price of free speech.

Do you think that Limbaugh and Beck have the same views in private as they spray into the entertainmentsphere?

 
I just saw this article on the Internet about an economic prediction I made ten years before the recent financial meltdown.

http://www.ethics.org.au/ethics_forum/printer_friendly_posts.asp?FID=3&TID=3566

This got me wondering, in jest, if I am eligible to someday win the Nobel Prize for Economics. (Okay, technically it's called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.) The surprising answer is yes. One only needs to come up with an original and useful contribution in the field of economics. You don't need to do any math.

http://nobelprize.virtual.museum/prize_announcements/economics/eco_questions_08.html

With that in mind, do you think the confusopoly theory is the simplest explanation of how the recent financial meltdown came to be? Obviously greed and stupidity were also factors, but those influences are well understood and common to all of economics.

 

 
Suppose you had a system at work that allowed you to evaluate the performance and effectiveness of your coworkers. You could log on at any time and leave an opinion that would only be viewable by your boss and his bosses.

And imagine that you could be as unprofessional as you liked. If you think your coworker is an obstructionist idiot with fake credentials, you can express your opinion in those words. Management in this hypothetical world wouldn't want anyone diluting strong opinions with business jargon.

The idea would be to weed out employees who do a good job of concealing their treachery, toxicity, and incompetence in front of management. And in some cases it would force managers to do what they had been avoiding, namely getting rid of the bad seeds.

Obviously the system would be abused to some extent. You would have employees trying to settle personal scores, and paranoids falsely accusing coworkers of stealing and lying. But that probably happens just as much without this system. The point of the system is to gather input from more sources than just the crazies who tend to speak up.

You could call it a ratting system instead of a rating system. Would it make the workplace a better or a worse place to be?

 
Regular readers know that my wife Shelly and I are building a home. We were warned that we would be overwhelmed by all of the decisions. I was ready for this, I thought.

For most of my life, including my school years, I worked two or three jobs at the same time. The exception was when I was getting my MBA at night while working during the day. I thrive on complexity. How hard could it be to design a house? You pick some doorknobs, choose your favorite color for the paint, and off you go.

Allow me to invent a new word to describe my feeling at this moment: Holyjeezamafuginkripes.

We're more involved in the details than most homeowners. That's part of the fun. And it has been a delight so far. But at the same time I have come to understand the true meaning of overwhelmed. To illustrate, take just one category out of several hundred decisions we need to make: paint.

Your standard paints have what is called VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. That means they release their particles into the air forever, even after they are dry. Scientists think that a high level of VOCs is very bad for you. (Yes, you are almost certainly breathing high VOCs in the room you are in right now.)

The good news is that paint companies are now making zero-VOC paint. But you can't easily do color matching with the zero-VOC paints, so you won't get the color you really want, except by luck. It's a crap shoot. And if you want to faux paint a wall, the glaze isn't low VOC. And what about the stain on your cabinets? And what exactly is the level of VOCs that is acceptable, given that different states mandate different maximum levels? And do these zero-VOC paints work just as well? And are the mandated low levels because of the release into the atmosphere during spraying, or do you really need those lowest levels to protect the inhabitants? And who has the answers to those questions? I have asthma, dammit, and I need to know!

Now imagine that you want as many as three colors per room. And each color has to be compatible with the door color, the furniture, the rug, the countertops, the floor, and your daughter's nail polish. And imagine that it is impractical to see all of those elements at the same time in one place before you decide. Oh, and the natural light in any given room completely changes how your paint will look.

But my point, and I do have one, is that I wonder how this concept of being overwhelmed works in a context of negotiations. I can tell you from my own experience than once you have too many choices to make, you start getting flexible fast, just to survive.

So imagine that you have a meeting in which you want to convince someone to do something your way. One good strategy might be to weaken the other person's resolve by overwhelming him with less relevant choices before the important one is presented.

That's what car dealers do. By the time the consumer is done considering all of the many options for a potential car, he is already overwhelmed before negotiating price.

In summary, if you want your business nemesis to agree to one thing, make him consider ten things first. It will seem as if you are generously offering your nemesis control over many choices when in reality you are a manipulating bastard or bastardess.
 
 
 
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