Archive for the ‘Twenty-First Century Life’ Category

Red Squiggle Dependency   Leave a comment

Red Squiggle Dependency
Don’t want to read my handwriting? See the Microsoft Word version.

One Hundred Megabytes of Data   5 comments

Our summer vacation was my first trip outside of the United States since 2003. While cell phones were common, they could do little more than make a phone call. In the intervening ten years, SmartPhones have become ubiquitous. While I’m constantly pulling out my iPhone, I can go days without actually talking to someone on it. Every time we’ve traveled, it served as our map, guide book, restaraunt guide, travel agent, camera, and occasional pacifier. It’s hard to imagine going on the road without it.

During our trip, we were forced to.

Most carriers’ plans will work in the US, but not, by default, outside of the country (likewise, a Canadian plan won’t work, by default, in the US). As it was a driving trip, I wanted to at least have phone service for emergencies, as well as for the odd work call. I also wanted data for all the reasons already mentioned. WiFi is pretty common, especially in hotels, so we could use our phone in a lot of places. To cover us outside of that zone, I set up our “overseas data plan” to give each of our phones 100 MB of data–a fraction of our usual data plan. In an average week, we each use 200 MB. On one hand, that includes work e-mail and other things we could shut off. On the other hand, we were in unfamiliar territory.

Conservation became the watchword. First and foremost, I held off my social media participation. My wife figured out how to cache map directions when we had WiFi, to reduce our data dependence. Guidebooks from AAA found a place in the car. In short: for a week, we had to revert to a pre-iPhone state. Could we do it?

We could. For the first day or two, while standing in line, I would pull out my phone and refresh twitter, only to be reminded that data was turned off. Eventually, I found other ways to occupy dead spaces–cleaning my camera lenses, talking to my wife, or just looking around. As noted, we had to plan a bit more carefully. We relearned a few truths. We grabbed any map we could, to help navigate absent clear directions. We were reminded that guidebooks are far from comprehensive in their listing of food offerings. When it came to hours and prices of activities, they are only as up-to-date as when they are printed.

I could certainly tell when we had the data on. Without the data, we were more likely to wander aimlessly looking for just the right restaurant. With data on the phone, we had plenty of options, and could navigate there confidently. We knew what direction we were heading, and waht was around every corner. When driving from Montreal to Toronto, it was a nice failsafe for finding a hotel. We went from mere mortals to omniscient superbeings.

Does this mean we’re too dependent on data? I’m not sure that’s an accurate characterization. The limitations on guidebooks and maps is inherent to the medium. Maps only work if you have them with you. With a bit more effort, we could have survived without mobile internet, but I think we would not have been as smart about where we were, and would have missed out on opportunities for some great things. The limited data, however, helped balanced some of my worst habits around checking twitter (or, worse, work e-mail). By the end of the week, pulling out my phone idlely was dramatically reduced.

We don’t have any trips scheduled in the near future, much less internationally. But the next time we do, making sure we have some level of international support for our SmartPhones will be on the packing list next to “dig out our passports.”

Business Phrases I Hate   1 comment

In spite of how I would prefer to imagine myself, professionally, I am a corporate guy. I try to have a perspective (it’s just a job), but ultimately, I work in “business,” and sit in on meetings with other corporate types.

Like any culture, corporate America has its own language–a series of phrases, axioms, and allusions that are understood. Some are unique to a given company or industry, others are more broadly understood. I confess that I have been known to engage in some corporate speak, but there are a few phrases that should be expunged from our vocabulary.

  • Open the Kimono This is a term generally meant to suggest full disclosure or access. If two companies are partnering, one may “open their kimono” to show their processes, financials, etc.

    While both men and women wear kimonos in Japan, there is something sexist and creepy to my ear about the phrase–revealing one’s naked body. Not sure this is appropriate for business contexts.

  • Drink the Kool-Aid In a business setting, I typically hear this to suggest how much one has bought into a set of ideas, corporate culture, etc. If someone is a proponent off a certain idea, or a real “company man,” they are said to have “drunk the Kool-Aid.” Trying to get skeptical individuals to support an idea is to “get them to drink the Kool-Aid.”

    The speaker, however, may not realize he’s proposing killing someone. This is an allusion to the Jonestown Massacre. Short description: in 1978, at the direction of cult leaders, 918 people died in a mass suicide: Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. In short, the analogy is that someone should have cult-like devotion to whatever the speaker is referring to, to the point of being willing to kill themselves. I don’t think there is anything in business that should merit that.

  • Pretend Time Off This is a play on “Paid Time Off” or “PTO.” PTO is what a lot of corporations do: instead of having so many days of paid vacation and so many sick days, you get a bank of PTO, which covers both–it’s the employee’s responsibility to manage. The advantage is that, if you don’t get sick, there is no shame in just using the time off. The joke, typically given by a senior executive, is that, while he was ostensibly taking a vacation, he was working.

    I have several problems with this. First, it is a less-than-healthy work/life balance. Ignoring what it is doing to the individual, it creates a culture where trying to have work/life balance is frowned upon. Further, I believe that any time spent working needs to be logged, charged, etc., even if the individual does not get paid overtime. This allows companies to understand how much it truly costs to deliver their service or product, and can scale their resources properly. The notion of Pretend Time Off is, in my mind, a sign of a dysfunctional company.

  • Night Job It may generally allude to duties outside of your core responsibilities. If it’s a spot situation (a couple of weeks) or accounted for in resource planning (either ensuring there is adequate coverage to allow the “day job” to be done, having a “night job” take place in a lull, or accepting that some activities just won’t get done), it’s understandable.

    However, I’ve frequently heard people use the term “Night Job” to refer to an ongoing assignment that, because of one’s core responsibilities, require significant off-hour work to get it done. This is anything but work/life balance. Further, if there is no charging for the time, the true cost of a service not being captured.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to either find better phrases to convey the same idea, or, better still, decide if it is an idea that should be conveyed. Corporations are made up of people. The language we use is a key indicator of how we treat them.

Posted 2013-06-24 by Mr. Guilt in rant, Twenty-First Century Life, work

Watches, SmartPhones and Dead time   1 comment

I’ve been trying to me more conscious of how I handle dead spaces–time spent waiting on someone to make something happen. Do I wait patiently? Fidget? Pull out my phone?

It is the last possibility that I’ve become most aware of. It seems to creep in. Reading e-mail on the bus or sending tweets from a waiting room are innocent enough. Perhaps even while waiting for my family to get ready to leave the house. These are dead spaces that might otherwise be spent leafing through a magazine, or pacing impatiently.

But, the phone has a funny way of creeping into more and more dead spaces. It’s very compelling to enter its world, and all to easy. It sits there in my pant pocket, ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. It will be slid back in just as readily. I became bad about pulling it out in dead spaces that started to creep into being rude.

It dawned on my what one of my triggers is, and how to mitigate it. I wear my father’s watch during the week, both for its stated purpose, as well as to remember him. I tend to take it off when sitting at my desk, as it gets in the way of typing. On weekends, however, I tend not to wear it. Like many people, I figure that there is a clock on my magical SmartPhone, so why have the extra thing.

But that’s a slippery slope, especially with a little dead time. That intersection happened this weekend, during the eye exam. One of the assistants was doing some of the pre-work with me. She had to spend a bit of time tweaking the machines, entering my information, and similar things. During these times, I had the urge to pull out my phone and play. I resisted.

Then I wanted to know what time it is.

With the dead space, I knew that, once I saw what time it was, it would be real easy to check Twitter. Then buzz my e-mail. Win, lose, or draw, there was no subtle way to do any of that. I kept my phone in my pocket, and politely waited.

My lesson out of all of this is to wear a watch more frequently. Glancing at the time becomes a quick flick of the wrist rather than pulling out a gadget. It can be done much more subtly, and I know that I’ve removed a temptation. While I rely tremendously on my phone for all sorts of things, I need to make sure I’m balancing its utility with paying attention to the world around me.

Posted 2013-02-04 by Mr. Guilt in rant, Twenty-First Century Life

On Distraction-Free Writing   3 comments

John Holland in JournalI admit I’m late to the party on the “distraction free writing” trend. These are basically simplified text editors, designed to work full screen in a windowed environment. Some are designed to limit how much you can shift tasks, or have system messages come across. The idea is to limit the temptation to check e-mail, peek at Facebook, or any of the other distractions inherent to working on a computer.

The thing is, it seemed silly to me. If your job is writing the type of thing that would be the market for this (blog posts and creative writing, rather than more incidental e-mail and policy type that I do), no one is forcing you to have e-mail or Twitter open. Ostensibly, it keeps you from having to deal with system distractions, but once you shut down the obvious culprits, how many system messages do you get? Do you really want to ignore a “low battery” warning?

To me, it seems like a pretentious hipster “we’re too cool for ‘mainstream’ tools” attitude on one hand. On the other, reading about it seemed less about getting the task done, but a sort of meta-procrasitnation–spending time not facing the blank page by picking the right tool or workflow. Other folks, such as Merlin Mann, did perfectly good parodies of the form.

In the interest of fairness, I downloaded one, FocusWriter, and took it for a spin. The feeling was very reminiscent of running a text-based word processor on an old DOS system. The effect could be replicated by opening a terminal window and writing in EMACS. Yet I could still command-tab to my browser when I really had to know what the temperature was. To really have a distraction free computer, you should dual-boot it to DOS and dust off those WordPerfect 5.1 floppies.

Even forcing myself to work just in this window, there were a million and one other distractions. My daughter was working on a homework assignment, and needed help (first just getting over the fear of the blank page, then staying on track). I had a cat jumping on to my desk (thanks, Beso). This is without any of the other multi-tasking things that occur when I’m trying to write at home, such as making supper, or planning more pressing things with my wife.

In fairness, my distraction level was relatively lower when using this. This is less because the tool in and of itself did a better job keeping me on task. Rather, it created an environment of greater awareness. When I wanted to make that check of the weather, it was a concious choice. At the risk of sounding like I made up my mind before using the tool, however, I don’t think there was value in it. My ability to distract myself was too great.

For me.

I mentioned that I was late to the party on the “distraction free writing” trend. I noticed one day I was using a toolset that produced a lot of output with many fewer distractions than I typically faced. In short, I had pulled out a notebook and pen, and was handwriting some thoughts. I had the house to myself, and, before I realized it, an hour or so went by. The writing became a draft of some other writings. In a weird way, I got it: you have to find a toolset that works for you. It could be that you are OK with Word, while Outlook beeps at you. You may need a specialty word processor. Or, you might have to find some other toolset that lets you write in the most productive fashion, even if you have to move it later. The key is to recognize when you are finding the tool to be productive, rather than searching for just the right tool to avoid a blank page.

Improving E-Mail   Leave a comment

My frustration with e-mail is well documented. It’s a great way to quickly convey information, but people just aren’t great about how they use it. The challenge many have is that, at work, they get literally hundreds of e-mails a day, only a fraction of which are actionable. I’ve gone on a improve-my-email binge the last few months. A few things I’ve done:

Only Include People Who Have Actionable Tasks I try to limit the size of a distribution where possible. If a recipient does not have an actionable task in an e-mail, I don’t put them in. There are cases where I know someone needs to have something for informational purposes. I use the CC line for this–sparingly.

The SmartPhone Screen Rule E-Mail is increasingly consumed on devices other than computers. This, in turn, has driven people’s behaviors. One suggestion that was made to me in this vein is the “SmartPhone Screen Rule.” When mailing someone at the top of the org chart, assume they may only read one or two SmartPhone screens worth of information. So, in the first five or six sentences, I try to explain what I need and why. I may put further detail after this, but the first paragraph should capture the key action required. I think of it like an executive summary on steroids. This has had the beneficial effect of forcing me to focus my writing.

Avoid Attachments Where Possible This is another case where the use of SmartPhones drives behavior. While sometimes, due to the size of the document or the nature of the file, it’s not possible, I try to not put an attachment. Instead, I’ll paste in the relevant excerpt. This makes it simpler to read. Even if I’m on my laptop, I’d prefer not to have to pick through a document.

Avoid Forwarding Threads Often, someone will forward me a thread, with a request at the top of it. I’ll reply back, asking for key information to execute the task. The response is “it’s in the thread.” Rather than make someone pick through several iterations of back-and-forth, I’ll format the information in either a new e-mail, or, if I think the context may be useful, at the top of whatever I forward. In addition to not forcing the recipient to pick through all the details, I know my intent is captured.

Optimize the Subject Line As the day goes on and I get busier, the subject line is what I look to to tell me if it is worth opening an e-mail at that time (or at all). It is important that this one line captures the content of the e-mail.

Ensure the Subject Line is Distinctly Meaningful I manage a data center. An e-mail titled “Data Center Question” might be meaningful to a project (which has only one data center work stream), it does not stand out to me (who has many projects asking about data centers). Avoiding a subject that, to the recipient, is generic.

Use Action Words I was a bit put off the first time I saw an e-mails titled “RESPONSE REQUESTED: Blah blah blah.” However, I’ve come to like that technique. It helps with prioritization. So, I put in phrases such as “INFORMATION REQUESTED,” “ACTION REQUIRED,” and “FYI” at the front of the subject.

Evolve the Subject Line If the e-mail starts talking about Site One, and the subject says “Parts for Site One,” you’re doing good. But, over the course of the discussion, it may spin into a discussion of Site Two. In that case, update the subject line. This way, folks involved only in Site Two know to pay attention.

Separate Thread If multiple actions are spread among distinct audiences, create separate e-mail threads. This helps limit what a given individual may have to read to understand what is required.

Know When Not to Use E-Mail Sometimes, the discussion becomes too complicated for an e-mail. By providing instant feedback, quick conversation, in person or on the phone, can accomplish things more quickly.

Any other suggestions for using e-mail more effectively?

Remove from Distribution   Leave a comment

It shouldn’t be done, but we all done. An e-mail thread begins, and folks get added as the problem expands. Sometimes, it is the actual “to” field. Other times, it’s to the “CC”–perhaps the manager of the person just added. The list grows. Once added, somehow, you never get removed.
Original Message
Once your work is done, the discussion moves on to other activities. After a few messages, I stop reading it–maybe skimming a message every hour or so. However, I see this as a bad thing. First, it is simply making the number on the badge on your phone increase, clogging brian space that could be used for other things. If you stop paying attention to the thread, you may miss when you are needed again. Getting off the e-mail chain would solve both these problems.

Easier said than done. Sending a bulk “get me off this thread” comes off as a bit obnoxious–not a team player. I’ve tried pinging a few friends, asking them to take me off. This isn’t as effective. I think this is an opportunity for enterprise e-mail producers to create a feature for this. It could work just within a mail system (just my office’s Exchange implementation), or as a standard that everyone could adopt. I call it “Remove from Distribution.” If you select it, either from a button or menu option, the server intercepts messages that match this message (same subject/distribution), and your name is removed from the “To” and “CC” fields on any message related to that thread. Instead, it is moved to a new section.
Ingoring
In my demo, it is called “Ignoring,” though some other language (“Removed from Distribution” for instance) could be used. This ensures the rest of the distribution is aware that they would need to add you back to the thread if they need you (rather than just dropping off silently). It could even be set with a checkbox to facilitate that when “Reply to All” is clicked.
Edit the Message
Once added back in, you would know to read the new message–you may need to do something!

There are probably several kinks to work out of this idea. However, I think that it would help cut down on e-mail volume for busy folks, and help folks react to new messages in a more timely fashion. So Google and Microsoft: here’s a proposal for a great new feature. Run with it!

Improve the Your E-Mail Header   Leave a comment

E-Mail HeaderI have to confess: I don’t read every e-mail I receive. At work, I literally receive scores of messages a day. “Hundreds” is not unprecedented for me, and I know there are folks who get that regularly. Some of the e-mails are ignored because they are clearly ignorable–automated replies to ticket generation (which I retain if I have to refer back to it) and “internal spam” are two good examples of this.

However, there are two cases that go beyond that, and they are related. Given my role, my involvement in a thread may be in the early stages, and typically drops off sharply. I’ll be part of a thread discussing one project as part of a distribution of a half-dozen (or more) people. My name stays on this distribution after my obvious involvement ends. Once it’s clearly out of my scope, I’ll start ignoring the thread, in order to deal with things that are more pressing to me.

Generally, this is not a problem. Once in a while, however, it comes back to bite me. After several iterations–perhaps days or weeks into the thread–they will involve me again. Sometimes, it is a situation where they need my involvement again on the existing issue. At other times, it’s is a case where the issue itself changed over the course of the discussion (a thread about “Site 1” evolves into a discussion around “Site 2”). I know this has happened to other people.

I try to mitigate this by popping into these threads once in a while. However, there is a simpler behavior the owners of the thread can do to help out everyone. As the discussion evolves, don’t just edit the body of the message; edit the other fields. Review the “To” and “CC” lines: does everyone on that currently need to be involved? Is the subject still characterizing the discussion? By editing these items, you are able to ensure proper focus on the topic. Also, you can help everyone manage their inboxes better.

(A related topic is making sure the subject is descriptive in the first place. A subject like “Hi” or “Please Assist” is practically meaningless. Something generic (such as “Cats” for me) can also become lost in the shuffle. Make the subject as meaningful and clear as possible.)

So, help everyone out: make sure that what shows up in a message list is relevant to the recipients, and its context can be quickly understood. Update your header!

M-Mail: Miao Mail   2 comments

February is Month of Mail, which the Miaos are participating in. I was one of their lucky recipients. I got a wonderful card, a Sprocket trading card, and a Valentine.
Card from the Miaos
Note the custom stamp.

The trading card is now magented to the fridge.
Sprocket Trading Card

But who is the Valentine for?
Valentine for Luna

Just what every father needs–a suitor for his girls! :)
Luna & Her Valentine
Thanks for the great card, Miao gang! Look for something from Ohio in the mail soon!

Game for (Big) Cats   Leave a comment

The internet (and related technology) and cats seem hopelessly intertwined. Just ask the cat ambassador program. Given its touch interface and big screen, it was only a matter of time before someone made a Game for Cats.

Yes, I got it for Eddy. He enjoys it OK.

What’s more impressive, it seems to apply to all felidaes. The makers of the game let the cats of the Conservators’ Center in North Carolina. They let their Geoffroy’s cats, servals, caracals, tigers, and lions have a go.

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