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How Do I Add FriendFeed Comments to My Blog:

Hey, smarter people: how do I add a FriendFeed comments module under my blog comments? I want to see all these great comments. Just found these several days later:


Man, so many great people saying great things, and I didn’t engage at all. : (

Not only is this blog entry a great example of how to start a conversation (i.e. ask your community), the comments are a great example of how the conversation progresses. They provide a solution, naturally, but there is also extensive debugging help to get it to work. Eventually, the creator of the needed plug-in arrives to help and ends up making his own software better.

So by asking for help, the community not only provided an answer to Chris, it helped troubleshoot and make the product even better. All in less than 24 hours. How is that for a development cycle!

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Ross is right

arches by jeffpearce
Socialtext is Growing Up:
[Via Enterprise 2.0 Blog]

I had a great chat with Socialtext’s co-founder Ross Mayfield this week, and he highlighted a few interesting facts about wiki implementations. Notably, he says that wikis fail in the enterprise if they are imposed by IT, rather than by business groups. This is not surprising, but it’s required the company to think hard about

Ross is a smart guy. I met him several years ago at an AlwaysOn meeting at Stanford in 2003. Socialtext has been doing wiki’s from the beginning so they know some of the barriers that have to be surmounted.

And what he says applies not only to wikis but also to any Web 2.0 approach. The individuals have to see why it is worth their time to change their workflow. And the tools had better help them to that or the tools will languish.

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Norms are changing

columns by TankGirlJones
Column on NIH and Harvard policies:
[Via Open Access News]
Karla Hahn, Two new policies widen the path to balanced copyright management: Developments on author rights, C&RL News, July/August 2008.

A light bulb is going off that is casting the issue of author rights management into new relief. On January 11, 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a revision of its Public Access Policy. Effective April 7, 2008, the agency requires investigators to deposit their articles stemming from NIH funding in the NIH online archive, PubMed Central. Librarians have been looking forward to such an announcement, especially since studies found that the voluntary version of the policy was achieving deposit rates of affected articles on the order of a few percentage points.

Since we as taxpayers pay for this research, it should not be bound up behind access control. Now, because of the NIH’s revision, it won’t.

With the article deposit requirement, researchers can no longer simply sign publication agreements without careful review and, in some cases, modification of the publisher’s proposed terms. While this may be perceived as a minor annoyance, it calls attention to the value of scholarly publications and the necessity to consider carefully whether an appropriate balance between author and publisher rights and needs is on offer.

The norm in science has been to always quickly sign over copyright so that the paper could be published. This sometimes resulted in the absurd prospect that the author of a paper could not use his own data in slides, since he no more owned the copyright of it than any other random scientist. Now there is a little leverage for the author to retain some aspects of copyright.

As institutions, as grantees, become responsible for ensuring that funded authors retain the rights they need to meet the NIH public Access Policy requirements, there is a new incentive for campus leaders to reconsider institutional policies and local practices relating to faculty copyrights as assets. …
The February 2008 vote by the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences to grant Harvard a limited license to make certain uses of their journal articles is another important indicator of an accelerating shift in attitudes about author rights management, and also reveals the value of taking an institutional approach to the issue. …

Academic pressure is coming to bear on these policies and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. In most instances, providing open access will be the better route but now the individual institutions will be responsible for providing the necessary infrastructure.

Perhaps something like Highwire Press will appear. Here , instead of each scientific association having to develop their own infrastructure, Highwire does it for many of them, greatly simplifying publishing for all. Highwire now has almost 2 million article published with free access. Perhaps something similar for institutional storage would be helpful.

Norms are always more difficult to change than technologies. We are now witnessing a key shift in norms for sharing scholarly work that promises a giant step forward in leveraging the potential of network technologies and digital scholarship to advance research, teaching, policy development, professional practice, and technology transfer. …

What scientists expect when they publish a paper is changing rapidly. What once took 6-9 months from submission to publication can now happen in weeks. Where once all rights had to be assigned to the publisher, now the authors can retain some for their own use.

What will the norms be like in five years?

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Life scientists at Friendfeed

Life Sciences likes this: Friendfeed:
[Via OpenWetWare]

I’m going to assume that only those currently using FriendFeed will understand the self reference in the title but if you didn’t that’s OK. Just keep on reading, you’ll get it, eventually.

If you happen to be interested or work in the life sciences area I’d recommend you take a few minutes to read Cameron Neylon‘s great post about FriendFeed and how it’s been embraced by the life sciences community.

I won’t go into the details of how FriendFeed works, but it’s been rapidly gaining momentum as a medium for groups of users to network and discuss each other’s shared content.

FriendFeed’s about page states:

FriendFeed enables you to keep up-to-date on the web pages, photos, videos and music that your friends and family are sharing. It offers a unique way to discover and discuss information among friends

The life sciences community has picked up on this great website like wildfire. A recently created room called The Life Scientists grew in a very short period (a week?) from just a few active online colleagues to a whooping 100+ users.

FriendFeed rooms offer a way to share on-topic content and further discussion via comments. Commenting can be done on any shared items (yours or others). This has proven to be useful for rapid input and idea sharing amongst the room’s users.

Amongst the 100+ users of the Life Scientists room, both Cameron from Science in the Open and Pedro from Public Rambling have found FriendFeed to be useful and explain why it works. Both great reads.

This is the sort of tool that can very rapidly connect researchers, in ways that Twitter or Facebook do not. Not only can links be put up rapidly but comments are there very fast. It allows one to ask questions, post answers. It is a lot like how the Bionet newsgroup, which you can still access, used to be back in the old days (i.e. 1993-95) when Usenet ruled the Internet.

This is the online equivalent of the water cooler where you can run into someone and strike up a conversation that could lead to innovative thinking. Only instead of two people having to occupy the same space at the same time, this approach decouples both, permitting a much wider circle of people to be involved.

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Using our social networks

It’s Harvest Time for Networking and Tomatoes by Beth Kanter

This week I am an online mentor on the topic of “Effective Online Networking” as part of the Networking for Success project at the the Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre. The project will teach women how to use Web 2.0 tools and other ICTs to effectively develop and advance their work. Participants are learning how to use these tools to initiate and manage projects; as well as identify networking opportunities with others.

I started with a post with some thoughts about effective online networking. (And posted an invitation to others to participate on my blog). Oreoluwa Somolu, Executive Director of the Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre, left a thoughtful comment.

“I like how you point out that it’s the quality of the relationships that you build online that matters, not just how many people you meet.An analogy is when we attend conferences or other ‘live’ networking events and focus on collecting as many business cards as possible, without taking the time to have proper conversations with people (as well as you can in those settings) and following-up with them afterwards.”

As with face-to-face interactions, there are grooming exercises to be done online. What these new tools do is make it easier for all of us to do a little grooming every so often, without a large expenditure of time.

And finding creative uses of these tools is always important. Such as this:

Chris Brogan shared some excellent post conference networking hacks. I particularly liked this little trick:

“I play “shuffle up and email” often. I take my cards from past events, and then send someone a random email (hopefully with value to what they’re doing, and mindful of what I’d want to do with them). The email is a “ping,” a chance to show them that I’m still out there, and that we might still have business. Further, it might just be the thing that gets someone thinking of me for another opportunity.”

Thinking of email as a ping is a useful idea. Just as salespeople use ticklers to remind them to contact people, this can be used online by anyone. Perhaps we need a little widget in our email that will randomly pick out name, along with some information, and remind us to send an email.

Social grooming is something we all like to do in person. Just think about including it in your online presence. Lots of people love an email out of the blue and it helps maintain a link, as well as further information flow. It is the weak ties that often lead to the most innovative solutions.

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Web 2.0 Behavior

hill by helmet13
Action and Reaction:
[Via A Journey In Social Media]

Conversations are basically what Web 2.0 is all about. It uses new tools but they only accentuate what humans already do naturally – interact and exchange information with a large social network. Many of the same social skills we use in person can be adapted to online use.

Here is a nice discussion of just that at Chuck’s blog as he discusses some of the problems they have seen following a Web 2.0 rollout at his company.

We Want People To Have Conversations

And they are.

Lots of conversations, really. Mostly about work stuff. But not always.

A while back, there was a notable surge in “off topic” discussions — favorite movies, raising rabbits, anime, commute times, etc.

In a pure Web 2.0 idealized world, it’s all good, right?

Well, we’re not exactly in this progressive 2.0 world quite yet. And we have to be mindful of the transition.

There Is A Valid Business Need For Off-Topic Discussions

More and more of our teams are geographically and culturally dispersed. We want people to align and bond around common interests — whatever they might be.

Just like we spend boatloads of money to fly people around for group meetings — and subsequent “team building” events — this sort of idle chatter has a role in “enterprise 2.0”, and we don’t want to be shutting things down.

But, we also want broad adoption in our 1.0 employee base. And if certain 2.0 behaviors hamper that, well — that’s an issue, isn’t it?

So, how to deal with the innovation of a new world to play in as it bumps up against real world situations? First, identify the problems. Here are three.

Problem #1 — Clutter

With our current 1.x Clearspace implementation, we have a “home page” that dutifully records each and every thought someone shares (except blog comments for some reason). That off-topic clutter at a corporate level is downright annoying to many people.

Sure, the user can take action: set up filters, personalize, etc. There’s some of that in Clearspace 1.x, more in 2.x, and then there’s RSS feeds, etc. But all of these are highly dependent on users taking control of their content stream.

And that’s a new 2.0-ish skill that not too many people at our company have. Sure, we could tell them “here’s what you have to do to control the problem”, but we’re trying to drive broader engagement and adoption of the platform, and we’ve had more than a few people new to the environment simply say “I can’t handle this social content stream in addition to my email deluge”.

It’s one thing when they’re exposed to the business-related deluge. It’s another thing entirely when it looks like 40-50% of the stream appears to be purely social in nature.

Doesn’t make it look like a business platform, which is how it was sold to the company.

Problem #2 — Naysayers

In physics, every force results in an opposite force. And in driving corporate change, the same generally holds true. I’m not being negative, just practical.

And, not surprisingly, there are those that look at our internal social media platform with a cold, cynical eye. They don’t understand, they may be threatened, they’re not comfortable, or maybe they’re generally concerned.

Collectively, they have “voice”.

And now they have a bit more evidence for their case.

Problem #3 — The Proficient

We now have upwards of 1,000 people who are truly comfortable and really enjoy the deep end of the pool. They love being exposed to everything. They’re very comfortable controlling the content stream.

And they inherently resist any thought of control, policy, etc. — it just doesn’t work for them. And they’re quite vocal that the rest of the world has to adapt to this 2.0 world, and they better get on with it, now!

And — they have a point. But I’m looking at outcome, and less to make a philisophical statement.

He thought they had a software fix – create a ‘water cooler’ area for the off topic material. But their software made this a problem.

So what he decided to do was use normal social approaches to modify online behavior.

What We’re Doing Short Term

A couple of things, really. First, I went to the more — ahem — prolific threads, and simply reminded people that everything they write is syndicated up to the corporate feed, and that their insightful comments were widely read by several thousand people.

And that while it’s OK to get off topic, please keep in mind that we’ve got a business platform, and you may want to think twice before an extended off-topic discussion for several reasons, e.g. is this what you do all day at work?

The second thing we’re doing is engaging the community. I wrote a blog post outlining the problem and the tradeoffs, and simply asked “what do you all think we should do?”.

People appreciated that we engaged them rather than arbitrarily doing something — good 2.0 behavior. And, somewhere in the dozens of comments, the discussion became pretty clear: we should take no action to limit discussions on the platform, but we should work towards having a “default” home page for newbies that’s a little less intimidating.

He did this with social tools we already possess. For example, he quietly and respectfully told someone, in a non-judgemental way, that their behavior was not really appropriate and to please stop. Then, like a village elder, he directly asked the community what to do. The company can not hire enough annies, tutors, mentors and police to deal with everyone. The community has to use its own members to fill these roles.

It appears that Chuck’s community is doing just that, which indicates to me that it is a rich, well-developed community and that Chuck is far along on the path to success. Because he knows to do this:

So, What Do You Think?

Now that we have a clear “digital divide” in our company with regards to our social productivity platform, what’s the ideal compromise position? Or should there be compromise at all?

And — any proposed solution can’t involve a bunch of custom software, nor can it involve hiring and dedicating people to the task. Nor can it involve having tens of thousands of employees learning to control their content stream as a prerequisite for success.

An interesting challenge, to be sure ….

He checks with the larger outside community, because he also acts as a connector between communities. He engages the groups for answers so that if there are other ideas, he can quickly implement them for his community. This is how creativity and innovation can be so rapidly created with Web 2.0 approaches.

Innovation diffusion rates in a community can be greatly affected by these approaches.

Because the potential number of other communities he can engage is huge. if there is any solution out there, he does not need it to diffuse to him by Web 1.0 or even World 1.0 approaches, which could take years. Web 2.0 greatly decreases the friction of information transfer from other approaches.

The faster a community can deal with change, the more it can deal with innovation, the better decisions it can make because it has access to more information and creativity, the sooner it will gain wisdom.

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This is important

RNA Tie Club from Alexander Rich

Kevin Kelly — The Technium:
[Via The Technium]

Scenius is like genius, only embedded in a scene rather than in genes. Brian Eno suggested the word to convey the extreme creativity that groups, places or “scenes” can occasionally generate. His actual definition is: “Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.”

Individuals immersed in a productive scenius will blossom and produce their best work. When buoyed by scenius, you act like genius. Your like-minded peers, and the entire environment inspire you.

The geography of scenius is nurtured by several factors:

Mutual appreciation — Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
Rapid exchange of tools and techniques — As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
Network effects of success — When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
Local tolerance for the novelties — The local “outside” does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.

Scenius can erupt almost anywhere, and at different scales: in a corner of a company, in a neighborhood, or in an entire region.

Kevin discusses a specific instance of scenius but the idea is something that needs greater examination. Because innovation, creativity and new insights rarely if ever happen because of a single person in isolation. They happen in a social network made up of the right mix of people to allow innovation to blossom. However, an important aspect, especially today, is that the scene for this genius does not need to occupy the same space. The specific network can be made up of people physically separated.

An example from my set of the woods involves a single man who was able to create a scenius that transcended location. It starts at Cambridge University in England in the mid to late 1950s. Using their superb intellects and their well-connected social network, Watson and Crick were able to discern the structure of the DNA molecule. They published this in 1953.

Now this great discovery was noticed by a pre-eminent physicist, George Gamow, who, to my mind, is one of the great scientists of the 20th century, not only for his own work but for his impact on other scientists. Here is how Wikipedia starts his entry:

George Gamow (pronounced as IPA: [ˈgamof]) (March 4, 1904August 19, 1968) , born Georgiy Antonovich Gamov (Георгий Антонович Гамов), was a Russian Empire-born theoretical physicist and cosmologist. He discovered alpha decay via quantum tunneling and worked on radioactive decay of the atomic nucleus, star formation, stellar nucleosynthesis, big bang nucleosynthesis, nucleocosmogenesis and genetics.

Nice, wide ranging scientific career. Look at his accomplishments (again from Wikipedia):

Gamow produced an important cosmogony paper with his student Ralph Alpher, which was published as “The Origin of Chemical Elements” (Physical Review, April 1, 1948). This paper became known as the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow theory. (Gamow had added the name of Hans Bethe, listed on the article as “H. Bethe, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York” (who had not had any role in the paper) to make a pun on the first three letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha beta gamma.)

The paper outlined how the present levels of hydrogen and helium in the universe (which are thought to make up over 99% of all matter) could be largely explained by reactions that occurred during the “big bang“. This lent theoretical support to the big bang theory, although it did not explain the presence of elements heavier than helium (this was done later by Fred Hoyle).

In the paper, Gamow made an estimate of the strength of residual cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). He predicted that the afterglow of big bang would have cooled down after billions of years, filling the universe with a radiation five degrees above absolute zero.

Gamow published another paper in the British journal Nature later in 1948, in which he developed equations for the mass and radius of a primordial galaxy (which typically contains about one hundred billion stars, each with a mass comparable with that of the sun).

Astronomers and scientists did not make any effort to detect this background radiation at that time, due to both a lack of interest and the immaturity of microwave observation. Consequently, Gamow’s prediction in support of the big bang was not substantiated until 1964, when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson made the accidental discovery for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1978. Their work determined that the universe’s background radiation was 2.7 degrees above absolute zero, just 2.3 degrees lower than Gamow’s 1948 prediction.

I have to love any genius who authors a paper that makes such a great pun. Some of the best geniuses are great tricksters (Feynman loved to pick locks or break combination safes.)

But my story is not about Gamow and the big Bang theory. I’ll let this, from, discussing the breaking of the genetic code, provide some context for Gamow’s genius, and how he created a scenius that spanned continents:

When the structure of DNA was made known, many scientists were eager to read the message hidden in it. One was the Russian physicist George Gamow. Many researchers are ”lone rangers” but Gamow believed that the best way to move forward was through a joint effort, where scientists from different fields shared their ideas and results. In 1954, he founded the “RNA Tie Club.” Its aim was “to solve the riddle of the RNA structure and to understand how it built proteins.”

The brotherhood consisted of 20 regular members (one for each amino-acid), and four honorary members (one for each nucleotide in nucleic acid). The members all got woolen neckties, with an embroided green-and-yellow helix (idea and design by Gamow).

Among the members were many prominent scientists, eight of whom were or became Nobel Laureates. Such examples are James Watson, who in the club received the code PRO for the amino acid proline, Francis Crick (TYR for tyrosine) and Sydney Brenner (VAL for valine). Brenner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine as recently as 2002, for his discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.

Early Ideas Sprung from the “RNA Tie Club”

The members of the club met twice a year, and in the meantime they wrote each other letters where they put forward speculative new ideas, which were not yet ripe enough to be published in scientific journals.

In 1955 Francis Crick proposed his “Adapter Hypothesis,” which suggested that some (so far unknown) structure carried the amino acids and put them in the order corresponding to the sequence in the nucleic acid strand.

Gamow, on the other hand, used mathematics to establish the number of nucleotides that should be necessary to make up the code for one amino acid. He postulated that a three-letter nucleotide code would be enough to define all 20 amino acids.

Eight out of 20 won Nobel prizes (although there is some humorous ways to look at this that give better clues on how this was accomplished). Not very bad odds. Much like Kelly’s mountain climbers. The scenius attracts, nourishes and sprouts geniuses. But it is the first scientific scenius I am aware of that was not tethered to a single location and some very critical things came up from these interactions. For instance, Crick delineated the 20 amino acids used to make up proteins as an intellectual exercise, written on a pub napkin. He was right.

This group worked a lot to try and figure out how RNA made protein, thus the name RNA Tie Club (Gamow made sure each had an appropriate tie for their amino acid). There were many informal and speculative papers that they wrote to each other (remember that this was a time where biology and genetics were mainly descriptive. Speculation and deductive approaches to biology were not commonly used.) Many of these approaches were flat out wrong. But these errors allowed them to eventually gain some wisdom.

Some of the papers have become parts of biology lore, because the speculations turned out to be correct and led to really important breakthroughs in the field. Here is the most important one, Francis Crick and his Adaptor hypothesis, the paper for the RNA Tie Club that developed tRNA and a degenerate genetic code as a model. On Degenerate Templates and the Adaptor Hypothesis is one of the most famous unpublished papers I know of.

To get some idea of how this all worked, check out Watson’s response to Crick Adaptor paper for the RNA Tie Club. Watson was at CalTech at the time.

Gamow. was here for 4 days – rather exhausting as I do not live on Whiskey. Your TIECLUB note arrived during visit. Am not so pessimistic. Dislike adaptors. We must find RNA structure before we give up and return to viscosity and bird watching.

So, Gamow, who was at George Washington University at the time, was in California visiting one RNA Tie Member when the paper from another member arrived. Pretty interesting network.

So much of the early innovations in molecular biology were driven by the interactions of the RNA Tie club. All because a tricky physicist created a scenius without a specific location. Think what could be accomplished today with such a network using Science 2.0 approaches.

Being able to create and foster such a scenius will be an important part of many organizations.

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Why I hate big conferences

You know the conference you are at is too big when ….:
[Via The Tree of Life]

You know the conference you are at is too big when ….

Now – I confess I was really impressed with how ASM handled this enormous meeting I was just at. If you are going to have a big meeting, ASM does a smashing job. And I can see how such big meetings can have their appeal – the diversity of work and activities relating to Microbiology are amazing. However, big meetings are still not my cup of tea.

So here is my top 10 list of “You know the conference you are is too big when …”. All are based on experiences from this meeting.

1. People communicate within the conference venue by email and cell phones
2. They give you a foldout map showing the locations of all the different venues/activities/
3. Colleagues contact you electronically after your talk rather than in person
4. The lines for food are longer than the lines for security at the airport
5. There are more:
• counters at the registration booth than at the airport ticket area
• meeting staff than scientists at the last conference you attended
• promotional booths than active players in Major League Baseball (OK, we are not quite there with this meeting but we are close)
6. The abstract book weighs more than your laptop computer
7. People use GPS to find their way in the conference center (I wish I had pictures but I saw this happening)
8. The bus/shuttle scheduling system is more complex than the travelling salesman problem
9. You need to plan your own schedule by searching a database
10. You do more walking inside the conference center than outside

I have had to deal with every one of these at big conferences. Many of the points hit one of the big drawbacks from mammoth conferences – they depersonalize the experience.

I find that big conference really lose some of the human network aspects that usually make conferences important. They are so big, with so many presentations that it becomes overwhelming. I have found that there are usually only a few sessions I am really interested in and they are all at the same time <grin>.

What can make it worthwhile is not the size. It is like a college reunion – I can connect with people I already know. That is with 2000, 5000, or 10,000 participants, there is a pretty good chance I can hook up with others. So we go out and talk about how out of control the meeting is or how many T-shirts we have picked up.

But the real purpose, to hear presentations about research, to disperse information, is usually just not as much fun. Again, it is like college classes. Ones with 10 people sustain a much larger and more rapid exchange of information than classes of 500.

Unless I am presenting, I generally stick to more focussed meeting with no more than 500 participants. I feel like I learn more. The speaker is not mobbed afterwards making it easier to talk with him. If the discussion extends beyond the next presentation, we can often continue outside the hall without the need to feel that we have to rush to another session.

Big conferences often give me little reason to attend. Their massive size is disconcerting. It is harder to find a hotel or restaurant. The social interactions are diminished. Why take the effort?

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Email and time

watch by Darren Hester
NYT: Businesses Fight the Email Monster They Helped Create:
[Via 43 Folders –]

Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast –
Is Information Overload a Billion Drag on the Economy? – Bits – Technology – New York Times Blog
If you’ve seen the video of my Inbox Zero talk at Google, you may recall the moment when a few attendees start mentioning the hundreds of internal email messages they receive (and send) in a given day. I still remember, because I almost fainted.

Whenever I hear these and similar stories, the same question always comes to mind: “What does a company get out of its employees spending half their day using an email program?” Well, apparently, it’s a question a lot of people are starting to ask. Including Google.

A story in today’s New York Times covers Sili Valley’s new interest in curbing unnecessary interruptions and helping stem the flow of endless data.

Intel and other companies are already experimenting with solutions. Small units at some companies are encouraging workers to check e-mail messages less frequently, to send group messages more judiciously and to avoid letting the drumbeat of digital missives constantly shake up and reorder to-do lists.

A Google software engineer last week introduced E-Mail Addict, an experimental feature for the company’s e-mail service that lets people cut themselves off from their in-boxes for 15 minutes.

A few more stats for you:

A typical information worker who sits at a computer all day turns to his e-mail program more than 50 times and uses instant messaging 77 times…

I’d also draw your attention to this infographic illustrating data points from recent studies on “workers’ efficiency at information-intensive businesses.” 28% of a typical worker’s day is spent on:

Interruptions by things that aren’t urgent or important, like unnecessary e-mail messages — and the time it takes to get back on track.

As with almost all new technologies, people will have to work things out. Too many people treat email as an immediate task. They will leave off of the phone call they are on to answer an email.

I’m going to talk about the supposed need to respond to relevant emails sent by colleagues. The almost spamming that can occur with email, where a tremendous amount of time is spent wading through a plethora of irrelevant emails (say 300 or more), is a discussion for another time.

My view has always been that if someone at my organization wants an answer immediately, they can track me down personally, whether I am in my office or not. The next level, a quick answer, can be gotten with a phone call. If I am out, they can leave a message. An email message is the lowest level.

This is because email is supposed to remove time and place from a response. Face-to-face is restricted in both time and space. Now and both of us in my office. Phones remove place but still determine time. Now but where we are does not matter. Email should only be for messages where the time and the place are unimportant. At a time and location of my choosing.

If someone sends me a time sensitive email, they can call me up and tell me to respond to the email <grin>

If I am involved in something, such as my own project, here is the order of priorities that will require me to break off:

  1. Immediately deal with anyone entering my office that needs something done NOW
  2. Let any phone call go to voicemail. I can check the voicemail when it is convenient for ME. If it is important they will leave me one or track me down personally (see 1)
  3. Nothing else

When I send emails, they either are in response to a previous email, an answer or question for a colleague, an acknowledgement of some event, or some general information to spread (Hey, have you read this article in Nature?) If I need an answer now, I call.

If they are out, I leave a voicemail and may send an email just to make sure there is another route. If it needs an immediate response and I can not find them, sending an email does not absolve me of my responsibility to find an answer. “Well, I sent them an email” does not solve the problem if it needs an answer now!

I usually do check my email several times a day but only when it is convenient for me. I control when I respond. One of the benefits of Web 2.0 tools is that they remove the need for people to simultaneously occupy the same place at the same time for any information to be exchanged. Place and/or time are independent. A blog or a wiki disperses information in this way. Email should also but too many people use it for other purposes.

I need to control when my distractions distract me. Too many people let email interrupt what they are doing. They just can not seem to leave it alone if they know an unopened email is present. Heck, I’ll even sometimes let a voicemail sit there for a time before checking it. I control when I answer it and will not let that blinking red light determine my response.

I do recognize I am strange in many ways and not typical. However, at least I ‘feel’ like I have some control over these distractions.

Try this exercise once or twice a year: Go for a week without wearing or having access to a watch. Many people freak without being able to determine NOW just what time it is. But I find it very relaxing in a Zen kind of way.

Because, it turns out that you can easily stay on top of the time without a watch. Timekeepers are found throughout our culture, either wall clocks, TVs, computers or even cell phones (My son no longer wears his watch. He uses his cell phone to tell time.) In fact, cell phones and computers are much better timekeepers because they are accurately updated, usually to atomic clocks.

But this exercise really does demonstrate how few events are dependent on the exact time. Sure there are events where knowing the time is important but it is educational to find out how few these really are.

Email is like a wristwatch. Only check it when absolutely needed. Life is much easier when either time or email can be ignored. I have more important things to do with my 28%!

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Wikis with numbers

spreadsheet by Arbron
Let’s Talk about Numbers:
[Via Transparent Office]

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, SocialText has made another major product announcement: SocialCalc, the first truly wiki-integrated spreadsheet.

SocialCalc has one really big, really obvious benefit over traditional spreadsheets like Excel: it’s distributed. In other words, more than one person can work on it at a time. But as ZDNet’s David Greenfield and others have pointed out, we’re not the first ones to have delivered distributed spreadsheeting.

What’s different about SocialCalc–and I think it’s really fundamental–is that SocialCalc is integrated into a wiki. You can drop a spreadsheet into a wiki page. You can drop wiki text into a spreadsheet. You can link from a spreadsheet to a wiki page that explains where the numbers came from. In short, you can talk about the numbers.


Being able to add an active spreadsheet to a wiki page opens up some very important possibilities.

Numerical models have been created with spreadsheets since the beginning. However, the development of them has usually been a solitary ad hoc undertaking. Other, more communal approaches to creating them (i.e. meetings, email) have been too cumbersome.

And, often when the model has been generated, it can be hard to modify or to correct errors. Heck, even just finding the error in the first place is not easy. Data indicate that almost every large spreadsheet can contain errors, yet these tools continue to be used.

But putting the models in a wiki, bringing openness to the creation of the model, makes it much easier to create very complex numerical models. It can provide some more rigor to its development. There has already been some discussion of the positive benefits of making spreadsheet development more collaborative. It will be interesting to see how well this innovation works in a research setting.

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