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Suppose a genie appeared and offered to give you regular access to all the things you desire. Let's say that in your case it includes golfing, exotic traveling, eating ice cream, and having a great career. The genie's only catch is that he gets to control your schedule.

Your first reaction might be to take the deal, since all of the activities on the menu are better than the things you do now. And maybe having a genie do all of your scheduling would be convenient.

But if you're smart, you'll decline the offer. No matter how fun or fulfilling are the activities on your list, you can only enjoy them if you have control over WHEN and HOW LONG you do each one. On day one of the genie's deal, you might find that he has allocated nine hours for eating ice cream, and twelve minutes for golf. And your tee time is midnight, after you work twelve hours.

I'm exaggerating the genie's cruelty, but in general it's true that doing the thing you want at the time when you are most in the mood for it makes a gigantic difference in your overall happiness. If you eat when you're hungry, nap when you're sleepy, and work when you're feeling productive, life can be pretty great.

So let's test this concept. Tell me in the comments how much flexibility you have over your own schedule then rate your own happiness. Use a scale of 1-10, as in:

Schedule Flexibility: 8

Happiness: 7

 

 
Yesterday I blogged that beauty is nothing more than our recognition of functions that are related to current or past survival. Many of you chimed in with counterexamples and arguments. I will address them here.

Q. Music is beautiful. Where's the survival benefit there? 

 A. Even the most famous musicians are generally only enjoyed by 10% of the population. Someone mentioned Miles Davis. I can't stand listening to him. But every person reading this blog would agree that a lush forest is beautiful. So while music in general is universally enjoyed, any given song does not register as beautiful to the public at large. 

Q. What about art?

A. We speak of "appreciating" art, and I think that's a good word. Most art wouldn't be described as beautiful. The Mona Lisa, for example, is skillfully done, but the subject is homely. If other people hadn't told you it was worth a fortune, you wouldn't hang it in your living room. And like music, there is no universal standard for beauty in art.

But there's still a correlation between art and survival impulses. It's probably no coincidence that so much art includes food, babies, and well-fed women during childbearing years.

Q. You can concoct an argument that ANYTHING has a survival benefit.

A. What's the survival benefit of a spider or a human turd? If you break down either of them for their color and form, you'd find the elements that would be considered beauty in some other context. But since spiders and turds have no survival benefit, they don't appear beautiful to the public at large.

Q. What about an ocean? Or a sunset?

A. The ocean is full of food. That one is easy. And if you are an early human living outdoors, sunset and sunrise are probably the best times for hunting and gathering. Midday is too hot. After dark, you're more prey than predator.

Q. Why does a Corvette or a Porsche look more beautiful than an Edsel?

A. Fast cars have more function than slow ones. Most of the beautiful ones are fast. You need speed to catch prey and avoid predators.

 
Researchers tell us that we find other humans beautiful when those hotties appear as if they could produce healthy offspring. In other words, our minds translate the perception of species survival utility into the perception of beauty. I wonder if survival utility is the ONLY thing we find beautiful about our world, but we don't realize it.

If you're a guy, you know the joy of walking through a hardware store and seeing all of the well-made tools. To me, a good power drill looks like art. It's literally beautiful. And of course tools have survival utility. So far, my hypothesis holds.

Little kids are drawn to playing with toy trucks and toy bulldozers. Kids wouldn't describe those toys as beautiful, but those items must be visually attractive in their own way. Obviously construction equipment represents tools that are highly useful, and help humans survive. Even toddlers realize it.

Speaking of toddlers, adults find babies to be attractive almost automatically, without regard to what the little creatures look like. Clearly the adult response to babies has survival utility.

There are plenty of areas open for interpretation under this hypothesis. For example, a parking lot is arguably more useful than a forest, depending on the context, but the forest registers as being more beautiful. Perhaps that is because we're not that far evolved from hunters and gatherers, for whom a forest means survival and a parking lot means no food.

In general, scenery that has a lot of variety in color and shapes looks more beautiful than something with less variety. That makes sense from a survival standpoint too, since eating a variety of foods is healthier than eating just one type. And it would be easier to hide in an environment with more variety. Variety seems highly correlated with basic survival.

I thought a lot about beauty as function during the design of our new house. At every step, it seemed as if we had to choose between function and some "standard" sense of beauty. In time, I came to see this as a false choice. The most functional choices register as beauty when you put them all together.

The best example of that idea, which I have mentioned before, is the formal living room. In a traditional home, the formal living room is somewhere near the front door, and it has no function but to look beautiful. To me this sort of room always looks hideous no matter how well the drapes match the furniture, because the space has no utility. In my view, beauty is a garage with some extra space on one end for a ping pong table. I might be stretching the "survival" concept to include recreation, but there's no point in surviving if you're going to be unhappy.

Another example of beauty as function is the layout of our ground floor. It has a circular flow, so you can head down the hallway, turn right twice, and end up where you started. You can never be cornered. The feeling you get in the space is one of beauty, but it probably stems from some sort of survival instinct. And you get that feeling  before the paint, baseboards, furniture, floors, or drapes are in place. The beauty seems to come directly from some primal sense of how the space flows. At least that's how it feels to me.

When you coordinate colors, for your outfit or your living space, you try to avoid introducing a color that doesn't match at least one other color that is already there. To do otherwise makes the outcome less beautiful. Here again, I think the survival instinct is informing our sense of beauty. As an early humanoid, I would think that any time a color appeared in your view that was inconsistent with the surroundings, that meant something was wrong, and perhaps dangerous.

That's my hypothesis: Beauty is nothing more than our recognition of functions that are related to current or past survival.

Okay, I'm sure other people have the same theory. But I'm the first one to write about it in The Dilbert Blog.
 
It's hard to be a teenager and get away with anything these days. Parents can determine from the phone bill who the teens have texted and when. Parents can even read the teen's text messages if the phone is left unattended. Parents can see e-mail messages, check what web sites have been visited, and stalk their kids via Facebook.

In some cases the parents can already track their kids via GPS devices in cars and phones. You know that trend will increase.

Yes, teens have countermeasures and workarounds. But that's a lot of effort, and it's hard to hide all the electronic clues of, for example, an unapproved association. Even if you hide all of your own electronic footprints, you could still pop up on someone else's Facebook page.

This got me thinking about privacy issues in general. Most people reflexively believe privacy is a good thing, and a lack of privacy is a bad thing. But what if privacy creates more problems than it solves?

Let's say you have a secret carnal desire for broccoli. In our current world, where privacy is still somewhat attainable, you hide your dirty little broccoli secret. If anyone were to find out, you'd be ostracized and mocked. So you carry your little secret around like a bag of shame, sneaking trips to the grocery store to get a fix.

Now imagine a world where no one has any privacy and your inappropriate desire for broccoli becomes common knowledge. Suddenly all the other broccoli lovers know you are one of them. You start hanging out together, sharing your broccoli stories. You make new friends. You are understood. It's a relief in many ways.

In a world with no privacy, no one will seem like a freak because so many people will appear to be one type of deviant or another. In that world, the biggest losers would be the people who have totally uninteresting flaws and passions. They would seem boring.

Like it or not, that world is probably coming.
 
Recently I was thinking about the typical pathway to democracy. It seems to me the usual pattern goes something like this:
  1. A dictator rules a bunch of uneducated idiots.
  2. The dictator realizes he needs smarter citizens to compete with other countries.
  3. The dictator educates his citizens.
  4. The educated citizens get rid of the dictator.
  5. Democracy flourishes.
In Afghanistan, the literacy rate is about 26% in cities, and 9% in outlying areas. Not surprisingly, the recent Afghan presidential election didn't work out so well. I have a feeling that version 2.0 won't be a spectacular success either.

What Afghanistan needs is a dictator who values education for his own benefit, thus setting the stage for his own demise and the emergence of democracy. The Taliban aren't the right kind of dictators because they eschew education.

But I wonder if education is the one area in which the Taliban might be willing to negotiate, assuming there are moderates among them, in return for power. Suppose we agree to withdraw our military, leaving some hardly-noticed bases that we use for hunting terrorists, in return for the Taliban allowing the U.N. to set up non-religious schools, funded by foreign assistance, with mandatory attendance, including girls. We could agree to keep any political or controversial stuff out of the curriculum.

The Taliban could still teach religious absurdities to their kids on their own time, the same way we do it in our own country. We wouldn't like what the Taliban teach their kids, especially the parts about killing infidels. But in the long run, the Afghan education system would produce a citizenry that demands democratic reform. It might take 200 years, but that's not bad for a country that is in the Stone Age.

The risk, of course, is that once we leave, the Taliban beheads everyone who thinks education is a good idea, and spends all of their drug profits to set up Bed and Breakfast places for Al-Qaeda. I will stipulate that the beheading scenario is likely. My only point is that Afghanistan needs a pro-education dictator more than it needs a president who steals elections. Maybe we shouldn't be trying to skip steps.

 
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.

 
 
 
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