Tag Archives: David Meece

Filtering Communications So They Don’t Drive Us Mad

A dear friend was supposed to drop something off around 11 pm last night. I turn in around that time, so I just nodded off. Luckily I didn’t hear her SMS come in around 1 am. But I could have. I consider the phone the primary communications device–if someone has an emergency, that’s how they’re going to reach me–and so you can’t really close it off. But how do you filter out stuff like my ditzy friend SMS-ing me at 1 am to tell me that after all she’s not going to drop something off?

In short, how can we set up filters on our communications channels so they don’t drive us mad?

One is not to give out your phone number. I keep a second prepaid phone around and I give that number, and that number only, to people I do business with. That phone gets turned off on weekends and evenings. I often don’t answer a cellphone call if I don’t recognise the number; if it’s important enough, I figure they’ll SMS me first, or else they’ll already be on my contact list.

Another is to confine and contain online. I don’t accept contacts on Facebook unless I’ve met them in person (and like them.) Everyone else I point to LinkedIn. I’ve noticed a lot of people are now following me (and everyone else, it seems; I’m not special) on Twitter so I’ve scaled that back to ‘public’ observations.

Indeed, Web 2.0 hasn’t quite resolved this issue: We’ve been campaigning to bring down those walled gardens, but we’ve failed to understand that garden walls (ok, fences) make good neighbors.

Email is still a burden: I’m still getting a ton of stuff I didn’t ask for, including press releases from UPS, just because I once complained to them about something, and stuff from a PR agency touting posts on a client’s blog (that’s pretty lame, I reckon. What would one call that? “My-Client-Just-Blogged Spam”?)

One way I’ve tried to limit incoming stuff is through a page dedicated to PR professionals. I then point anyone interested in pitching to me to that page. I’m amazed by how few people who bother to read it, but I’m also amazed at how good the pitches are by those that do. (And of course, I then feel bad that I don’t use their painstakingly presented material.)

I like this from Max Barry, author of Jennifer Government, who gives out his email address but says If you put the word “duck” in your subject (e.g. “[duck] Why you’re an idiot”), it’s less likely to be accidentally junked. What a great idea.

Then there’s simple things that help to keep the noise level down: Subscribe to twitter on clients like Google Talk and you can turn it on and off just by typing, well, on or off. (You can also turn on and off individuals, so if scoble is getting a bit too much for you, just type ‘off scoble’. I’ve always wanted to be able to do that.)

I’d like to see more and better filtering so we don’t have to succumb to the babble.

Stuff I’d like to see:

  • Phones that change ringtone or volume after a certain time unless they’re from some key numbers.
  • SMS autoreturns, that say “The person you sent this message to is asleep. If you need to wake him/her, please enter this code and resend. Be aware that if the message is not urgent or an offer of money/fame/sexual favors you may face disembowelment by the recipient.”
  • Oh, and while I’m at it, the ability to opt out of Facebook threads if they lose your interest.

And, finally, a way to turn down friends and contacts from my communication channels without them knowing. A great service, in my view, would be one that appeared to authorise their requests to be your buddies, but didn’t. Call it faux-thorising.

The Gecko in the Machine

 (This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. If you’re an editor interested in subscribing to the service, drop me a line. Regular readers of the blog, meanwhile, will be familiar with some of the themes here)

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I found myself reading the words of one Timo Veikkola one morning.

Frankly, before then I did not know that Timo existed, although I do know of his colleague at Nokia, Jan Chipchase. Not only do these men have far more interesting names than I, they also have far more interesting jobs: peering into the way we use technology and how we might use it in the future.

But this column isn’t about them. It’s about you and your computer. Timo and Jan made me realize that often we focus on the minutiae of computing, as if that’s where the whole thing stops.

It’s as if we’re car owners who blame the car for our being stuck in traffic. It’s worth remembering that if we are not happy with our computers, it’s not all the computer’s fault.

First off, I can understand why you’re frustrated. Computers don’t work very well (though a lot of Mac users, and even Windows Vista users, convince themselves that their particular computers do). The truth is they don’t, because computers don’t help us think better.

They are merely tools, when they should be more than that. They help us send e-mails. They help us download and listen to music. They help us draft long resignation letters we never send. They help us crunch numbers.

All of this would make the early developers of the computer initially excited (“All that computing power in the head of a pin! Back in my day we had to make do with the computing power of a toilet brush in a box the size of Angkor Wat”). They were also, quickly, disappointed (“So everyone has these computers in their homes, bags and hands, and they do WHAT with them?”).

But it needn’t be like that. Computers can be used for good stuff. Here’s how:

* Collecting stuff: Computer hard drives are big enough now for you not to worry about storing stuff (unless you take 5,000 videos and photos a day, in which case you may want to consider an external hard drive or six.)

The trick about collecting stuff — whether it’s words, pictures or audio — is to organize it. After all, you want to find it again quickly. So, if you’re not a Mac user (who has Spotlight) install Google Desktop, which will index your hard drive and let you find stuff as easily as if it were on the Web.

But that shouldn’t be an alternative to organizing your stuff. Each batch of photos you store on your computer should have its own folder, usually organizing by date (for example, 20070722 as today’s date is best).

If you’re saving information you find on the web, save it to one place. I use something called MyInfo, an outlining program that includes a button you can install in your Firefox browser, which makes it very easy to save anything you read online.

* Brainstorming: there are some great tools out there to help you brainstorm, but in my view the best are those that bring mind mapping to the computer. (A mind map is a drawing where the central idea is put at the center of the piece of paper, and other ideas are added to it, floating off like branches.)

If you’ve not done mind maps I recommend them; if you’re a big computer user then it makes sense to do them on your computer. (Mindjet’s MindManager works on both Macs and Windows; for Mac users there’s also NovaMind, which looks promising.)

* Think stuff up: The computer won’t think for you, but it will do the next best thing — help you recall things you forgot. You’re probably aware of the fact that however smart you are you won’t be able to remember what you want into the kitchen to get. Most of what we do, read, hear and say is forgotten within minutes. This is where the computer can help.

But whereas it’s great about storing stuff, it’s not good at recalling things that we don’t know we knew. Search is great if we know what we’re looking for, but for that tip-of-the-tongue stuff I’d recommend something else: PersonalBrain.

PersonalBrain is a program that I have bored my friends with for several months now — it works on Mac, Linux and Windows, and has a free version available.

It looks odd, and will take some getting used to, but think of it as a place to throw everything you know into. You add “thoughts” and then you link those thoughts to other thoughts: The more the merrier.

For Timo Veikkola (the Nokia guy) I added a thought called “Timo’s predictions” and “Timo’s ideas”. To the latter I added all the ideas I liked, including one “travel is the best stimulant”.

This is something I know but I keep forgetting. So I linked that to another thought I had elsewhere in my PersonalBrain called “Guiding principles”.

Already linked to that thought were a bunch of ideas I had added (and promptly forgotten about) which, together, form a philosophy of sorts (if you call “Don’t write columns like this before your morning coffee because they won’t make any sense” a philosophy.)

Put simply, the brain works not by hierarchy, but by connections. We watch a movie and it reminds us we haven’t sent a letter to Auntie Marge. We find a website we like but it looks vaguely familiar: We don’t realize we actually visited the same website two days ago. We are looking for a friend in Nongkhai but can’t think of anybody, forgetting that Bob used to work there five years ago.

PersonalBrain helps you add this data when it first hits you and, more importantly, map its connections to other things so that you can find them again when you need them. When I add my friend Bob to my PersonalBrain, for example, I can link him not only to my other friends, but also to the places he’s worked at, the places he’s lived in — anything that may increase the chances of his name popping up when I might need him, but when I might not have thought of it.

PersonalBrain is the kind of software that makes you realize a) You spend way too much time using your computer to watch YouTube videos; and b) Your brain may be big, but you can’t remember anything that happened more than 30 seconds ago.

So, grumble as much as you like about your computer and what pain it causes you. But then set your sights higher and turn it into something that really complements you and the way you do things.