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I pay my bills online. The interface for the bill paying system is a tragedy, as you might expect from a bank. But it's not entirely accidental. Banks inconvenience their customers for a reason.

For example, I would like the option of automatically debiting my checking account every month to pay off my credit card balance just before it is due. The system could easily send me a courtesy e-mail warning me the transfer was about to happen, in case I changed my mind. And if I didn't have enough money in my checking account, it could warn me by e-mail and abort the transfer. This system would save me time and avoid late fees on my credit card.

You won't be seeing that feature anytime soon. Banks and credit card companies make a lot of money from late fees. They have a naked interest in keeping their service as inconvenient as possible. My bank doesn't even offer a check box option for paying the entire balance on my credit card. Instead I need to write down the balance from one screen, or try to memorize it, until the screen appears where I can enter that figure. In other words, they even make money from my typos. It's totally intentional. Bastards. That trap has worked on me several times.

If consumers mattered, your bank would offer one retail product. It would be part checking account and part credit card. And by that I mean your balance could either be above zero or below zero at any given point. When your balance is below zero, you pay interest to the bank. When it is above zero, the bank pays you interest. You'd have one plastic card that does what your ATM and your credit card does now.

If you needed more credit, you could secure your account with your home equity. That way you wouldn't have multiple types of credit with the same bank, where the bank hopes you misplace at least one of their bills so they get the late fee.

Banks might argue that they can't offer that sort of product for regulatory reasons. But I haven't seen a bank shy away from trying to influence regulators when it works for them.

Did I say bastards yet?

(P.S. I started my career at a bank. And that's where Dilbert was born.)
 
I can figure out how to do most things, no matter how complicated, if I put my mind to them. There's no shortage of challenges. There's my home computer, and my work computer, my cell phone, various entertainment electronics, a minivan bristling with options, kid toys, and so on. I spend half of my day figuring out why my technology isn't acting the way I think it should.

And then there is the complexity of general living, including my various business ventures, and lately the overwhelming complexity of building a house. My desk is normally a blizzard of paperwork ranging from taxes, to contracts, to payroll, and health insurance issues. It's all under control, mostly.

This brings me to my Bluetooth headset for my cell phone. I bought one that is allegedly a good brand. The interface involves pushing the body of the earpiece in just the right place, without the benefit of a visible button or one that you can feel with your finger. Where you press, and when you press, depends on the context. Is a call incoming, or are you making one, or hanging up, or turning it on, or what? And sometimes you are required to hold a button for a longer period of time to get a different result than you would get by briefly pressing it.

And so it sits on my nightstand, mocking me. The user manual has long been sacrificed to the random clutter of some junk drawer or other, never again to be seen. I have tried using the device a few times, but I find the interface impenetrable. Sure, I could hunt down the manual, and spend an afternoon memorizing the sequence of events, having people call me just to practice. But I don't memorize well. I can remember a new concept forever, but I don't remember my home phone number because I don't call it. This thing has been sanitized of all concepts. It wins.

Likewise, I have never been able to back up the data on my computer. Ever. In concept, it's pretty simple. You buy the backup media, fire up the backup software, set some options, and off it goes. Over the years I have tried perhaps 20 different backup media, and half a dozen backup software solutions. So far, none have worked. It's always a different reason. Sometimes my backup disk is empty but it acts as if it is full. Sometimes the software appears to be properly scheduled but just refuses to run. Sometimes it runs but only backs up a tiny file or two and then quits.

Again, I could figure out how to solve this backup issue. It is well within my capability. But instead I will just copy the most important of my files manually to another disk and call it good, as I have for the past 20 years. And I will simply not answer my phone if it rings while I am driving. I just don't have time to fix these problems.

You might have noticed that I publish entire links in this blog instead of embedding them in a highlighted word that you can click. That's because sometimes the software lets me do it the right way and sometimes not, for reasons I could figure out if I spent a day or two trying.

I worry that the list of things I don't have time to figure out is growing. Is there some sort of saturation point where I just say screw it and go live in the woods?

(P.S. I tried to review this post before publishing it but today the blogging software only shows me advertising instead of a preview. I could spend today figuring out why, or I could just publish without previewing it. Guess which one I did.)
 
Last week I predicted in this blog that the Iranian leadership would look into allegations of vote rigging, announce that problems had been found, and a new election would be held.

Wrong.

But interestingly, the Guardian Council announced that there were indeed irregularities in 50 of 170 districts, including cases where there were more votes than people. I will accept partial credit for that part of my prediction, and I think most people were surprised that the Iranian leadership admitted that much of a problem. That was very undictatorish. But the Guardian Council concluded that the problems weren't enough to change the result, so the election stands. That part of my prediction was wrong.

This makes me wonder how difficult it would be to do a survey of Iranian voters after the election and check it against the landslide results. Would the leadership allow such a survey in this climate, and would the results of the poll be reliable?

I'm no expert at checking for vote rigging, but I'm guessing the best you can do in a few days after an election is catch the most obvious stuff, such as noticing when there are more votes than residents. I think the Guardian Council is like any other bureaucracy and felt pressure to make a quick decision without the benefit of all the facts.

If a poll of people who actually voted comes up with a very different result than the actual election, that's hard to ignore. If the Iranian leadership allows such a survey, by some independent group such as the United Nations, then I think you have to believe the leadership thinks the result results are valid even if they are wrong.

If the Iranian leadership doesn't allow such a survey after the violence calms down, their credibility, or whatever is left of it, will be annihilated, and a reasonable observer has to assume there is a high likelihood they are also lying about building nuclear weapons. The stakes are high.

So I will go further out on a limb and predict that the Iranian leadership will allow an independent survey of Iranian voters. I'll bet most of the leadership wonders if the voting irregularities were worse than the 50 of 170 districts they know about.
 
It's obvious that the election in Iran was rigged. Yet Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei denies it was rigged and asks an interesting question: How could one rig 11 million votes?

You might also wonder WHY anyone would rig an election by such a large margin when it is so obvious that rigging it for a smaller victory would have been more clever.

I'm here to answer those questions.

But first, let's discuss what I call liar talk. It's a minor hobby of mine to detect lies by the way people choose their words. For example, liars often answer an accusation with a question, as in "What evidence do you have that I killed that drifter?" Innocent people might ask a question too, but it would be more along the lines of "What are you talking about?"

So when Khamenei asks, "How could one rig 11 million votes?" it sounds like a lie from a guy who knows exactly how he did it and hopes you don't. And it's possible that the huge margin of victory was a blunder. Perhaps a smaller victory was intended and some underlings overshot the mark. So a clever lie would involve asking how anyone could believe that a smart guy like the Supreme Leader could make such a mistake.

Allow me to describe how the election could be rigged by 11 million votes. It's a conspiracy theory and it goes like this. Imagine that Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, identifies the Iranian who is in charge of their election process. They send him a secret message from someone allegedly speaking for the Supreme Leader: "The Supreme Leader wants you to rig the election for a landslide. But in case anyone finds out, he must have plausible deniability. Don't speak to anyone about this. Just pass the word to each of your local vote counters. Don't disappoint the Supreme Leader."

This conspiracy theory fits all of the data. It's not hard to imagine Mossad getting a fake message to one guy who has the power to rig the election. And it's not hard to believe that one guy would do as he believed he was told and keep the secret. Likewise, his underlings would keep the secret for fear of serious consequences.

Israel has the greatest motive for keeping the crazy-sounding President in office, in case they feel the need to attack Iran. You can bomb a country whose President says your own country should be wiped from the face of the map, but it's politically problematic to bomb a country that has a new president who speaks in a less menacing way.

In conclusion, the vote was rigged, and it was either a huge blunder by the Supreme Leader's minions, or a clever plot by someone who has an interest in destabilizing Iran.

If you are trying to decide which theory is more likely, a good place to start is with the track record of the current Iranian administration. How often have they lied to their own people or to the world? If you give examples of those lies in the comments, include the evidence, not just your gut feeling.
 
This might be a shocker, but I'm a bit of a nerd. I get the same sort of visceral thrill from a cool new technology that a wine lover gets from a great wine, or an artist gets from seeing great art. This morning I saw some technology that literally made me shiver. I'm talking actual goose bumps.

A young company called Neurosky. (www.neurosky.com) is marketing a headset that reads your brainwaves. Understandably, toy and game companies are scrambling to make games that you can control just by the way you are thinking about things. The first toy out of the chute is a Jedi mind game in which you can cause a ping pong ball to rise just by concentrating. You might be thinking the same thing I am: Must...have...ping...pong...ball...mind...game...

But that's not the shivery part. Watch the Washington Post's Video about this technology. The link is on the Neurosky home page. It makes you feel as if you're seeing a glimpse of the future. You have to wonder how far this line of technology can go.

I don't know about you, but I rarely go a minute without wishing I could buy some sort of technology that would make it unnecessary for me to move my arms and legs. Imagine, instead of hunting all over your living room for the TV remote control, you could just sit on the couch visualizing it, and it would crawl out from its hiding place between the cushions and get on your lap. Then it would determine what mood you were in and find the TV show that best suits you. That might be a way off, but a man can dream.

Maybe you have a better idea for an application.
 
If someone told you that you had to give up one of your five senses, which one would you let go? My vote is smell.

Recently I lost my sense of smell thanks to, I assume, some allergy meds I've been snorting. I assume it's temporary. I never would have noticed I couldn't smell except my wife, Shelly, kept asking versions of the question "Do you smell that? It's awful!" But I never smelled that.

Over time I have come to realize that the ratio of stinky smells to delicious smells is very high. If the price for not smelling a flatulent cat five times a night is that I also don't get to smell pumpkin pie once a year, I'll take that deal.

I suppose there's a risk I won't smell a gas leak or something else that's about to kill me. Maybe someday I'll have a watch with a built-in sensor to detect that sort of thing. Until then I just hang with people who have functional noses and let them sort out the cat poop from the flaming sofa smells.

I think I also gave up something in the food tasting department thanks to my lack of a functional sniffer, but I'm okay with that too. I've dropped about eight pounds in the last two months because lately I'm not attracted to the taste of food, just its utility.

So this got me thinking that a good diet strategy is to numb your sense of smell, thus making food just a bit less attractive. I can say from experience that I don't miss all that deliciousness because I don't crave it. When I imagine eating a formerly delicious food, now I imagine it as an ordinary food and don't feel much desire for it.

I wonder if people who overeat have better sense of smell than other people. So I put it to you: Tell me your relative weight (thin, medium, or overweight) and whether you believe you have a good sense of smell or not. Let's see if there is an unscientific correlation.

 
For years I've belonged to a big health club that has rows of exercise contraptions. I use them regularly, and while I do, I wonder how you could make that sort of mindless exercise more interesting.

One idea is to have some sort of RFID device on your gym ID card, and keep it with you when you work out. Each exercise machine would automatically recognize your presence and access your history. You could do a lot of interesting things with that technology, but the idea that interests me most is a graph of how many pounds you are moving per week, using any subset of the machines. The idea here is that it wouldn't matter what muscles you were working so long as you moved more weight this week than last. And you could watch your tally increase with each repetition.

My theory is that although this somewhat random approach to weight training wouldn't have targeted results, it would bias you toward working your largest muscles, which is a good thing. And it might encourage you to use lots of different machines instead of just your favorites, especially after your favorite exercises fatigue specific muscles.

My other exercise idea is to make video game controllers that weigh five pounds apiece, shaped like small dumbbells, and create games where you steer the action using two controllers, one in each hand. For example, imagine aiming a big gun in a video game, or pumping your arms to make your character run, or leaning your digital motorcycle or skier to make him turn. All the game action would require moving your hand weights. An hour of that per day would make you look ripped, at least from the waist up. And it might be more fun than pushing buttons.

I think it's great that you can listen to your iPod while exercising, but weight training is still mostly a technology of the 1800s. It's time for some updating.
 
I was looking for information on how much energy my different appliances use, on average, and came across a great bar graph. Unfortunately I can't find it again. It showed a huge bar for heating that was about as large as all the other appliances put together. Obviously the graph was for a typical home where you have serious winters. I already knew that heating and cooling were the major culprits in energy use, but seeing it on the graph gave it context and perspective that I will always remember.

The other night on Bill Maher's show he held up a pie chart showing the percentage of U.S. corporations now controlled by the government. It was a tiny slice, more of a line than a wedge. Bill's point is that we're not on the verge of becoming socialists. That was an interesting graphic and very powerful for his argument.

I'd love to see a newspaper or web site that is nothing but graphs putting the issues of the day in context. For ever major issue, there's generally one chart that captures the essence of the argument. I think charts would help put everyone on the same page whereas the continuous blah, blah, blah of talking heads makes you want to take sides.

Charts get a bad name. Everyone made fun of Ross Perot for whipping out charts to make his points, but that had more to do with Ross Perot than the charts. And people like to mock USA Today for their funny little graphs that oversimplify relatively unimportant topics. But I think there is room for serious charts on the important topics. And those charts should be republished often, even if they don't often change, so we don't lose sight of the context for daily events.

One of the most basic rules of management is that you need data on how you're doing now, and where you're heading. Everyone needs to be on the same page and trying to create the same change. What if the collective energy use for your block, or you small town, was on a chart comparing you to the energy use of the blocks or towns around you? I think it would automatically make you feel competitive about reducing your waste. It's human nature. Charts change behavior.

I'd like to see a "dashboard" display for how the entire country is doing. It would be one page with the graphs showing elements of our economy, crime rates, health coverage, energy use, SAT scores, and anything else we deemed important. I think it would help to get everyone on the same page.

Obviously there is a risk of oversimplification, so every chart needs to be backed up with text and with other charts that add more context. And in the market for news you would have plenty of room for competing charts that shine a different light on topics.
 
I'm fascinated by the Iranian election results. On the surface it appears that the vote was rigged by the guys in power. That's the way these things usually go. But this is a bit more interesting.

First, remember that in Iran the Supreme Leader, Khamenie, decides who gets to run for President. So in theory, whoever wins is okay with Khamenie, even if one candidate is somewhat preferred. That's not a situation where the Supreme Leader has a strong need to rig an election, especially given the risk that doing so would delegitimize the entire government, which is apparently what happened.

But what if President Ahmadinejad's supporters were behind the vote rigging, without the approval of the Supreme Leader? That theory makes sense. Ahmadinejad's supporters would have both the means and the motive.

I haven't yet heard the conspiracy theory that the United States and/or Israel were behind the election results. Both countries would have the motives to destabilize Iran by making the election appear rigged. And Israel would have a better justification for military action if Ahmadinejad remains in power. But I doubt either Israel or the U.S. has the means to rig an Iranian election.

The Supreme Leader has ordered his cronies to look into the allegations of election fraud. Most cynics would conclude that this is just a trick to appease the masses. The obvious play here would be to appear concerned about the feelings of the voters, pretend to look into it for several months then conclude that everything was just fine. By then the outrage will have subsided and people will have acclimated to their unsatisfying situation.

But I am going to make a prediction. I think the Supreme Leader will report to his people in a few weeks that the election was rigged by supporters of Ahmadinejad, without the President's knowledge. And the election will be held again. And I predict you will also hear allegations of meddling by outside powers, meaning the U.S. and Israel, but those suspicions will not be supported by evidence.
 
Here's a funny video you might enjoy, from the creator of Pearls Before Swine, Stephan Pastis. He's raising the bar on what cartoonists need to do to promote their books.

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