Tuesday, March 25, 2008

My Slow Email Movement

I've never been a slow-anything person, other than riding slowly up mountains, and that's only because of the weakness of flesh, not any unwillingness of spirit. So it's not often that I embrace a Slow movement.

But on my Web page, I currently say

Every month I get over 10,000 messages. Of these, just over 8000 messages are spam. In this same time I send over 1000 messages. I am, in short, a full time email employee who gets to do a little teaching and research on the side. You know, as recreation.

If any of the deans or assistant deans or vice-deans or sub-deans or deans-in-waiting or deans-in-law at Brown are reading this: I'm kidding! Everyone else: I'm not!

For a day or two, I played with Google Mail on my mobile phone. Then, one day, I was lost during a bike ride, so I pulled out my mobile to find my whereabouts on Google Maps...and found myself checking my email. Soon after the apps ceased to work on my T-Mobile phone, and I was happy to not investigate why.

For the past year or so, I have rarely been checking my email when I travel. That is, I check it once every two to three days. And here's something amazing. If I wait a day, it takes me about an hour to restore my mailbox. If I wait two days, it takes me about an hour-and-a-half. If I wait three days, it still takes me about an hour-and-a-half.

These numbers are slightly misleading. They mask critical tasks that require real attention to detail and will take much longer than a minute to discharge. But those tasks are relatively few: I can be gone for two weeks and find only two or three such tasks lying in wait when I return. Which suggests I'm significantly promoting in importance things I do encounter daily.

There are other knock-on effects. You've played email ping-pong, right? Everyone treats their mailbox as a task-manager, so you get a task, you reply or forward to put the monkey on someone else's back, they do the same to put it back on yours, and suddenly you've lost an hour of the day (because studies haved, shown that these context-switches are extremely expensive, though as computer scientists, we should have known that). And, since you and your correspondent are both on-line, your reply begets their reply, and so forth. Congestion-control through exponential-backoff, anyone? (This is why I enjoy clearing out backlog during times when lots of people are on vacation: significantly fewer replies.)

The backoff strategy shows where our email user interfaces have gotten it wrong. They show us when we received email, but who cares; they should instead tell us when we should be replying to email. And that “when” should be a combination of when we need to (based on message content) and when it would be prudent to (based on correspondent habits).

So I'm making a conscious decision. I'm going to go Slow on E-Mail. I'm going to treat it as an addiction, like drinking too much coffee. There doesn't seem to be a simple, prescriptive or descriptive classification of addiction treatment akin to the seven stages of grief; much of the on-line material about treating addiction is rather disturbing and possibly borderline dangerous (and, mark me, there's a megachurch out there somewhere that is going to make a killing off faith-based treatments for email). So I'll have to figure this one out on my own.

Do feel free to drop me a note with your thoughts.

Just don't expect me to respond.

Monday, March 24, 2008

How to Provide Information to a Black Hole

Some years ago I was talking to a visiting scholar who was a faculty member in a foreign country. I asked her why letters from her country seemed to be so uninformative. She pointed out that there, faculty never read letters: they only write them. Even graduate students are admitted purely on the basis of test scores.

The facts were hardly surprising—after all, this is the system I grew up with in India—but after hearing the way she put it, the proverbial bulb lit up. If you never evaluate letters yourself, how would you know what letters should and shouldn't contain? The feedback—admission decisions—is seemingly random, and therefore of little use. [Yes, I know, that isn't the same as a black hole. But admit it, the title got you reading.]

Read on...

The Monuments of State

And now, to interject a rare political comment into this blog. I don't usually get my news from TV, and in general avoid the klieg lights of frenzied CNN coverage. Yet during winter break I was transfixed by the news of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. It may have been work-avoidance, but I think it was something more.

Sub-continentals of a certain age-mine-will remember the heady days of the mid-1980s, when two young technocrats came to power in India and Pakistan. Sure, they may have been scions of power, and this may have endowed them with a detached view of affairs. In India, we joked that we'd gotten the raw end of the deal: while their new leader had chaired the Oxford Debating Union (at a time when such things still meant something in the sub-continent), ours seemed to have spent his time at Oxbridge wooing a girl and not much else. But ours had then led a quiet life as a pilot, and nothing seemed a better metaphor for the flight to modernity that we were promised.

In the end, of course, it all came crashing down (if you'll pardon my sticking with the metaphor). Rajiv Gandhi was quickly mired in a major scandal; his modernizers ran into walls of orthodoxy and venality; and eventually, on the road back to power, he was the target of an early, high-profile suicide bomb. Benazir Bhutto, for her part, similarly mired in the muck of politics and corruption and lost, won, and lost again in dizzying succession. Exactly why Western powers had so much vested in her return is unclear; no political realist could have looked on her regency with much hope.

And yet, today, India at least is a booming economy; her considerable social troubles are at least slightly counterweighed by her achievement and hope in some arenas. And none of this growth has come in ways that Rajiv Gandhi imagined. His vision was ultimately still one of top-down, government-led development (and while he did listen to people smart enough to appreciate the need for telecoms infrastructure, it is unclear that that is the push that led to today's widespread mobile phone adoption in India). The companies that dominate the headlines today were shabby regional outfits at that time. Though they have attracted new sparks, to a considerable extent they are led by the same people as they were before: suggesting that the problem was not one of talent, but of freedom to innovate. (As The Economist put it recently, India's vast licensing regime was, fortunately, simply not attuned to software, so it got free before they could clamp their hands on it.)

And so, a chapter of sub-continental politics that began with so much hope in my youth, and had already sputtered to a halt a few years later, formally ended with Benazir's abrupt passing (which had an eerie parallel to Rajiv Gandhi's own end). With it, I hope, also died a chapter in the economics of development. While the centralized, top-down push for innovation that these leaders represented failed dismally, decentralized, bottom-up forces have used their freedom to forge a remarkable industry. The only hope now is that Pakistan will find in itself similar pockets of innovation to parallel India. And as for the world powers, as in technology, so in politics: instead of trying to find the leader who represents your views and promises to thrust it upon her people, work on empowering the people at the bottom.

Austan Power, or, Internationals Lacking Mystery

Many months ago, when Barack Obama began his presidential run, I was intrigued by his views. Finding relatively little that didn’t require much digging, I did what any sensible person should do in the first place: ignore the candidate and proceed straight to the advisors. After all, I expect most presidents of most countries (with the exception of those played on TV by TV Nobel Laureates...) couldn’t tell apart the GDP from the WTI from a CDO. It’s the bright sparks behind the scenes who make up the ideas and quietly let the leader shamelessly take credit for it (where else is such blatant lifting of ideas not only condoned but the outright norm?).

So I began to peek into Obama’s team. Imagine my surprise when the first two names I encountered were people whom I both respected immensely. The first, for foreign policy, was Samantha Power, the self-proclaimed “genocide chick”, better known as author of the moving and brilliant A Problem From Hell, her account of the genocides of the twentieth century. The second was Austan Goolsbee, an intriguing centrist (at Chicago!) economist who rose to prominence for his proposal to simplify tax reporting. That was enough for me.

Unfortunately, these people are fundamentally academics and think-tankers, not pols. It had to be only a matter of time before their instincts for truth-telling came to the fore...but how! In just a matter of weeks, the very two people who had so reassured me have now become household names in the most undesirable way: Power for calling Hillary Clinton a monster, and Goolsbee for secretly telling the Canadians that the posturing on NAFTA was simply that, a campaign tactic. Underneath the latter, especially, is a fundamental and reassuring truth, but unfortunately truth and politics mix poorly. And the result is that American foreign policy and economics will be the poorer for the distancing of these two talents.

Bread, Butter, and Jest a Little Jam

Back in high school, I frittered away far too much of my time on (but made a bit of money from) something called Jest-a-Minute (JAM). I was surprised to see little documentation of this on the Web (though Felix Klock II pointed me to something similar at the BBC).

Anyway, here’s how it worked in my circle.

Six contestants sit in a semi-circle, and each is equipped w/ a buzzer (or its low-tech equivalent, a steel chair, that the participant can thump with vigor to dramatic effect). The contestants take turns. The judge reads aloud a title, usually something a little ridiculous (eg, “Bread, Butter, and Traffic Jam”). The contestant whose turn it is has to begin speaking on the topic within one second.

While the contestant speaks, the others can object. Contestants object by buzzing (or thumping); the judge decides which contestant objected first, and asks for the objection; if the objection is sustained the objector begins speaking, else the previous speaker resumes.

Scoring: every second you speak scores you 1 point. Every sustained objection gets you 5-10 points (and control of the mic). Every overruled objection loses you 5-10 points. Whoever is speaking when the buzzer goes off at second 60 gets a bonus of 10-15 points no matter how long they have spoken, except...if you manage to speak a whole minute without any objections sustained, you get a whomping bonus (100-500 points).

The unwritten rule is that the speaker has to strive to be funny. Judges and audiences are sympathetic to speakers who kept it lively. On the other hand, judges are smart-alecks who don’t too much appreciate being out-smart-alecked by participants.

Categories of objections (all subject to the judge’s opinion):

  • pause
  • stutter or stammer
  • repetition (words, phrases, concepts)
  • ungrammatical speech
  • irrelevant speech (no connection with the given title)
  • and the catch-all, “TWT” (time-wasting tactics)

Speakers can try to defend themselves. For instance, if they appear to pause for longer than the normal time between words and someone objects, they can respond, “I was at a comma” or “I was at a period”. They would then be obliged to resume accordingly. Well, they aren’t required to, but if they don’t, someone could object that they were ungrammatical and that objection would be sustained.

A good contestant stretches the limit. If, for instance, I had said “The world is—” and was interrupted, but the objection was overruled, I could resume with “The world is”. If someone then objected to a repeition or TWT, the judge would find that unfair and overrule that objection too. But if I again began with “The world is” and someone again objected to a repetition or TWT, the objection would be sustained (usually with a sarcastic remark by the judge).

For advanced rounds, judges sometimes throw in twists: eg, no sentence can be logically tied to its predecessor, or no-one may use words that begin with a particular letter. Needless to say, these result in general mayhem: like the closing minutes of an American football game, it can take 10-15 minutes to get through a “minute”.