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[May 25, 2000] The Social Life of Information
Of course, it's easy to get foolishly romantic about the pleasures of the "simpler" times. Few people really want to abandon information technology. Hours spent in a bank line, when the ATM in the supermarket can do the job in seconds, have little charm. Lose your papers in a less-developed country and trudge, as locals must do all the time, from line to line, from form to form, from office to office and you quickly realize that life without information technology, like life without modern sanitation, may seem simpler and even more "authentic," but for those who have to live it, it is not necessarily easier or more pleasant.
Even those people who continue to resist computers, faxes, e-mail, personal digital assistants, let alone the Internet and the World Wide Web, can hardly avoid taking advantage of the embedded microchips and invisible processors that make phones easier to use, cars safer to drive, appliances more reliable, utilities more predictable, toys and games more enjoyable, and the trains run on time. Though any of these technologies can undoubtedly be infuriating, most people who complain want improvements, not to go back to life without them. 
Nonetheless, there is little reason for complacency. Information technology has been wonderfully successful in many ways. But those successes have extended its ambition without necessarily broadening its outlook. Information is still the tool for all tasks. Consequently, living and working in the midst of information resources like the Internet and the World Wide Web can resemble watching a firefighter attempt to extinguish a fire with napalm. If your Web page is hard to understand, link to another. If a "help" system gets overburdened, add a "help on using help." If your answer isn't here, then click on through another 1,000 pages. Problems with information? Add more.
...Yet it can be easy for a logic of information to push aside the more practical logic of humanity. For example, by focusing on a logic of information, it was easy for Business Week in 1975 to predict that the "paperless office" was close. Five years later, one futurist was firmly insisting that "making paper copies of anything" was "primitive."  Yet printers and copiers were running faster and faster for longer and longer periods over the following decade. Moreover, in the middle of the decade, the fax rose to become an essential paper-based piece of office equipment. Inevitably, this too was seen as a breach of good taste. Another analyst snorted that the merely useful fax "is a serious blemish on the information landscape, a step backward, whose ramifications will be felt for a long time." 
But the fax holds on. Rather like the pencil - whose departure was predicted in 1938 by the New York Times in the face of ever more sophisticated typewriters - the fax, the copier, and paper documents refuse to be dismissed.  People find them useful. Paper, as we argue in chapter 7, has wonderful properties - properties that lie beyond information, helping people work, communicate, and think together.
If only a logic of information, rather than the logic of humanity, is taken into account, then all these other aspects remain invisible. And futurists, while raging against the illogic of humankind and the primitive preferences that lead it astray, will continue to tell us where we ought to go. By taking more account of people and a little less of information, they might instead tell us where we are going, which would be more difficult but also more helpful.
[May 21, 2000] March 2000 Taking the Crunch Out of Crunch Time
Whether you call it crunch mode, ship mode or "death-march" project management, mandatory overtime is a standard industry practice. When a software development project begins to slip schedule or is faced with near-impossible delivery demands, the formulaic response is to get people to work longer hours. Before long, the project is in constant crisis, keeping people hunched over their keyboards until all hours of the night and during the weekends.
There are many ways to justify mandatory overtime. Sometimes you estimate projects incorrectly and rely on overtime to compensate for bad budgeting or bad planning. Aiming to meet unrealistic delivery dates, you push your people to their limits.
But there are alternatives to mandatory overtime, including choosing to work differently and changing the work to be completed. Understanding what precipitates the downward spiral into constant overtime will help clarify your options.
I'm Sooo Tired …
Looking at his project schedule, a manager we'll call Peter sighed and thought, "We're not going to make it. We're supposed to freeze the code in two weeks, test for another four weeks and then ship. We can't be late on this project or we'll all lose our bonuses. Wait, I know—I'll get everyone to work overtime! We'll bring in dinners, and maybe even breakfasts. We'll do anything, as long as we can ship this product within two months."
Peter's staff hunkered down and heroically completed the project, putting in many hours of overtime, including nights and weekends. When they finished the project, senior management requested another project with a just-maybe-possible release date. This time the project team worked three months of overtime to make the release date. At the end of that project, a couple of people quit, but Peter and the rest of the team stayed on.
During the next year, Peter and his project team staggered from project to project, never quite doing things the way they wanted to, always in crisis mode. By the time they had released two more versions of the product, the entire original project team, including Peter, had quit. Now the company was in trouble. No one on the newly hired staff understood the product, and shortcuts taken by the original project team left the code and internal documentation indecipherable.
Most experienced managers have seen such a project death spiral. Some project managers believe they can achieve impossible deadlines just by getting people to work harder and longer hours. In fact, some management teams never learn how to prevent lurching from project to project. Their unending refrain is: "We're in a crunch. We need to stay focused and keep the pressure on."
In reality, mandatory overtime rarely helps an organization complete its projects faster. More frequently, mandatory overtime contributes to staff burnout, turnover and to higher costs in future development.
You may honestly believe that mandated overtime is helping your staff get the work done. More likely, however, you are actually encountering slow progress, as your programmers are creating more defects and much of the work that was done late at night fails to stand up to the critical light of day. If you are considering imposing mandatory overtime, first observe your project, then consider whether there are better solutions for the problem of insufficient time.
Does progress sometimes seem achingly slow, despite the long hours of work? It may be that your developers are exhausted. Over time, with too much overtime, people can get too tired to think well or to do a good job.
Fatigue builds up in many ways. Some begin to lose their social skills, becoming more irritable and difficult to handle. Some lose their problem-solving skills and start creating more problems in their code than they solve. Some people become disgusted and cynically put in their "face-time" without doing much useful work. When such telltale signs of team exhaustion appear, the overtime people are working can be making your project even later. It may be best to give everyone some time off and to return to normal workweeks.
[Mar.16, 2000] Agents that Reduce Work and Information Overload - Page 1
[Mar.16, 2000] Information Overload Permission not to know
In a session of an hour and a half I and others explored this idea of "permission to not know". Our discussion ranged over several important questions, without necessarily providing answers. Some of the questions we pondered were:
- What do we need to know, as opposed to what do we want to know?
- Who needs/wants to know, and what is the range of needing? Do some people have a greater need than others?
- Is information the same as knowledge? Is there a continuum: beginning with data (which are all around us) to information (something we identify as having value to us) to knowledge (which relates directly to our needs and wants) and so on to understanding and learning.
- What are we missing by all this knowing? Are we missing something intuitive?
- What would happen if we did not have the information or knowledge?
[Mar.16, 2000] Change and Information Overload negative effects
It seems that the biggest problem facing present-day society is not that there is too little progress, but rather too much of it. Our mind, physiology nor social structures seem fit to cope with such a rate of change and such an amount of new information. Unfortunately, change, complexity and information overload are abstract phenomena, which are difficult to grasp. Therefore, few people have as yet understood that they contribute to the anxiety they feel. When trying to explain their vague feelings of dissatisfaction, they will rather look for more easily recognizable causes, such as unemployment, pollution, crime, corruption or immigration. These phenomena, which have become much more visible because of the attention they get from the media, play the role of scapegoats: they are blamed for the lack of quality of life which people experience, while being only tangentially related to it. This reinforces an atmosphere of gloom and doom.
Information overload in the HotBot directory
Information Overload Fighting data asphyxiation is difficult but possible
So what is to be done? The situation is not at all hopeless. Just as we require food, we similarly need information. The critical thing to remember is that we still have control over the information in our lives. Following are some suggestions on how to exercise that control in the different areas of our day. Overall, the maxim to live by is, "decrease quantity, increase quality."
- At the office
- Be careful with your phone time. Don't tolerate sitting on perma-hold, listening to elevator music and even more stupid radio commercials. Leave a short, efficient message which indicates precisely what action you want taken and move on. Remember: when in doubt, hit 0 for the operator. A recent Reuters survey found that 20% of all voice-mail time is spent fumbling through menus.
- Reduce paper. An old boss of mine told me to touch a piece of paper only once. Either use and file it or toss it in the recycle bin. To help facilitate this, switch to a fax/modem instead of a regular fax machine. There is no paper involved, and the "delete" key really can be your best friend.
- Get organized. CorelCENTRAL or Microsoft's Outlook are good examples of utilities which will structure your time, clear your desk of neon sticky notes, and maybe even consolidate your fax and e-mail functions. Also check out 3M's electronic Post-It program, a marvelous jewel which will do wonders to clean your desk.
- Keep meetings short, sweet, and focused. Make it known from the outset what your time limitations are and confirm beforehand the presence of a constructive agenda. I can't count the number of precious home hours I've lost to a company-bought pizza and managerial meandering.
- At home
- Kill your television -- or at least make it hard to use. Some families keep just one TV and leave it in the closet except for occasional viewing. Before sitcom stupor sets in, ask yourself, "Is this a good use of my time?" Even television news is mostly fluff designed more to sell commercials than to educate the public. Weather and commercials now account for half of each hour's broadcast. The U.S. Department of Health and Human services has published findings that TV might actually cause learning disorders (really?!), so try instating a family reading time instead.
- Keep your phone number unlisted to reduce solicitation calls.
- Sick of junk mail? Contact the Direct Marketing Association (P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale NY 11735) with your exact home address along with all the permutations on your name currently in use by junk mailers. Ask to be removed from all the direct mail lists with which they are associated.
- Prioritize your phone time. It's taken years, but friends and family have learned to call me with planned discussion items and then not take it personally when I shove the call to a conclusion.
- Develop a hobby. Many of us feel that we don't have the time or talent for a hobby, or maybe that was something our parents did -- and God knows we don't want to be like them. A hobby, however, besides having its own inherent rewards (not to mention a second possible source of income) will take time from otherwise wasteful brain drains like TV. Exercise can be viewed as a hobby. It may take an hour out of your nightly rerun ritual, but think of the extra 20 years of health you gain on the backside.
- On the Net
- E-mail can be a virus in its own right. Only drop your address (especially on Usenet) when essential, because software robots will see it and automatically add you to marketing lists. Respond to junk e-mail messages indicating that you wish to be removed from the mailing list or else you will contact the sender's Internet provider (usually email@example.com). Also, you can usually tell which messages are worth your time just by scanning the header. Dump the extraneous ones. Respond to non-important messages as infrequently as possible since correspondence tends to increase exponentially. Finally, take 30 minutes to download and install a good spam filter from Tucows.
- Newsgroups can consume your life. I used to lurk and contribute in half a dozen groups. Today, I only visit Usenet for research, targeting specific answers and ignoring all other conversation threads.
- Beware getting stuck in that tangled Web. The inescapable banner advertising is bad enough, but with 70+ million pages to muddle through, every Web user should master effective search techniques. I recommend www.metacrawler.com. Take ten minutes and learn the Boolean search terms. 10,000 hits may sound like a gold mine, but odds are that with a narrowed search you'll find your best nuggets in the first 10.
- Remember the library! When doing research, you may save innumerable hours forsaking the Web altogether and logging into your local library's server. Many counties (including Multnomah and Washington) provide free access to Magazines Online (MO), a searchable, up-to-date database of hundreds of periodical articles. MO often alleviates the need for costly magazine subscriptions, endless Web searches, and, at the very least, a lot of photocopying. In researching this article, the Web was virtually useless while MO supplied over a dozen valuable references.
- Use your printer. I know this conflicts with my earlier statements about saving paper, but it's so easy to become distracted by enticing link after link. When you find information that you need, print it. This saves both on reading time and the need to find the page again later. Of course, if you have the discipline to set up effective hard drive directories, saving such Web pages is a better solution. Simply saving a page won't allow you to keep graphics, though. I recommend using a program like Folio's Web Retriever, which not only will save a page's graphics but archive an entire site.
[Nov.29, 1999] Computer Eyestrain Journal - by Eye2Eye - All About Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) & Video Display Terminals (VDTs), Eye Strain
[Oct.14, 1999] Linux.com - Featured Articles Obsession - October 11th, 1999 by Matt Michie
Jake had lost himself sifting through source code, searching for another elusive bug, when Fred broke through the trance. When Fred wanted your attention, he usually got it one way or another. In this case, he jumped up onto the desk scattering printouts across the room.
Jake started, and there was Fred gazing up at him with those pitiful feline eyes. Damn, he had been so engrossed in the work that he'd forgotten to feed the cat again.
Jake made his way to the kitchen. He hoped he still had a bit of cat food left, it had been awhile since he'd been out to grab groceries. That was usually something Kate had taken care of. It wasn't until she had left that Jake truly appreciated how much she really did for him. Jake had never known a girl with so much patience, but apparently even Kate had her limits. The long hours at work and his recent obsession took quite a toll on their relationship.
[July 27, 1999] SlashdotThe High Tech Sweatshop -- comments are much more interesting than the story. The latter is kind of suspect ;-)
Its 4:30 am on a Friday and I just finished the last Mountain Dew. We ran out of coffee hours ago, the remains of it now black sludge at the bottom of the pot. The buildings air conditioning went off sometime the previous night and its up to almost 90 degrees in the server room. The two volunteer hackers on the staff went home after 12 hours, leaving me and the sysadmin…
This is a normal day for me.
I‘m a systems engineer in the client services division of a network security software company. Basically what that means is that when networks break, I fix them.
I am 22 years old, I make a large multiple of the national average salary, and if I cashed in my stock options I could buy a very nice house. I’m also sixty pounds overweight, I sleep an average of four hours a night, and I have several ulcers. I usually spend about 60 hours a week at the office, but I’m on call 24 hours a day seven days a week. If I was honest with myself Id probably say I worked about one hundred hours last week. This is a normal life for someone working in this industry.
We live in a world today that runs on information. And people want all of it now. When was the last time you actually wrote out a personal letter to someone, on paper, in pen? Why bother when E-mail is so much faster and easier? But what goes on behind the scenes when you hit the “send” button? There are thousands of people out there just like me who have titles like “Network engineer” and “Systems administrator”. We keep that information flowing, and we get paid what seems like a lot of money to do it. If you’ve been in the market for a good network admin lately you know what I mean. The market is pushing the salary into the 100k+ plus range for someone with the necessary experience to handle even a relatively small network, never mind what the really large companies like State Farm insurance or Wells Fargo bank have.
I started work on this problem with the sysadmin on Thursday before the close of business, getting things set up, preparing for the changes etc… The company was switching internet service providers that night because the previous one hadn’t provided the level of service they needed. This entailed changing the IP addresses, and DNS configurations of every machine in the building, running three different operating systems, probably two hundred machines all told, then setting up the servers, routers, and switches necessary to get it all running. It’s a big job, but with six people working on it we figured we could get it done before start of business the next day. Normally you would do this kind of thing over a weekend, but the ISP could either do the changeover tonight, or wait till next week, and we needed to be online before Monday.
Getting back to what happens when you press the send button. You expect the computer to send the message, and that the person it was sent to will receive it. What happens to the message then is an incredibly complex series of storage, sending, routing, switching, redirecting, forwarding and retrieving, that is all over in a fraction of a second, or at most a few minutes. But you don’t care how or why it gets there, only that it does, and this is all you should care about. After all you don’t have to know how your cars engine works in order to drive it right. But someone has to know in case it breaks. And when your email breaks you expect someone to fix it. It doesn’t matter what time it is, or where the message is being sent, you want it to get there now.
Its now 8 am and the network is still down. We’ve managed to isolate a routing problem and are in the process of fixing it. The ISP gave us the wrong IP addresses and now we have to go back and redo all two hundred machines in the building. The router was crashing and we couldn’t figure out why. Two hours on the phone with the vendors support, and three levels of support engineer later we fix it. People are starting to come in to work and ask why they can’t get their email. The changeover process takes us about three hours and finally everyone has the right IP, but things still aren’t working right. A bunch of people use DHCP for their laptops and the DHCP people cant get out to the net. The CEO of the company is one of those people…
So what do we do? Well we hire people to take care of the network. And we give them benefits and pay like any normal employee. We also give them pagers, cell phones, a direct phone lines to their houses so that any time, any where, we can get them, because the network could go down, and we DEPEND on that network, and those people. This is where things go skew from the normal business model.
All compensation is basically in exchange for time. The only thing humans have to give is their time. When I pay you a salary it is in exchange for me being able to use your abilities for a certain period of time every year. The assumption is that the more experienced or knowledgeable you are the more your time is worth. This works fine when you are being paid a wage, but salaried employees aren’t. They exist under the polite fiction that all their work can be done in a forty hour period every week, no matter how much work there is. We all know this isn’t the case of course. And when it comes to Systems administrators and network engineers that polite fiction isn’t so polite. In exchange for high salaries and large stock options the company owns you all day and all night, every day and every night. You are “Mission critical”. High salaries become an illusion because when it gets down to it your hourly rate isn’t much better than the assistant manager of the local Pep Boys.
I finally went home at 1 that afternoon. I couldn’t stay awake any more and if I didn’t leave right then I wouldn’t have been able to drive home. The funny thing is I felt guilty for leaving. Things still weren’t working quite right, and I felt like I should have stayed until they were. Even funnier is that I volunteered for this. The only part of the job that I actually had to do was to change a few IP addresses and configure the firewall, but I thought I’d lend a hand, and I couldn’t do the firewall till everything else was working anyway. My wife hadn’t seen me in two and a half days, and I could barely give her a kiss when I walked through the door and collapsed on my bed. The SysAdmin was fired a few hours after I left. Back to work Monday morning.
From reader comments:
like furnace stokers (Score:2, Funny) by firstname.lastname@example.org (http://durak.org/sean/) on Monday July 26, @06:57AM EDT (#2) (User Info) http://durak.org/sean/ i sometimes liken system and network admin to being a coal stoker in the basement of a big building, just shoveling coal into the furnace 24/7 to keep the business above running. punchline of your story is that they fired the (only?) full time system administrator. personal and professional info on homepage: http://durak.org/sean/ Amen Brother (Score:1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 26, @06:58AM EDT (#3)
Been there. All I can suggest is that you make a serious effort to spend more time playing and less time working. When I left my last job, I had 8 weeks vacation accrued, and a real bad attitude. I took two months off working, and now I limit my work week to 50 hrs on regular weeks, and anytime I work more than that, I take off a day or half day in the following week. This has really helped me be a lot nicer person overall (and my wife REALLY likes that). I have always met folks in high positions who DO appreciate my effort, and have thus always had stellar reviews and reccomedations for future employment. Good luck, and stay sane.
[July 15, 1999] Information overload can be coupled with real overload, that is characteristic of startups:
As one Slashdot reader put it (ArticlesHome Sweet Sweatshop):
They think that because they work 18 hours a day, neglect their home life, end up divorced, have kids that don't know them, and few real friends, they are "Heros". They gave their all, 110%. Guess what, for that 110%, you will get a watch and maybe a small pention when you retire. You will dye alone, and no one that ever worked with you will care. There is so much more to life than the grind. People who overwork themselves aren't heros, they are idiots...
Another reader stated about WEB-related jobs
I work in "the Industry" and telecommute from home (very small apartment on the 5th floor). I have 10+ people over me and a few below me, and I've never met any of them face to face -- I only know them by e-mail, though I work with them every day for 18+ hours, sleeping on a futon in between. Pay is good, but it's very isolated -- no human contact at all, and I get very tired of staring at the same Netscape, Emacs, and shell windows all day, every day. I go through 150+ ounces of dew and coke every day, and there's nothing directly outside but traffic and other buildings. Time pressure is also fairly high. Everything must always be done "within 24 hours" because that's the way the Web works, I guess. I'm getting fairly tired of working this way.
Another interesting quote:
You know, media companies aren't the only ones. ANY sort of internet startup, and I've worked for MORE than one, has so many unreasonable demands that it's absurd. And in my experience, most of it's the people in charge. I'm working for a startup now. Hating every minute of it. I'm expected to work 80 hour weeks, be on call, do customer tech support (I'm the system administrator), and do seven other people's jobs while I'm at it. Which *NECESSITATES* a 70 hour work week. Every.. freaking.. week! And to add insult to injury, I'm not even paid 1/4th of what I'm worth according to every salary survey out there. And of course, I'm going to be the first one asked to take a pay cut or vacation when the VC runs out. Which I expect to be very soon. The company is a management disaster. Ignorance and blatant lack of record keeping and blatant lack of research has already wasted over $4 *MILLION*. And of course, in typical "let's get ready for that day far FAR away when we make an IPO" fashion, we have a CEO, CFO, CTO, and COO already. Who's combined salaries could buy me *two* RS/6000 SP2 Advanced Switches (which, last check, are over $100k/ea) *AND* a Lexus!
Why DON'T you take your own advice? I've left two companies so far, when the management got absolutely intolerable--when the 'con' list got longer than the 'pro' list.
Two truths I've learned in my first two internet jobs (since '94, when I graduated university):
- Once you lose absolutely all respect for management because of their incompetence, there is no way they can earn it back. It's time to leave.
- When nobody in your chain of command knows what you do and how... when it's "assholes all the way up," it's time to leave.
[July 10, 1999] Slate - Webhead The Love Bloat. By Andrew Shuman Hurrah for enormous software programs, filled with useless features, that don't run very fast.
A day doesn't go by that I don't read in the press ... or some Microsoft customer sidles up to me ... or even my girlfriend says, "Hey, Shuman, why is Microsoft software so bloated, so full of junk, sucking up megs of space on my hard drive, hogging memory, and taking forever to load! The toolbar buttons look like they were lifted from the cockpit of an F-16." My grouchy critics are ramping up again as the very large Office 2000 software suite hits the stores: "Shuman, why don't you and the other boy developers at Microsoft write some trim and tight code?" Well, ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. The problem with software today is not that it is bloated. The problem is that it's not bloated enough!
Bloat is the American dream: bigger, better, and everywhere all at once. Supersize it! From VCRs to food processors to Ford Expeditions, industry has historically provided consumers with features to have, not necessarily to use. How many of you have programmed your VCR? Minced carrots with your Cuisinart? Or gone off-roading in your SUV? Why should software be any different? Do you really think software developers add features just for fun, like some cackling tormentor? If only that were the case. Sadly, it is you, the customer, who demands bloat, forever clamoring for new features. Software companies take your wish lists seriously, and then make them happen. It's like the violence-in-the-media argument: We hate it, but we buy it.
[June 28, 1999] Open directory: Reference Knowledge Management Information Overload
[June 28, 1999] Coping with Information overload
This presentation looks at the reasons for information overload, gives advice on coping with overload and shows how Mailbase can help you to manage overload from mailing lists. It concentrates on e-mail and mailing lists, though the problems and solutions can be applicable to other media such as the web.
The presentation should last about twenty to thirty minutes, includes speaker's notes and covers
- The causes and results of Information overload
- How e-mail and mailing lists can both add to and reduce overload
- How you can cope with overload:
- manage your time
- know your e-mail
- use the appropriate tool
- How Mailbase can help
- Further reading
Although this is a general presentation, it may be tailored to an individual audience providing the copyright Mailbase notice is retained.
It is available in the following formats:
[PowerPoint 7] [PowerPoint 4] [HTML]
[June 28, 1999] The Clever Project
The tremendous growth in the price-performance of networking and storage has fueled the explosive growth of the web. The amount of information easily accessible from the desktop has dramatically increased by several orders of magnitude in the last few years, and shows no signs of abating. Users of the web are being confronted with the consequent information overload problem. It can be exceedingly difficult to locate resources that are both high-quality and relevant to their information needs. Traditional automated methods for locating information are easily overwhelmed by low-quality and unrelated content. Thus, the second generation of search engines will have to have effective methods for focusing on the most authoritative among these documents. The rich structure implicit in the hyperlinks among Web documents offers a simple, and effective, means to deal with many of these problems. The CLEVER search engine incorporates several algorithms that make use of hyperlink structure for discovering high-quality information on the Web.
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The Last but not Least
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Last modified: October, 11, 2015