Tips for Managing Email

Back in May I wrote “Does An Organized Desk Mean An Organized Mind?”  It summarizes the advice Jordana Jaffer gives about organized people that can be quickly summed up as:

  1. Plan the day the night before
  2. Maintain a to-do list
  3. Master email
  4. Keep desks clean
  5. Have a morning and evening routine
  6. Spend 10 minutes cleaning up at end of day
  7. Keep clean and dirty clothes organized
  8. Never leave the dishes
  9. Always eat lunch
  10. Process your mail daily

At the time I had #9 down pat.  Since then I’ve mastered #7 and #8, and mostly mastered #10.  My current goal is to become completely disciplined at #3 now that I’ve got all four of my email accounts cleaned out.  I already feel the tide is turning.  Email, and two messy desks are my Waterloo.  Because I’m a blogger and a member of three online book clubs, I process a lot of email each day.  Learning to wrestle email to the ground and pin it, has taken some time.  I feel a real sense of accomplishment to get all my accounts cleaned out, filed into folders, with an empty Inbox in each account.

email

Many people keep thinking email is going away, to be replaced by new  social media systems.  I think they’re wrong.  Email is just too basic, too obvious, too useful to ever be abandoned.  On the other hand, email can be a pain-in-the-ass-burden to manage.  Every time I help a friend I often see thousands of emails in their inbox.  Most people just won’t take the time to tame their Inbox.  This essay offers some tips I’ve learned while taming mine.

There’s two workflows with controlling email.  First, the amount of time you spend reading and writing emailing.  Second, the number of emails you process and store.  Email is about efficient communication.  Email has replaced letter writing, but most folks get more impersonal or work email than personal correspondence.  However, a lot of email is now internet friends, people we’ve never met.  Email connects us in ways we never imagined. 

Most people have work and home email accounts, so they have a lot of email to manage.  Some people even have multiple personal email accounts.  I’m retired and have four email accounts.  However, two are minimal because I want to use Google and Yahoo services and get their email accounts by default.  I use an Outlook 365 account for my main email, and an Outlook.com only for my book club activities.

Goals

  • Get less email
  • Process fewer emails
  • Send less time writing and replying to emails
  • Have an empty Inbox at the end of the day

How Often To Check Your Email?

Time management gurus recommend only checking your email once or twice a day, and then develop techniques to quickly process it.  Some jobs require constant attention to email because of workflow.  Other people socialize by email, so they check it frequently.  If you think you’re spending too much time working on email, then you need to work on streamlining your email work habits.  The key is to be your own efficiency expert and observe your habits for ways to save time.

I check my email the first thing in the morning, and the last thing at night.  Sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night, I check it on the tablet beside my bed.  I’m in and out of my email all day long because I work at the computer.  I’m pretty compulsive.  I’m also a net citizen that likes to live in the hive.  If you’re the kind of person that’s ambitious and wants to get things accomplished, learn to have minimal contact with your email.  I dream of writing a novel – and my goal of becoming organized is to make routine time for writing.

Most people have no plan, they just look at their new messages, respond to the absolute essential and hope to get back to the rest.  They let their inbox grow and grow.  At minimum, to manage email effectively, you should keep your inbox cleaned out daily, and learn how to file email you want to save or process later in folders.  You can still horde email, and delay processing and responding, but things will be tidy.

Delete As Soon As You Can

Delete the obvious as fast as possible by reading the least possible in the preview.  Delete everything you think you’ll read later but really won’t.  That’s tricky, but you’ll learn.  Before I retired I had three folders (Do Soon, Do Work, Do Home) that I’d quickly shift emails into from the Inbox.  Now I only need Do Soon.  The goal is always keep the Inbox empty.  If you’re a manager defer emails to others.

Use a preview pane so you can see a portion of the email while looking at the Inbox listing.  This  allows you to work faster.

When deleting make sure the email doesn’t come from a list, and unsubscribe instead of always deleting.  Everything you can unsubscribe to is an endless number of deletions you don’t have to do in the future.

Make decisions now if you can, instead of putting things off later.  Reply quickly and succinctly, and then delete the message.  Or if saving is required, drag the message to an appropriate folder.  Manage your email life in subject folders.

If you have a full inbox, sort by sender.  That shows the obvious emails to delete first, and reveals the mailing lists.

Learn to use Rules so messages are automatically moved into folders and don’t burden your Inbox.  This is especially good for newsletters and mailing lists you actually love to get.  I have a folder for News and Sales.  I can ignore both if needed.

Junk Mail and Ads

All too often your email box is where solicitors now try to grab your attention.  Door-to-door sales, phone solicitation and other salesmanship avenues have dried up.  So our email boxes are the goal for junk marketing.  Even our email providers squeeze in as many ads as possible on the web page where we have our online email.  Yahoo is worse about this, Outlook.com in the middle, Gmail the most subtle, and Office365 the cleanest.

Use an email client if possible.  There used to be dozens of email clients.  With web clients getting better and better, people prefer their simplicity of web based clients, but local clients like Outlook and Thunderbird offer more features than a web client, and they don’t have ads.

Master you junk mail filter.

Newsletters and Lists

Avoid like the plague signing up for newsletters and lists.  Quite often companies and organizations automatically sign you up.  Unsubscribe if you don’t want their content.  If you join any group, or create any new business account, make sure they don’t send their newsletters by unchecking the appropriate check boxes.  Well, unless you really, really, really want them.  Because they are going to infest your inbox like crazy.

Learn to use the unsubscribe feature found on most mass emails.  Legit places always provide a way to opt-out.  You do have to worry about scams, but it’s a human decision you’ll have to make.  If you don’t trust the email, add that one to your junk mail filter.

Everyone has legitimate lists they want to belong to, but make absolutely sure they are worth the time they cause you.  My two favorite lists are The Kindle Daily Deal and The Audible Daily Deal.  I hate missing out on a bargain priced book that I really want.  I could unsubscribe and just visit the two websites daily, but that actually takes more time than getting the emails.

Generate Less Email

If you send less email you’ll get less email.  Don’t initiate emails unless you need a reply.  Don’t reply just to say thanks.  Use other forms of communicate like Twitter, Facebook, IM, texting, phone and F2F.

If you need answers consider sending questions as bullets so it’s obvious you are asking several things so people will address each point.

If you receive an email that other people are waiting for acknowledgement and answers, send the reply as soon as possible, and if you can’t reply soon, be polite and send a note saying you got the email and will reply at a set time.  File message in the To Do Soon folder, or track it with flag or status system.

Use Email Client with Calendar and Task/To-Do List

If a message is calendar related, convert the email to a calendar entry, and even add it to your Task/To-Do list.  Develop a synergy between email, calendar, tasks and contacts.

If you already live by your calendar and/or To-Do list, get the important content moved to those systems fast.  That’s why Outlook is so great.  Since Outlook works with PC/Mac/Web/iOS/Android it’s all in one location for those who have access to an Exchange server.  And Office365 or Outlook.com is very well integrated too.  Google has similar features for Gmail.

Cancel Social Media Notifications

For some reason social media sites, which are alternatives to emails, want to constantly notify you that you’ve got messages in their systems, and to come see them.  This is actually why email won’t be replaced.  It’s extremely easy to miss messages and notifications in social media sites.  And that’s why social media sites send you emails, because emails are a more dependable form of notification.

But if you’re pretty faithful about using your social media sites, or you don’t give a damn, just turn off the notifications that are sent as reminders to your email system.

Use A Second Email Service For Junk Email

Get a second email service and when you’re asked for an email address that you know means getting advertising, give out that address.  Or for anything you want to subscribe to but don’t feel you have to read.  Then when that inbox fills up, do a select all and delete without having to examine each email separately.  

Sometimes Use Your Junk Mail Filter on Friends and Family

Have a friend or relative that constantly sends you forwarded messages representing their political view or “hilarious” jokes and videos.  Tag them with the junk filter.  Of course, you have to assume they will never write you a nice email asking you out to dinner.

Encourage Friends to Use Other Methods of Communication

If you don’t like reading, especially verbose emails, encourage your friends to tweet instead so what they say stays brief, or to befriend you on Facebook.  Or tell them texting is best.  Whatever you actually prefer.

Use Your Smartphone For Clearing Emails

For many kinds of emails, using your smartphone can be a faster way to preview and delete messages.  Or if you stuck somewhere and have some minutes to kill, like being in a line or waiting room, delete messages.

JWH – 9/4/14

Redesigning the Television–Will Apple Revolutionize the TV Next?

Before Steve Jobs died he told his biographer that he wanted to create a television set that was completely easy to use.  Can you imagine a TV that’s as revolutionary as the iPhone or iPad?  Well, I think it would be fun to guess its features.

World TV

Right now there are different technical broadcast systems all over the world so I would think the first area of simplification would come from jettison outdated technical standards.  Why not design one TV that will work with all 7,000,000,000 citizens of the Earth.  I can’t imagine Jobs would want to design a TV that had to work with set-top boxes from other companies selling content.  Nor could I imagine he’d want to design something that used over-the-air channel reception.  Because the Internet is universal across the world, why not just design the future TV to be an Internet TV?

Picture a TV with one power plug and built-in wireless networking.  Now that would be a simple and elegant design.  It would essentially be a computer with a 24”-62” screen using 1080p, that could work anywhere in the world with a different power cord.

The TV antenna will go the way of the buggy whip, and so will set-top boxes and DVD-Blu-ray players.

Physical Design

Now we need to imagine the design of the device itself.  Currently I have 5 remotes and a keyboard with trackpad to use with my 52” TV entertainment system I built myself.  If our new future TV used something like Siri, we could get rid of all remotes and keyboards.  The only external control that Siri couldn’t handle is a game controller, and with a Kineck type sensor even that might be eliminated.

Having to connect a receiver and surround sound speakers to HD TVs is a pain.  Our perfect TV should have a sound bar built-in with great surround sound.  And it should play music fantastically too.  No more Hi-Fi component, speakers and wires cluttering up the living room.

My new LG computer monitor has no physical buttons on it, but light sensors, even for the on/off switch.  I think our perfect TV wouldn’t have mechanical buttons either.  It should be voice activated only, but if it did require a manual power switch it should be light activated.

This TV will be more futuristic than anything on the Jetsons.

jetsons_l

Content

Now I can’t imagine Jobs thinking he could design this TV and just throw iOS 5 on it.  The TV opening screen and menu system is the hardest feature to imagine.  This is why Apple is the success it is, and why other companies copy its design.  Our prefect TV needs to show:

  • Internet broadcasts – live TV
  • Recorded shows from the past
  • Movies
  • Personal videos
  • Photographs
  • Internet
  • Games
  • Music
  • Telephone
  • Teleconferencing
  • Online courses
  • Presentations
  • Business and education software

For Internet TV to work we need TV networks to switch to streaming their content, but there’s needs to be a paradigm change first.  How many shows need to be live?  Think about that.  The news, sports, reality shows, special live concerts and performances.  We actually don’t need live TV all that much.  Most of what’s on TV is recorded.  Because of DVRs and services like Hulu, how many people even watch new TV shows that premiere each week live?  Cable/satellite services provide hundreds of channels because of their technical limitations, not because we need hundreds of live TV channels.

Content from networks like TCM, National Geography, Discover, History, etc. can be served just as well from a web page, they don’t need to be live.

Recorded TV shows and movies can come from services like Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Prime.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s we had 3 television channels.  There were no DVDs or DVRs to catch a show later.  You either watched the show when it aired, or maybe had another chance the following summer during rerun season, and that was it.  Each fall we were presented with a new line-up of shows and they would generally run a whole season – shows were seldom canceled mid-season.  Once you learned the lineup on shows in September you pretty much knew what was going to be on television until next summer.  Special shows were indeed special and rare.  That was simplicity then.

Back then watching TV was as easy as basic arithmetic.  Today with cable, satellite, iPads, smartphones and internet television channels, along with DVDs, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Blockbuster, Redbox and DVRs deciding what to watch on television is more like advanced calculus.  We now live in a TV age of painful complexity.

Watching TV fifty years ago meant three channels of choice.   Today we’re getting closer and closer to being able to watch anything that’s ever been on television at any moment.  The choices aren’t infinite, but when someone asks “What’s on TV?” it might be safe to say, “There’s a million things on TV tonight.”  And that’s painful to deal with.

Our perfect TV needs to have an operating system that allows the viewer to find what they want to watch as quickly as possible.  It needs to be as simple to use as an iPad for a two-year-old.   When the set is turned on it needs an opening screen – the top menu, and the basic functions can be simplified to these:

  • TV
  • Library
  • Telephone
  • Games
  • Music
  • Computer

This makes six tiles – is Microsoft on to something?  TV would be live TV, Library would be recorded shows, either TV, movies, personal videos, photographs, or other content.  Telephone could be two way video or conferencing.  Games and music are obvious.  Computer would be anything from online courses, business presentations, science simulations, word processing, blogging, etc.  I think we’ll be surprised what we’ll want to do from the family TV in the den.

Think what a game changer such a television would be.  It would be the Holy Grail of integration between TVs and Computers, but also phones, stereos and game units.  Is it any wonder that Steve Jobs wanted to tackle such an exciting project?  Sadly, think how many companies it will put out of business.  We won’t need Blu-ray players or discs, or Google TV or Roku, or music CDs, or movies and TV shows on DVD.

How To Get From the Complexity We Have Now To A New Simplicity?

If you have cable with hundreds of channels how do you even know what to watch?  And what great shows are you missing?

Live

The first thing we need to do is separate live content from recorded content.  We need to bring back the demand and understanding of live TV and we need to reduce the number of channels offered.  Because our system works with the world, live TV could be from anywhere on the planet.  We want our TV user to select any channel they want, but we need to simplify the TV menu system.  I like how Roku does things.  It offers hundreds of channels but you only add in the ones you regularly use to you main menu.  I’ve done the same thing with my over-the-air TV, reducing about two dozen local channels down to five.  It makes life easier.

When the user says “Live TV” to our new set they should see a small listing of favorite live channels.  They could be numbered on the screen so the user could say “Number 4” or just “PBS.”  Or they could say “Add channel” and then go into a menu of all possible live channels to add.  They might say, “Japan” and see live TV channels from Japan.  Or they could say “American football” or “British reality shows.”

This system would allow for simplicity from an unlimited offering.

Also, the Live function could connect to web cams around the world.  TV doesn’t have to be produced.

Library

The selection of recorded shows could run to the millions.  Any movie, any TV show, any documentary, any home video, etc.  We’d need a system to help people find good content.  The basic search engine could find things if user already knew the name of the show, or certain related details, but for discovering new shows they would need help.

What we need is the wisdom of crowds – hit lists of all kinds to let people find what other people are watching and rating.

The default Library screen could have pull down menus on the left and a list of shows on the right. The pull down menus will let you pick for Year, Genre (and Subgenre), Audience, Now/Then, Rating, and maybe others. The default might be Current to see the most popular shows people are watching right now. But under Time you can change it to a listing by year or decade. Under genre you’ll see a detail list of genres and from Audience you can pick age group.

This way you could put in 1950s, Science Fiction, 60-65, Now – and you’d see a list of 1950s science fiction shows and movies that people 60-65 are currently watching the most. You can also switch to Then and see what the people back in the 1950s watched the most.

So if you want your daughter to learn about astronomy you could request the most popular documentaries on astronomy that are viewed by 10-20 year old girls that are rated 8-10 stars.

We’d need supplemental features that used the techniques of Amazon customer reviews, Netflix, Wikipedia, Rotten Tomatoes, MetaCritic etc. to help people find shows.

The system could have an encyclopedia of TV shows and you could find any TV series that’s ever been made and start watching them from the first episode to the last.  Such a TV system will kill off DVDs.

Finally, our Library feature could also integrate with your local libraries, to their special collections, or to libraries around the world.  There’s more to our culture than old movies and TV shows.

Telephone

Wouldn’t it be cool for one family on Christmas to see and talk with other family members who can’t make it home that year?  The possibilities are endless. Science fiction has been predicting for the wall screen telecommunication device for decades.  It’s time to get around to making one.

Games

It’s pretty obvious games need to be integrated into this system.  Essentially our TV will be a computer, whether it runs Mac OS X or Windows 8 or Linux, it will be competing with console gaming.  It could signal the end to console games.  But won’t Angry Birds be cool on a 62” screen at 1080p?  Or future versions of World of Warcraft?

Music

Apple wants you to buy music from iTunes – that’s such ancient 20th century thinking.  I’m surprised that Steve Jobs didn’t recognize the simple beauty of streaming music libraries like Rhapsody, Rdio, MOG, Spotify, Zune and others.  Why mess with owning music and having to worry about backing it up and protecting it for the rest of your life.  Streaming music rental libraries is just too damn easy to use.

Like the “Live” TV function, the “Music” screen should allow users to add subscription services to the default screen.  Probably only one, but they should get to pick which one.  I’m sure the future TV from Apple will show iTunes, but unless iTunes starts its own streaming music service, this will keep the Apple model of future TV tied to the past.  Right now I subscribe to Rhapsody and Rdio, and use the free version of Spotify.

Computer

Lot’s of people want to predict the death of the desktop computer but you just don’t want to do everything you can do on a computer from a 4” screen, or even a 10” screen.  Online education is going to be big.  Doing business presentations is already huge and getting bigger.  Everyone will learn to create content, whether you’re an artist, teacher, musician or mathematician.  Imagine letting kids paint on a 62” canvas?  Or studying math from a library of the best teaching programs from around the world.  For many families the desktop might go away, or it might become the family TV.  Or the bedroom TV.  Pretty soon a TV will be a computer and a computer a TV.

Summary

It’s like Dylan said, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.  Many young people have already abandoned the family TV to get all their content from smartphones and tablets.  The shift to Internet TV has been going on for years, so it doesn’t take much imagination to predict a perfect TV.  I wished Jobs would have lived into his 90s to see everything he could have revolutionized.  Actually it would be fun to see if he ran out of things to reinvent. 

At some point things have got to settle down.  If you contemplate this TV I’ve imagined here, it integrated a lot of technologies into one simple device.  I’d expect one screen in every room.  And then everyone would have a 4” smartphone and a 10” tablet and maybe a 12-16” laptop if they needed one.  After the war of gadgets we’ve been seen in the last decade will we see a gadget peace for a time?  Reading Engadget makes that hard to believe.  But the Flip video camera was killed off because of video cameras in smartphones.  What will the iPhone 4s do to the digital still and video camera market?  What’s happening to portable DVD players and handheld game units?  Does anyone buy handheld GPSs anymore?

Just when Microsoft was getting into touch, Apple comes out with a voice interface.  Schools are giving up teaching cursive handwriting.  When will typing disappear?  Always remember, the evolution of machines is away from moving parts.  Now that consumers have access to 3 terabyte hard drives do they really need them when everything is moving to the cloud?  How much does the iMac look like the future of computers and TV?  Evolution appears to be moving toward intelligent flat screens.  The smartphone suggests that everyone will have a personal 4” screen they take everywhere.  Some people will also need 10” screens (tablets).  At what point does voice controlled touch screens invalidate the need for 12-16” laptop computers?  And when does the 24” computer monitor in the bedroom merge with the TV?  And can one OS handle all screen sizes?  Will it still be Microsoft v. Apple v. Linux?

My recommendation if you are buying a new TV now is to pick one with the most Internet features built in.  But expect Apple to come out with something in 2012.  Will it be as revolutionary as the iPhone?  I don’t know.  Too much depends on TV networks, cable channel systems and content providers.  But I can’t help believe that cable TV will go the way of the floppy disc.  Expect CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs to disappear quickly too.  Cable TV and Satellite companies will put up a big fight for years, but the Internet will allow content produces to do an end run around them.

How quickly will all this happen?  Well, how quickly are ebooks taking over printed books?

JWH – 10/30/11

The Information: A History, A Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

If you read only one science book in a decade The Information by James Gleick should be it.  I’m not saying The Information is the best science book in a decade, but if you don’t read much about science then this book is for you.  It’s not an easy read, but if you’ve ever felt information overload this book will help explain how and why it’s happening.

We live in accelerating times that are hard to comprehend – the flow of information is like a category 5 hurricane that has stationed itself permanently over our lives, never leaving, and only intensifying.  Unless you have a fairly good education it’s doubtful you’ll truly comprehend this book, but there’s plenty of easy to understand history for the non-scientific minded to get the gist of things. 

Here’s one anecdote from the book that might help.  When the telegraph was first developed, people would go to the telegraph office and write down a message and give it to the operator who would key it in and then act finished.  Many people expected to see their message to go off, leave the building.  They couldn’t comprehend how information could be translated from words on the paper, to electrical pulses of dots and dashes that would travel along a wire.  Now this is hard for us to comprehend because we’re used to the world wide web, but the history of our species is a history of conceptual breakthroughs dealing with information.  But more than that, our minds, bodies and reality are information.

When my mother and father were children growing up in the 1920s all they had for news was the radio and newspaper.  My mother grew up in the country and didn’t even have the radio right away.  My father grew up in Miami, so he was closer to the cutting edge of communication technology.  My mother’s mother, born in 1881, and grew up in rural Mississippi probably didn’t even see a newspaper that often.  Most of the information in her world came from the Bible, static news that has been lingering around for 2,000-3,000 years.

James Gleick hooks us into his story by starting with African talking drums.  European explorers were blown away by African tribes communicating across great distances with drums, and sending rather complex messages.  The best the Europeans could do were things like signal lights, one if by land, two if by sea, or blow the bugle for retreat.  It’s very hard for us modern people to understand how talking drums worked because we no longer live in an oral culture.  Before writing people memorized everything, and often would know very long poems or songs they would memorize and pass on.  Drum talking is based on knowing the sound patterns of common phrases, with the drums having enough pitch to “talk” or mimic the phrase.  Basically the African drummers would imitate a line of a song and the receiver would interpret the phrase.  What would you think to do if you were in a sticky situation and your buddy started humming “Born to Run?” Gleick gives this example:

Make your feet come back the way they went,

Make your legs come back the way they went,

plant your feet and your legs below,

in the village which belongs to us.

If the African drummer created a pattern that sounded like that song, people were supposed to interpret as, “Come back home.”  It’s a rather neat trick when you think about it.

When humans lived like animals, communication and information was very immediate – “I found some grapes.”  But as we organized and formed permanent tribes, information became more complex and abstract, for example, the ten commandments.  Before the invention of writing there was a limit to how much and how far humans could communicate.

Writing was a real breakthrough because it conquered space and time.  A message could be copied and sent in many directions at once, and it would last as long as the medium it was written on.  There was a time when writing was even mistrusted.  Socrates felt writing was bad for memory.  He was right, but writing became a new form of memory. 

Early writing was still limited.  It was very hard to copy, few people could write and few could read.  From Bart Ehrman’s Forged, I learned something very interesting.  In ancient times reading and writing didn’t always go together.  Some people could read but not write, others would write by not read.  It took centuries to get from writing to printing, but after Guttenberg literacy took off, changing our world.  Computers have again transformed how we process information, but it’s a quantum leap over the printing press.  Quantum leaps were also made by the telegraph, the photograph, the radio and the television.

Each time, people protested.  Not long after the invention of the printing press people started complaining there were too many books – meaning there was too much to know.  Here is a quote I love from 1621, given in the final chapter of The Information.  It reminds me how I feel watching the NBC Nightly News every evening.  It is from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, &c., daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies and sea-fights; peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears. New books every day, pamphlets, corantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, &c. Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of princes, new discoveries, expeditions, now comical, then tragical matters. Today we hear of new lords and officers created, tomorrow of some great men deposed, and then again of fresh honours conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh: he thrives, his neighbour turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps, &c. This I daily hear, and such like, both private and public news, amidst the gallantry and misery of the world; jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villainy; subtlety, knavery, candour and integrity, mutually mixed and offering themselves; I rub on privus privatus; as I have still lived, so I now continue, statu quo prius, left to a solitary life, and mine own domestic discontents: saving that sometimes, ne quid mentiar, as Diogenes went into the city, and Democritus to the haven to see fashions, I did for my recreation now and then walk abroad, look into the world, and could not choose but make some little observation, non tam sagax observator ac simplex recitator, [45] not as they did, to scoff or laugh at all, but with a mixed passion.

I’m jumping to the end of The Information, the part about the information flood because I think that’s how most people will relate to this book.  The subtitle, “a history, a theory, a flood” is very apt.  For about half the book Gleick gives us a history of how we got here, reading, printing, computing – inventing the telegraph, radio, television, internet, etc.  Then he gets into Claude Shannon and information theory, and finally ends up with information overload.  That’s a very quick summary that does the book a disservice, but I’m trying to get you to read it, and if I started talking about Norbert Weiner and Cybernetics I’d probably scare you off.  (By the way, this book is very popular at my online book club, impressing a variety of different reading tastes.)

James Gleick covers a lot of fascinating history, like that of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace developing computer programming in the 19th century, or how Morse code was developed, which created a 19th century form of geek culture that inspired developments in cryptography and information compression.  Did you know that Edgar Allan Poe was obsessed with cryptography?  I find the 19th century tremendously exciting, and Gleick spends a lot of time there.  But it’s when Gleick gets to the 20th century that book becomes important.  Most people’s knowledge of 20th century science is of the flashy stuff, like Einstein’s theory of relativity, or NASA’s explorations, or the dazzling development of medical science.  Some people are familiar with Crick and Watson’s DNA and maybe even gene sequencing.  Particle physics is often written about, and all kids love dinosaurs and a bit of astronomy.  But few people want to go deeper.

Gleick gives us a geekier history of 20th century science, almost a secret history not because it was hidden, but because it’s closer to math than pure science like physics, chemistry and biology.  This scares away the average pop science reader, but don’t let it.  Gleick wants to tell us how we are information, our minds, our bodies, our society, our reality, and it requires understanding some mathematical concepts.  But we live in a digital age and really need to understand communication theory.  Why?  That’s harder to explain, but I shall try.

Remember recently when Michele Bachmann was in the news with the story about her comment on the HPV Vaccine and it causing mental retardation?  This incident demonstrated many dimensions of her ignorance which gets into all kinds of ways we communicate and process information.  First off, notice that her information came to her verbally, in person.  She proudly cited it as such.  Before the scientific era, the eye witness was the highest forms of information validation.  We now know that first person accounts are among the least valid, but back then it was considered the gold standard of proof.  If someone claimed to have seen a mermaid then they existed.  Bachmann was merely acting like a 17th century person, or even a 4th century BCE person.  Not only did she collect her facts in a poor manner, she spread them by 21st century technology, and thus became a dangerous carrier of misinformation.  She may have created a meme and become a viral vector spreading unhealthy information.  Here reaction was based on previous memes.

But it is much more complicated than that.  How do we know if the HPV Vaccine is good or bad, or even how it works?  Your answer will place you along a history of information understanding time line.  Sadly, most conservative people are going to place somewhere before the 19th century.  But even well educated liberals might only peg in at early 20th century.  The Information, and many books like it that have come out in the last few years are trying to catch people up with things we’ve learned from the 1940s on.  There is an exciting synergy going on among the sciences and it’s a tragedy that most of the people living in these early 21st century times are missing it.

It’s very hard to explain this.  Physics was the first science to explain reality.  Then chemistry.  For a long time biology and botany was divorced from pure science of physics.  But in our lifetimes biology has reached the level of chemistry and physics, moving ever closer to the quantum level of reality, and this brings us to communication theory and mathematics.  19th century evolution is being validated by 20th century discoveries in genetics and DNA, which are now being connected to the subatomic world, which leads us to the world of probability and pure information.  It’s all coming together.  The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick is your introduction.

Normally, this is where I would stop my book reviewing process, but this book makes me want to write more.  I listened to The Information, but I now plan to read and study it carefully.  This book is a gold mine of learning, and I’ve just barely taken away some quick riches, but there are billions to be learned in it still.  While researching this review I discovered that several other books essentially covering the same topic, or extensions of it.  I’m going to have to buy and study them too.  Read the reviews and comments on them here:

But returning to The Information, I’d also like to outline the essential topics that Gleick covers.  I want to list them to help people decide about reading the book, and to make a handy-dandy reference for myself to the subjects I want to further study.  Wikipedia covers these topics wonderfully, probably because if you’re geeky enough to work on Wikipedia you are also probably interested in these topics.  Plus Wikipedia was an important topic in The Information.  Furthermore, many of these Wikipedia articles cover the topics in more detail than Gleick does in book.

Other Reviews

 

JWH – 9/24/11

Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

Wake by Robert J. Sawyer is the first novel of a trilogy, it came out in 2009, Watch, the second book, came out this year, and Wonder will come out in 2011.  Sawyer calls them the WWW Trilogy, and it has a rather slick web site, with the best production values I’ve ever seen promoting a SF novel.  Personally, I found Wake as exciting as when I first discovered science fiction back in the 1960s, when I was a kid.  And it’s up for the Hugo this year, so I figure Penguin knows it has a great story and its hitting warp ten to promote it.

wake-for-blog

Wake is not marketed as a YA novel, but it could have been.  The main character is Caitlin Decter, a fifteen year old blind girl, who is a math wiz, computer geek, engaging blog writer, and extremely precocious.  This reminds me tremendously of the Heinlein juveniles from the 1950s, and in particular Holly from “The Menace From Earth.”  Like the Heinlein juveniles, Wake is chock full of educational tidbits.  And Wake is the kind of novel you don’t want to put down. 

Classic SF Theme:  Intelligent Computers

It’s getting harder and harder for science fiction writers to come up with completely new science fictional ideas, so what we often see is a writer taking on a classic theme and having a go at evolving past ideas.  Wake follows in the tradition of many fictional computers, but in particular ones about a computer becoming conscious in front of one person.  These are the just the ones I’ve read, there are many others.

  • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 1972 – When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was One by David Gerrold
  • 1995 – Galatea 2.2 – Richard Powers
  • 2009 – Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

Sawyer goes further then earlier writers in trying to imagine how an artificial mind would evolve and what it would perceive as it came into being.  Sawyer weaves blindness and Helen Keller, autism, apes that do sign language, Julian Jaynes’ the bicameral mind, and other explorers of consciousness into the story in a very effective way. 

One reason why I love this novel so much is because I’ve been writing a novel in my head about this subject for years.  It’s not likely I’ll ever become a real novelist, but if I do, I’ll have to take the concept further than Sawyer, and that’s a good challenge.

Go read Wake.  End of review.

Spoiler Alert

Now I want to discuss what Sawyer is really writing about.  Sawyer supposes that the Internet could evolve into a self-aware mind.  That idea isn’t new, but what Sawyer does with Wake is make his case for it with series of suppositions that are wrapped in a page turning novel.  In other words, he has a bunch of wild theories that he gets readers to think about one at a time. 

What I’d like to do is discuss these ideas but hopefully without hurting anyone’s enjoyment of the story, but I recommend you not read beyond this point if you haven’t read Wake yet and want to get the full impact of its excitement. 

Sawyer’s first theory is the emerging web mind will go through a stage much like what Helen Keller went through before she discovered language.  Sawyer indirectly explores this stage in a number of ways, including quotes and references to Helen Keller, a subplot about signing apes, and references to the book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, a book I found very exciting when it came out back in 1976.

But I think Sawyer is missing a piece of the puzzle, one I got from On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins.  Hawkins thinks our consciousness emerged out of a pattern recognition processor that we call the neocortex.  Sawyer uses cellular automata as his theoretical model, but I’m not sure that will work.  Cellular automata create patterns, but do they recognize them?  I’m not sure the Internet can generate a consciousness in its current design.  Oh, the Internet will make a fine nervous system for such a web being, or beings, but I think another type of device will need to be built first, and that’s a multilayer pattern recognizer that’s as good or better than our neocortex.

So far, all the writers exploring this theme have assume that when computers reach a critical mass a consciousness will spontaneously arise out of the complexity.  I doubt that completely.  I think at least three components are needed for self-aware consciousness: pattern recognition, mind and language.  I don’t think any of these exist in the internet, or supercomputers.   I think mind evolves out of pattern recognition, and self-awareness evolves out of mind, with the development of language.

Atoms and molecules have early stages of pattern recognition, but as life arises out of non-life, sense organs develop that seek out patterns in reality.  Most organisms are so highly adapted to specific patterns that they will die off if they can’t find them.  Evolutionary adaptation is the ability of organisms to explore and take advantage of new patterns.  I believe the mind grows out of this process, and there are different kinds of minds.  A dog, cat, dolphin and chimp all have minds.  We aren’t sure how much they perceive, or if they have much self-awareness, but they do have minds.  Language studies in dolphins and chimps hint that maybe these animals are self-aware and have identities, maybe far more than our egos want to believe, but I think their consciousnesses are limited by the state of their language abilities.  I think signing will add consciousness to apes.

For an AI computer to develop a mind, I think it needs to have a focus on reality that is processed through a pattern recognition device, and then a language needs to be linked to the patterns.  At first, I thought Sawyer was going to have the web mind see out of Caitlin’s artificial eye, so as the device taught her mind to see, the web mind would also learn to see, and with another fictional piece of technology, learn a language.  Instead Sawyer imagines an inner world where the web is visible.  I don’t buy that at all.  It’s leftover fluff from cyberpunk novels.  Why invent a new reality to observe, when the internet mind has millions of eyes on our reality?

Now this brings up some interesting questions about AI minds.  If a web mind has millions of web cameras at its disposal, will it think think like it has millions of eyes?  Or will it’s  consciousness move from camera to camera and peer out at single points of reality?  Omniscient life would be tough, don’t you think?  I tend to believe, and I only have limited knowledge to think otherwise, that an AI mind will emerge from a limited environment.  Some scientist will raise up an AI mind by teaching it to see and hear while learning a language.

But what will a hive AI mind be like?  Let’s say anyone in the future can go down to Radio Shack and buy an artificial neocortex to add to their computer system and bring up an AI child.  If all of these AI minds are connected by the Internet it will be like a race of telepathic beings.  Now, wouldn’t that be a far out science fiction story?  I still haven’t read Watch, so who knows what will happen.

JWH – 5/13/10 

Will Internet TV Make Cable and Satellite TV Extinct?

There are two kinds of TV, live and recorded.  Internet TV sites like Hulu have already proven how well they can handle recorded TV shows.  Internet TV even does away with the need for a digital video recorder (DVR).  Think of a show, find it, watch it.  Internet TV like Hulu is even better than broadcast, cable or satellite for sponsors because viewers are required to watch the commercials.  And as long as they have such limited commercials as they do now, I don’t mind watching them.  Otherwise I’ll pay for streaming services like Netflix to be commercial free.

Where Internet TV is weak is for live broadcasts, like for sports and 24/7 news.  The infrastructure of cable and satellite systems have far more bandwidth for handling live television.  That won’t always be so, because I’m sure some kind of broadcast Internet technology will emerge to solve that problem and people will be watching live TV on their iPhones, iPads, netbooks, notebooks, desktops, HTPCs and Internet TV sets.

Digital technology ate the music industry, and is about to eat the book, newspaper, magazine and television industries.  I gave up cable TV months ago and for recorded shows I’m in hog heaven by using the Internet TV, which includes streaming Netflix.  I also supplement by viewing diet with snail-mail Netflix discs, but I see where that habit could be phased out too.  The only reason to get a disc now is for the picture quality of Bluray.  Future bandwidth will wipe out that technology too.

Owning music CDs and video DVDs seem so pointless now.  I wonder how that’s going to impact the economy and effect the entertainment business.  It also makes me wonder about my efforts of building an easy to use HTPC.  I’m struggling to get perfect Bluray playback through my HTPC computer, wondering if I should spend $80 for better software, knowing full well in the not too distance future I’ll phase out Bluray too.  The HTPC has phased out the LG BD390 Bluray player I bought just last year, and an Internet TV set could phase out my HTPC.

biggerthanlife

Last night my friend Janis had us watch Bigger Than Life on Bluray because NPR had praised this old James Mason movie so highly.  The flick wasn’t very entertaining, but it was fascinating.  The Bluray presentation of this 1956 CinemaScope production was stunning in 1080p high definition, showing intricate shadows and vivid colors.  Internet TV and streaming Netflix can’t provide that kind of resolution right now, but I imagine it will before 2015.

Technology is moving so fast that we buy devices we want to throw away in a year or two.  Growing up my folks wanted appliances and TVs that would last 15 years.  I remember Ma Bell phones lasting over twenty years.  I’ve had my 52” inch high definition TV for only three years and I’m already lusting for a new set.  Will technology ever settle down again so we can buy something that will last a generation?  I think it might.  Of course it will be terrible for the economy, but I can imagine TV technology that would satisfy me and take the ants out of my pants to have something better.

My perfect TV will still be a 1080p HDTV like we have today.  I’m pretty sure we can go decades without changing the broadcast standards again.  It will have a digital tuner to handle over-the-air broadcasts (in case the net goes down) and an Ethernet jack and WiFi for Internet TV.  It will have two removable bays.  One for a computer brain that can be upgraded, and another for a SSD hard drive.  As Internet TV is perfected the need for a local DVR will be diminished.  That will also be true for an upgradable CPU.  There will be no cable or satellite TV.  Everything will come to us by TCP/IP.  Broadcast will remain for the poor and for when the Internet fails.  Cable and satellite TV will go the way of the record store.  I also assume all Internet access will be wireless, but it will take 5-10 years to phase out wires.  Now that doesn’t mean cable and satellite companies will go under.  I expect them to buy into the Internet TV revolution.  I do get my internet access from Comcast.

Most people will think I’m crazy by predicting the extinction of cable and satellite TV.  They can’t picture living without all that choice.  That’s because of the channel switching mindset.  We have always thought of what’s on TV by flipping through the channels, even though very little TV is live.  Most of TV is recorded, and we fake immediate diversity by offering 200 concurrent channels to watch.  Eventually the only channels to watch will be live, because other technology makes it easier to find recorded shows ourselves.

Live TV will go through a renaissance.  Cable and satellite TV systems are still the best technology for live TV, and they will hang on to their audiences for another ten or twenty years as Internet broadcast TV is perfected.  However, guerrilla TV is emerging on the net, and micro audiences are evolving.  For the big networks, how many Today like morning shows will we need for live TV?  How many channels to promote sports?  How many to 24/7 talking head news and reality shows do we need?  How many live PBS networks will we need?  Will audience gather around central networks or seek out specialized Internet broadcasters catering to their personal interests?

Ultimately, how much TV really needs to be live?  Even 24/7 news shows spend a lot of time repeating themselves.  Live TV is leisurely.   The hours of the Today show are filled with just minutes of quality content, most of the time is fluff and commercials.  And if an opera is filmed live for PBS does it really need to be seen live?  Survivor and Amazing Race would be tedious if live.

When the flipping the channels metaphor dies out, and library checkout metaphor gains popularity, TV viewing will change.  People love football, war and car chases live, but will even that change too?  If you were sitting with you iPad killing some time, will you think, “Hey let’s watch the game in Miami,” or will you want to play a game or watch something recorded?   I can easily imagine sites of “WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW!” start showing up, listing thousands of events going on around the world.  TCP/IP technology will work better to provide that kind of service than cable or satellite.

Until you play with Internet TV you won’t understand what I’m saying.  You’ve got to sleep with the pods or drink the Kool-Aid to buy in.  Start with streaming Netflix and Hulu.

And if people love cell phones, Facebook and Twitter to stay in constant contact won’t they love live TV from their friends.  Instead of watching the crew of the Today show have fun, why not video link all your friends and create your own morning show?  And the emergence of spy networks will also change viewing habits.  If every daycare and classroom had web cams, wouldn’t parents spend more time watching them?  Won’t all the web cams in the world grabbing eyeballs destroy the audiences of the 200 channels of national networks?

We can’t predict the future.  Growing up in the 1960s I never imagined anything like the Internet.  All I can predict is change and more of it.  But I’m also going to predict that once the Internet and digital upheaval is over, we might settle down to a slower pace of change.  Well, until artificial intelligence arrives or we make SETI contact with distant civilizations.

Recommended Reading:

JWH – 4/10/10

Living in the Hive Mind

Our minds are created out of billions of interconnected brain cells.  And we’re billions of people living in an interconnected world of television and computer networks.  Is our world becoming the science fictional hive mind?  Personal computers have gone to parallel processing with ever growing number of CPU cores.  Is something like Wikipedia the result of thousands of human minds working in parallel?

For most of Earth’s biological history, individual life forms competed with others for survival.  Eventually organizations like social insects and herd animals developed, but what can we call the Internet in relation to biological cooperation?  Is it a hive mind?

How much of my thinking dwells on my immediate life of breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping and earning dollars to make my living, and how much is spent on data from the gigantic sensory network of the Internet?  And wasn’t books really just an earlier form of networking?  And then newspapers, radio and television more advanced forms?

I just finished reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence which most people think is about sex, but it’s also about the transformation of society by industrialization.  Last night I watched Bright Star, about John Keats and Fanny Brawne in England 1818-1821, about one hundred years before Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  I’m also reading Darwin’s Origin of the Species by Janet Browne, about how Charles Darwin came to write his famous book.  All three of these stories illustrate the transformation of society over the past two hundred years.  I think the romantic poets might have been canaries in the mine.

In Bright Star, people lived in houses with no electricity, and light and heat came from fire.  Their only connection with the world beyond their vision was through letters and books.  People led lives very close to other people, as nearly all work and play involved direct social involvement.  Much of our time is spent communicating with people indirectly though computers and television screens.  We spend far more of our time connected with the world beyond our vision.  Facebook is considered socializing by many people.

The gamekeeper of Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover, Oliver Mellors knows what it’s like to be an individual and understands how industrialization was destroying individuality.  One of the reasons the novel is so much about sex is because Lawrence believes the physical contact between individuals is more important than intellectual communication.  Was Lawrence right?  Is the hive mind bad?

Could we ever go back?  What if we turned off the hive mind?  It would involve shutting down the computer and television networks.  What would society be like if the fastest form of communication was books and letters?  I’d be out of a profession, since most of my life has been working with computers.  When I was young I worked in libraries, so I could go back to that.  Oliver Mellors couldn’t stop industrialization so he and Lady Chatterley had to retreat from the world to a farm.  During the 1960s the final path of hippies was back to the land too.  In fact, for thousands of years, all revolts against socialization has been back to nature movements.

Through the Internet I am in communication with people from all over the world.  Could I return to a life of working in my yard and hanging out with a few people I know physically?  For most people it’s not an either or consideration, they blend in both worlds, but if you look at the young they are spending more and more time in the hive mind.  The mobile phone will probably become the closest thing we’ll ever have to telepathy.

I spend a lot of my time being lonely for physical interaction with other people.  And even though I find great intellectual satisfaction from the Internet it never eases that physical loneliness.

Farmville, the Facebook game, has over 82 million active players, and represents over 1% of the world’s population.  What does that say?  Is it a virtual return to the land, or is it a new hive mind form of socializing, or is it a sad escape from physical loneliness?  I say that as I write this for my hive mind friends to read while my wife is out in the den tending to her virtual farm.

JWH – 3/27/10

Unique Perspectives

We love people who can think outside of the box.  We love people who can see the world from a unique perspective.  We love people who can spot the trends before anyone else.  Well two of my friends have turned me onto a couple of people that have left me stunned with admiration, so I thought I’d pass them on to you.

The first is from Professor Jesse Schell and his take on where Facebook is leading us.  It’s in three parts:

 

If you watch these videos and don’t have a clue to what he’s talking about, well then I think you need to worry about being out of touch with pop culture, or else accept that the future has rushed past you.  Farmville has over 80 million users worldwide, and if you can’t understand what a weird fraking fact that is, then you might want to study these videos.  I’m not sure rock and roll in its heyday had those kinds of numbers.  Evidently it’s more addictive than meth, crack and heroin combined.  I know from experience since I’m a Farmville widower.

Next up is Christian Lander and his Stuff White People Like, a blog of brilliant social commentary with over 63 million hits.  The way to start reading this site is to visit the Full List of Stuff White People Like and pick a topic dear to your heart and get ready to be undressed.  Even more fun is to get together with a bunch of other white people and read these posts aloud.  Even when Lander isn’t skewering me, I’m learning so much about the people around me that is both hilarious and incredibly insightful.  Damn, I wish I had his people watching skills.

JWH – 3/2/10

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