I'm fascinated by the debate over fixing/expanding the healthcare system in the United States. The issue is so complex that people understandably fall back on basic philosophies of the free market system to reach an opinion. For example, if you think the government tends to screw up everything it touches, and the free market does a good job, you might come down on the side of less government involvement in the healthcare system. But that view ignores the confusopoly effect.

A confusopoly - a term I concocted several years ago - is any industry that intentionally makes its products and services too complicated for comparison shopping. The best examples of confusopolies are cell phone carriers and insurance companies. And health insurance companies might be the most confusing confusopoly of all. I suspect that no individual has the knowledge, time, and information necessary to effectively compare two health insurance plans. And in that environment the free market doesn't operate efficiently.

Some people support the so-called Public Option for healthcare, where the government would offer health care in competition with the free market. The idea is that private companies would eventually lower prices to compete with the government's low cost option. That sounds good on paper, but the reality is that the private industry folks would use the uncertainty of the confusopoly to convince people that the government option would somehow end up killing its subscribers, e.g. "Sure, it looks inexpensive until your kidney starts hurting."

I think a better role for government would be shining a light on the existing private healthcare plans in a way that would help consumers choose the most economical option. The government did this successfully with the bank loan industry when it required all loans to have an APR, which is a single number that allows consumers to compare one loan to another. Healthcare can't be boiled down to a single number, but I suspect you could come up with a report card and some sort of average cost per subscriber. That way, consumers could shop wisely, and the free market might work the way it is meant to work.

Here's a concrete example. I have a health care plan that allows me to e-mail my doctor through the plan's website, and I usually get an answer in an hour or two. For 90% of the minor issues that would otherwise require a visit to the doctor, my doctor handles them in about half a minute by e-mail, including sending an electronic prescription to the pharmacy if needed. It is a HUGE time saver for me, and a big money saver for them, which I hope gets translated into keeping my premiums low. So here's my question to you: Which health care insurance do I use?

If you know the answer from something I wrote in the past, don't give it away in the comments. The point is that you can Google all day long and never find a way to compare health insurance plans on price or features. That's a problem that I think the government could fix.

Sep 18, 2009 | General Nonsense | Permalink
As regular readers know, I wonder if the economy is being manipulated by a small group of people who make vast fortunes by investing ahead of the swings. And if there isn't any major manipulation happening, the economy certainly acts that way.

You might have noticed that there are times, such as now, when the stock market is marching straight up and there is a suspicious lack of bad news. Oh, don't get me wrong - there is plenty of bad news out there if the media wants to focus on it. But for some reason (conspiracy) there is more emphasis on the good. That means something big and bad is in the pipeline to create the next unnecessary panic. The conspirators are tamping down on the smaller bad news stories to get the biggest bang out of the panic they intend to create. That's what my spider sense is telling me is happening now.

Perhaps the Dow will continue to 10,000, but the next big shock will be in the downward direction. I predict stories about some sort of financial crisis that you never even heard of, before the end of the year. And I predict it will drive the market down 20%.

And then Special Forces will find and kill Bin Laden, driving the market back up to new highs. You and I will find ways to lose money during these swings, by panicking and selling at the wrong times. The manipulators will double their money.

Disclaimer: Don't take investment advice from cartoonists, especially if it includes a reference to spider senses.

Sep 17, 2009 | General Nonsense | Permalink
In the old days you married whoever was nearby and willing. Today you have a greater chance of marrying someone who shares common traits. I wonder how this selective breeding will shape humans of the future.

We're already seeing this to some degree. Athletes often have parents who are both athletes. And geniuses generally have two parents that were inclined in that direction. IQ and athleticism are two obvious categories, but I wonder what other, less heralded traits will get exaggerated in the generations to come.

For example, religious people will continue mating with religious people, and atheists will seek out other atheists. By default, that leaves the agnostics to mate with each other. Will this group create babies who have an unusually hard time making decisions? Or on the positive side, will that group be unusually open-minded?

People who enjoy wine tasting are finding each other, and often mating, in numbers that never would have happened a hundred years ago. I assume this group has a more refined sense of taste and smell than the average person. Will they create babies with super senses?

I started thinking about this after reading an article about one researcher's hypothesis about the increase in autism rates. I stress that I don't think his hypothesis will pan out, but his line of thinking is fascinating. He noted that children of engineers are somewhat more likely to be autistic, and then observed that because there are more women in high tech jobs, you have more kids spawned from techie couples. Again, I don't think this link to autism will hold up to testing, but the line of thinking is interesting.

What other traits do you think will become exaggerated in the future?

I had planned to read the reports of inappropriate witticisms that many of you submitted yesterday and put the best one in today's post. It turns out that there is a problem with that plan: I really don't want anyone to know which one of those stories made me laugh hardest.

Somewhere in the darkest part of my mind there's a little dark room. And inside that room is a closet. And inside the closet is a little box, covered with a wool blanket. That's the place I plan to keep some of your stories, so I can laugh about them later without anyone knowing what a sick bastard I am.

The second problem is that picking a winner would be impossible. There are so many side-splitters in the group that I declare you all winners in your own way.

I have a theory that people who enjoy the darkest forms of humor don't subscribe to superstition, or to conformity unless it has a purpose. That probably describes Dilbert Blog readers pretty well.

When I was in my mid-twenties I attended a singles mixer in San Francisco, held outdoors on a pier. It was a frightening place for a shy person. One very Dilbert-looking fellow (literally), in a brown leisure suit, went straight to the outdoor bar and started ordering stiff drinks. I watched in awe as he chugged one after another, trying to find some social courage. Unfortunately he reached the blackout point before he reached the witty and charming sweet spot. I happened to be looking in his direction when he started to topple, like a diseased redwood tree. He was probably unconscious before he hit the pavement because he never used his hands to break the fall. It was a full-on face plant in cement. I didn't see him move again, even after the emergency crews arrived, although I assume he recovered.

Anyway, as the emergency crews worked on him, right in front of the outdoor bar, while the assembled crowd watched in horror, I walked up to the bar and said in an overloud voice, "I'll have what he had."

This witticism did not go over as well as I hoped. The bartender went into full legal defense mode, explaining that the fallen gentleman must have had many drinks before he even showed up. And none of the single women came up to me later and said anything like "That was very witty. I must have you." It was one of my more inappropriate moments.

Tell us your most inappropriate witticism. What's the worst thing you ever said out loud?

Lately I have been looking at the moon and wondering if it will someday kill me. If I live another 50 years (which is entirely possible) I assume I will eventually be a robot, having shed my old skin and bones body and uploaded a scanned and digitized version of my brain to a machine. My fellow robots and I will live among the meat people for eons until the moon's orbit degrades, either gradually or because a meteor gives it a nudge, and Earth is annihilated in the collision. You might say I worry too much. But I've successfully avoided death so far, so I say I worry just enough.

Because of this impending moon problem I have been planning an exit strategy. By the time the moon starts heading our way I imagine we'll have the technology to send me into space in an escape rocket, searching for a habitable planet. I could power down my robot brain so the trip isn't so boring.

But even if this plan works it will be lonely when I find my new planet. And then there is the issue of the 400 billion meat people and fellow robots I leave behind, including my hot robot wife, Shelly, and the rest of my robot family. I want a solution for them too. Sure, I could reprogram my brain to not care, but that's not how I roll.

Unfortunately, I assume there would be no practical way to build and launch enough rockets for everyone to escape, at least not in time. So sending the entire population of Earth to the new planet isn't going to work.

We need a better plan than that, and it goes like this: Once we have the technology, we begin scanning and digitizing everyone's brain routinely, perhaps once a year during regular physicals. By then I'm sure we'll have universal planetary healthcare. Remember, this is the far, far future.

Once the moon starts coming our way, we launch some of the robot people, including me, as scouts for the new planet. Each of us will carry a huge flash drive filled with all the scanned brains of the meat people and robots that will be left behind. We will also bring enough technology to build more robots on New Earth.

I suppose we'd also want to freeze a few regular humans and take them along in the cargo bin so we can begin breeding them on New Earth, just for old time's sake. Obviously the meat people would be regarded as old technology, and a huge pain in the ass, always complaining about sinus problems and toothaches and whatnot, but we could turn off our robot ears when we visit them in the zoo on New Earth.

I look forward to my new robot planet. You might think that being a robot would be less fun than being human, but I think fun is exactly the sort of subroutine we'd design into the robot system. Or maybe we could just buy it at the iTunes app store.

Perhaps you think you would miss being human, but that's a subroutine we'd leave out of the robot mind. You would be designed for happiness. And I'm not talking about ordinary happiness. I'm talking about the kind that makes you scream and curl your robot toes. It will be a happy robot planet.

Another possible future is that we are so invested in our humanity, with all of its flaws, that we design our future robotic containers to perceive ourselves and other robots as flesh and blood humans. In other words, there's a good chance this plan already happened and you're a robot living on New Earth. You're only programmed to believe you are human.

Yeah, you knew I was going there.
In my recent post about bad personality traits, reader Littlepo mentioned The Contradictor. That's the person who disagrees with everything you say, no matter what you say. I used to find that trait maddening until I took a hypnosis class. My hypnosis teacher taught us how to control that type of personality like a puppet. I couldn't believe how effective it was until I saw it in action.

At the time, I was working for the phone company, and a big part of my job was figuring out which new features we should add to our services. This process had one gatekeeper individual who was in charge of deciding where the technical resources would be allocated. His response to all requests was invariably "That can't be done." It didn't matter what the question was. The answer was always no. In time, I realized he was simply a Contradictor. If I said the sky is blue, he'd say color is just an interpretation that happens inside your head. He was genetically incapable of agreeing with anything.

And that was his weakness.

After my tenth unsuccessful encounter with the Contradictor, I started phrasing my requests for his help as statements of impossibility. For example, if I wanted him to implement feature X, I might say, "The market research says people want X, but obviously that would be too expensive to implement, if not completely impossible. So just give me the official ‘no' and I can close the loop on this awful, awful, AWFUL idea."

At this point the Contradictor's need to prove me wrong would spring into overdrive. And feature X would become a reality. Since then I have used the method a number of times to great effect.

The trick is to make sure you don't overdo it. Keep The Contradictor primed by feeding him a steady stream of unimportant topics to disagree with. That makes it easier to get the result you want on the important ones.

You'll be amazed at how well this works.
Sep 9, 2009 | General Nonsense | Permalink

Nature is God's way of killing you.

Your ideas for cubicle toys made me think it would be very cool to have a Dilbert Cubicle Buddy with open standards so you could customize it to a variety of functions.

Imagine a hard plastic Dilbert doll sitting next to your computer, attached by USB. Perhaps it is in wireless contact with a motion sensor outside the cubicle. As someone approaches, Dilbert's eyes light up to warn you.

Maybe you have an RFID device on your keychain, and as you approach your computer the Dilbert Cubicle Buddy detects it and enters your password to unlock your computer. When you go out of range, it locks everything up.

The Dilbert Cubicle Buddy could have a speaker, so it plays music, assuming you have another one for stereo. But you'd only need one for playing voice mail or for general alerts. For example, if someone enters your cubicle when you aren't there, the Dilbert Cubicle Buddy could deliver a recorded message of your whereabouts.

A hidden camera inside the Dilbert Cubicle Buddy could provide security video.

The Dilbert Cubicle Buddy could include a hard drive to back up your system.

It could warn you of incoming e-mail or phone calls before the normal alerts, and wave or just say "Phone call coming."

It could give you random compliments and kudos.

If you twist Dilbert's head backwards, there could be a webcam on the back.

It could have a pico projector for your smaller Powerpoint demonstrations.

It could have a flashlight on top of his head, with bendable arms like a spider, so you can stage the light where you need it.

It could be a USB hub, with jacks on the back.

A Wally version could be a big rechargeable battery for stealing electricity from work.

It could be an iPhone charging dock.

Basically, the Dilbert Cubicle Buddy would be a limited robot that would accept add-ons and apps. It could do anything you programmed it to do.

Obviously you'd need to be able to bolt it to your desk or to your monitor so it isn't stolen.
Our usual method for determining what sorts of Dilbert products the public might want involves a process I like to call guessing. This is tricky because the people who are drawn to careers in, for example, the T-shirt arts, don't have a lot in common with the typical Dilbert reader who is, generally speaking, good at math.

Lately we've been wondering what type of Dilbert-themed toy, gadget, or decorative item you'd want for your cubicle, or as a gift for someone who is toiling in one. So I'm asking for your opinions.


Okay, I'm back now.

I would think the perfect Dilbert feature for a cubicle would be more than just funny or whimsical. It should be practical and even solve some sort of problem. That's my take on who Dilbert readers are. In a word, you are optimizers. No matter what the situation, you tend to ask yourself "What's a more clever way to do that?"

A typical cubicle has crap all over the desktop, the whiteboard is full, if you have one, and any drawers and storage are crammed. But you might have a few feet of fabric-covered wall space to play with. So imagine a chess set featuring the Dilbert characters as various pieces, but they are push-pin design, so you can play on your cubicle wall. Or the pieces might be magnetic if you have a metal whiteboard. It's a cool concept until your weasel coworkers steal your knights, which are Dogberts, by the way.

I also fantasize about motion detectors disguised as Dilbert characters, placed outside your cubicle like a sentinel, that sends a wireless signal to your computer to hot-key out of your game as someone approaches.

Or how about a Dogbert doll for your desk that looks innocent, but actually has a switch on the bottom that sends a Bluetooth signal to your computer, then uses Skype to activate a robocall to your phone? That way when visitors overstay their welcome, you pretend to fondle your Dogbert doll and suddenly your phone rings.

Realistically, our licensees would probably make products that are simpler than what I just described. Imagine a Dilbert-shaped USB drive, or a Dogbert Unwelcome mat. Do you have a better suggestion?
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