Friday, June 27, 2008

The Russian Roulette Fallacy

You cannot judge the wisdom of a decision using information unavailable at the time the choice was made. Winning (surviving) a round of Russian Roulette doesn't mean you weren't a moron for playing.

I first thought of this after a trade show in Chicago. The boss ordered everyone to stay and help pack the booth. A bunch of us had earlier flights and were itching to get to the airport. We mutinied. On the cab ride I hoped for heavy traffic, so we could be "right". It would have been harder to condemn our rebellion if we'd gotten to the airport just in time, hustling to catch our flights. Versus hours sitting at the gate, that would have been shameful. But these inconveniences had no bearing on whether it was a wise choice to leave when we did. We had no reliable way to know the traffic or airport conditions before we became part of them.

Finding weapons of mass destruction had no bearing on whether invading Iraq was a good idea. A motivated government, unfettered by scruples, will always find clever ways to thwart scientifically rigorous, politically correct weapons inspectors. Getting away with it would have been global Russian Roulette. Five rounds with no bad result (spinning the chamber each time) are exactly as dumb as a sixth that backfires. Five nations evading weapons inspection for no good reason may appear quite similar to the one with a great big, nasty reason. There's no reliable way to know even today who else would be arming if Saddam were still in power.

On the other hand, one white-hat affable Texan is not a smart way to police the globe. It's only a matter of time before someone perfidious and creative gets the role and does some real damage. The important question is how can we earthlings invent a body we can trust with enough power to makeover a country's governance when that is a wise decision. We're going to have those — a person or group with that much power, and a time and place that needs that call — some way or another. The question that matters is how we will choose that decider and that enforcer.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

On News

All news tends to distort, and intimate news distorts perversely. Great storytellers are almost always liars.

(with apologies to Lord Acton, who said “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men...”)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Strictly Optional Customer Service

(From an ongoing discussion with a particularly shrewd customer, I've devised a new customer preference question, to keep pace with this modern, networked, customer-righteous age.)

How would you like your customer service?

  • Humorous
    • Irony
    • Camp
  • Stuffy
    • Use "Sir" or "Ma'am" every sentence
    • Use a lot of big vague words
    • Ask lots of questions
  • Obsequious
  • Obtuse
  • Chatty
  • Bored Indifferent
  • Bipolar
  • Tourette Syndrome
  • Abusive
      No profanity Mild profanity Sailor Blush
  • Baby Talk
  • Animal Noises
      Farm Tropical Rainforest Cartoon
  • Ebonics
      Northern Urban Southern Rural Faked by Suburban White Boys
  • Incomprehensible
      Native English Logorrhoea Heavily Accented English Unfamiliar Language Made-Up Language
  • Loving
      Motherly Avuncular Creepy
  • Sultry
      Female Male Gay Male Butch Dyke Indeterminate Gender
  • Sassy
      Flo from "Alice" Louie from "Taxi" Lucy The Slut from "Avenue Q"

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Bet

Always a surprise. Losing this bet with myself is a boon I understand little and appreciate less. Setting: a tough problem lingers and bleeds away my righteous flow. Frustrated, I eventually remember The Bet, always with great skepticism. I never feel confident I can solve a nagging issue taking a walk or a shower or a dump. So I bet myself I can't, and then lose.

A software bug, or a thing I gotta write, or a person I gotta deal with. I scoff. Keep grinding away. I'm such a pit-bull persistoid, letting go for extended distraction feels unwholesome. But it works often enough to require some practice and some twenty-cent shifts. I wonder whether it's better to play it out cynical or confident. I'm leery of jinxing either way, so my standard attitude is cautious ambivalence. Maybe that's optimal. I do think it helps to soak in the matter to the point of frustration first.

It keeps working. A lot. I'm sure I've blocked memory of failure, but I really can't remember not coming away with a solution. Am I being clear? I have a difficult problem. I do something else for a while, convinced I won't think of a solution during that time. Bet myself I won't. And then I nail the solution. Bet lost, I feel like a winner.

Lately I've been working on a new round of online ads. (I make cheatsheets for web designers, condensed collections of arcana to jog memory when composing in the languages of web sites. If you've ever tried to remember some obscure technical fact you once knew, that's what a cheatsheet helps with. And that's why the theme of "memory" is in all my (successful) ads.) I like showing off with double-entendres. For example in one ad I use "Be more than just a memory." Meaning 1: cheatsheets augment your rote memory. Meaning 2: surpass has-been status. Out of several dozen slogans I took the half dozen that performed best and added a third slogan in fine print, and tweaked its visual attention-getting powers. (I wish I could remember who first called that "chimp-attract" but I love the term. It belongs somewhere between wiktionary and urban dictionary.)

I had a nice set of new ads done and checked the stats one more time. I had somehow overlooked my raciest ad. Anti-Freudian-slip? The text version was rejected by Google out-of-hand, but I have so far gotten away with it inside a Flash animation. I didn't think it was performing well, but over time it proved to generate the most bang for the buck of all the ads. (Puns intended. You'll see.) Here was the two-slogan version:

1. Not what it used to be?
VisiBone cheatsheets (logo)
2. Viagra for your memory.

Now of course I wanted some solid product hawking, plus a trace of shameless attention-grabbing innuendo. But even more (here's where the high vanity kicks in) I wanted some kind of sublime message. Something noble and inspiring. Tall order, eh. (Get it?)

I have this lofty, snooty theory: The only real commerce is turning one's own ideas into something useful for many. It is the connection so forged, however tenuous, with those many. All else is fake or practice. If you hate your job I look at you as a pimply teenager in the dark with smut. Ok, you might learn something that'll please your true love someday, but mostly you're wasting your time. Even worse is when you confuse pathetic habits with being pathetic, as in doing a half-assed job for people you can only half stand. So I care about my customers for three big reasons. They sustain my avoidance of a real job. They slake my ego with fan mail. And most of all for this discussion they keep me smug on my high horse point about forging ideas into usables.

So I care about people using what I make because I'm vainglorious, in a tastefully understated way. (Don't you think?) I wanted the third slogan to shout out to all my hardworking customers, something to encourage and inspire and light their rockets. Whenever I try to write along these lines the first attempts feel corny or patronizing. Yuck. I was stuck on this one ad for days. The others flowed, but this one stalled and galled. Until I remembered The Bet: I bet myself I could not think of a good third slogan while taking a shower.

Once in a while I get an idea that makes sense and works. Like all the most precious quests, the best aim is indirect. All comedy deserves at least a little credit for the risk of appearing stupid, as this may seem to me in a few days, or to you right now. But the shower epiphany felt pretty good. (No, that one was not innuendo.)

Here's the three-slogan version:

1. Not what it used to be? VisiBone cheatsheets (logo) 2. Viagra for your memory. 3. Make room to remember your finest hour. Cause it's coming.

(GIF) (SWF animation)

The last line used to start with "Make it bigger." I hated taking that out, but it really was over the top. Not just dangerous for Google-censure, but so much worse, dangerous for prospect-censure as stoopid. (But you do see the pun I left in there, right?)

So here's my theory why The Bet works, that is, why I keep losing it: Distracting my overbearing left brain (verbal, persistent, obtuse) allows my timid right brain (visual, intuitive, flakey) to wander free and work her magic. No matter how long I keep her chained in her tiny cage, she still flies and she still smiles on me from time to time.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Funny how mindless (e.g. conformity) means you don't think, thoughtful (e.g. gift) means you care, careless (e.g. email attachment) means you need to resend, and resentful means you very much do mind.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Why there are no good pick-up lines

There are no good pick-up lines. There are just good people you got to know suddenly. You only call them "pick-up" lines when they don't. Just like you only call it advertising when it's poorly targeted. When 100% targeted you call it stuff I need.

When you call it anger it's useless and needs to stop. Otherwise it's called an emergency, or an emergent cause célèbre.

You don't call whining and complaining what you know how to satisfy with worthy effort.

You call it planning when you don't know what to do.

You only call it stress when you're disappointed in yourself.

"Confusion is the beginning of all things but not their end." —Gibran
You put on a to-do list what you want permission to put off.

You call it work after obligation has outpaced opportunity. While conniving and obsessing and goofing off, you leave it for other people to make up words for whatever the heck it is they think you're doing.

You only name a struggle what you're preparing excuses to lose.

You don't call alive what's finished. Life is a mess. You only call gross what is or once was living. (So you should only clean up your space on those days in which you're absolutely sure you're alive. Thus closes the loophole for slobs.)

Intimacy is a memory, or an observation, or a wish, for a wordless, timeless non-place. A faraway dream of nearness.

There's only sorrow and regret for what's almost hopeless. The NTSB never cites gravity.

You call future what you hope holds your finest now. You call past what you hope doesn't.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fast,True, Easy — Pick Two

All questions include an implicit contract. If the contract were explicit, the questioner would choose what kind of answer they wanted:
  1. brief
  2. complete
  3. comprehensible
Pick two.

For example the question "How are you?" may be answered:

  • brief, comprehensible: "Fine."
  • brief, complete: (some obscure, technical, psychological term that may not have been invented yet)
  • complete, comprehensible: (what happened so far today, and the day before, a dozen or so of your recent thoughts, your life history, your most annoying habits, your best powers concealed as charming traits, your heart rate, blood sugar and bank balances)
Define yourself by what you choose. You'll be defined by what you forgo.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Courtesy Terrorism

I don't feel ready to present this concept well, but I've thought about it for years and need to get something down, something started. This story of garbage etiquette inspired me. The idea is: wise strategic acts to reform strangers. You may find this subject petty, and it is. It's about increasing the ambient respect in our world by minuscule bits.

Foremost, I must point out how rampant courtesy really is. That was not a typo. Humans are phenomenally courteous creatures. Take just one example. Imagine a noisy tin box underground packed with any nonhuman mammal. Even if there were no violence, there'd be jostling galore. Now ride the subway in any major city (well maybe not Asian cities) and marvel at the many people who go in and out of them day after day and never even touch each other! But it goes way beyond that of course. Lines (queues) are so often respected that everyone notices when they're breached. It maybe be fashionable to decry the decay of courtesy, but any scientific look at the situation has got to acknowledge the refined rarefied heights of human manners. It's a whole another subject how courteous we really are, and how we got that way, but this is a tactical topic about making it even better, a tiny bit at a time.

Here's an example of bad Courtesy Terrorism. The driver behind you is tailgating. You tap the brakes just enough to flash the brake lights. When that doesn't work (and I don't confess yet to having ever done this) comes the tapping of the brakes enough to cause sudden slowdown, shocking the tailgater into backing off. Now this has a few qualities of good Courtesy Terrorism. It's a tiny dose of fear the perp will store in his lizard memory, at least making him more alert even if he doesn't tailgate less. But it is bad Courtesy Terrorism for one important reason: punishing the messenger. An accident is so costly in so many ways that the slightest increase in the risk of one has real negative value. Courtesy Terrorists should never suffer more than their victims. I believe this makes Courtesy Terrorism out of reach when motor vehicles are operating.

Now an example of good Courtesy Terrorism. In this case the motor vehicles were parked and idle. The setting, a bank drive-through in South Florida a few years ago. The lady in front of me parked in front of the teller window in her wide-ass buick, lobbed a smoking cigarette butt out her window and began filling out her deposit slip. Where do I start, right? Somehow I got the idea and the gumption in time to act. I got out, walked between her car and the bank, stood next to her open window and made a show of grinding out the butt with my shoe. Not too dramatic or threatening, but a kind of cartoonish exaggeration to my stamping and swiveling. She turned her blank WTF gaze my way. I smiled, wide and genuine (I was feeling good and smug) said nothing and walked back to my car.

This I suggest was a particularly clever Courtesy Terrorist Act. It had all the right ingredients. There was essentially zero incremental risk of injury or criminal or civil penalties to me or my victim. More important I think it may have actually done some lasting good. By invading her extended personal space in such an uncommon way I am sure she will remember it. The next hundred times she tosses her sot-weed stub out her car window she will be looking in the rear view mirror.