Short-term memory and productivity: a theory of hold time

Over the past few months, I have observed some curious things about my workflow. They are not rigorously measured; in fact the only way I have noticed these is mainly by looking at the system clock, or wall clock. I don’t have the kind of free time that would allow me to really set up ways to verify this, but if there are any published papers on this phenomenon (or lack thereof) I would love a pointer to them.

  1. Simple tasks (sending emails, collating names) take about the same time both on the desktop at home, and on the laptop at work.
  2. Complex tasks (timetabling, collating multiple columns of student information, searching for images and videos) take longer on the work laptop tan on the desktop. And I mean sometimes as much as 3 or 4 times longer.
  3. I lose my train of thought at work much more easily, and hence fall out of a state of flow more frequently.

A simple explanation for this is that my internet connection is faster at home, my desktop is faster (though the effects of this are pretty negligible except for niche tasks like image processing), and my screen is bigger. But how does this lead to a three- or four-fold change in productivity? I don’t think speed differences in hardware alone can sufficiently account for this.
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Inhabiting a desktop

I once tried an MOOC, edX’s Future Cities. It was everything I expected, and I “dropped out” after the third lesson. I had what I wanted: a new term for a new discipline, “Information Architecture”, and examples of how not to do it—the MOOC itself was such an example.

Information Architecture is a discipline that looks at how information is structured. If physical architecture is the partitioning and ordering of space and material, information architecture is the sorting and hierarchical organisation of information and the ways in which it interacts. Databases, contacts, calendars, these are forms of structured information which we are familiar with. They come in a certain expected format: an event invitation would be very strange if it did not mention date, time, and venue, at the very least. But it can quickly get complicated as well. A huge event, such as a conference, with multiple breakoff seminars and sessions, can itself contain multiple overlapping events in multiple venues with multiple people. How is this information to be organised and presented? As we walk through the conference hallways and foyers, how do we see this information arrayed around us?

I’ve been paying more attention to coworkers’ desks lately. I don’t mean the physical desk, the physical structure of wood and steel, but the tangible desk, the way things are laid out. Which photographs and mementos take pride of place, the way in which paper is stacked, and spills over to adjacent spaces, the arrangement of the tiny paper-flanked cubbyhole where the laptop sits, . . . . We all have the same desk and cabinet and shelves, but over time we come to identify each coworker’s desk by this unique arrangement of personal effects. We inhabit our desks. Continue reading Inhabiting a desktop

Digital identities

Something strange happened when I grew up.

Phone numbers as identity

As a high school student, I gave my email address readily, and reserved my phone number only for people I actually wanted to communicate with. Email was (still) easy to filter and ignore; I only logged in once a week and seldom replied to anything. I was most readily reachable via phone.

Phone numbers usually came with contract plans; they were non-portable, each change meant mass-messaging one’s new number to one’s contacts. At that age my peers changed email addresses on a whim, and phone numbers were our only constant.

Emails as identity

As a working adult, things have changed. Now I give my phone number readily, and my personal email address seldom. Phone calls are easy to ignore, especially with a phone in vibrate-only mode.

Emails are still easy to filter, which makes it easier to sort personal correspondence from spammy fluff; it is phones which have become unfilterable, with a UPS delivery call being almost undifferentiable from a telemarketing call.

I have had more than a decade to grow into my email identity, and wouldn’t let go of it for all the world. My phone number now comes from a prepaid plan, because I don’t call often and like the freedom of being able to switch telco service providers on a whim. I use mobile broadband much more often than I use calltime and SMS messages, especially with WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and other messaging services fast replacing them.

The phone number now becomes an impersonal collection of figures, reflecting little personality, while our email carries the collective baggage of everything that has happened to us since we decided on that strange text string to identify ourselves by.

Technology as magic emulation

I have always found emulation, especially of computer systems, one of the hardest concepts to explain to folks who have little knowledge of computing (a la the nitty-gritty details of what goes on under that plastic/aluminium chassis). In part, that is because emulation is such a subterranean process. Business prefer their customers not to be aware of the nuts and bolts of what makes their services seamless; the failure to provide a “seamless” experience is considered a UX failure, a let-down in service experience.

Reading The Sixth Stage of Grief a few months ago (yes, this post is way overdue), I found an interesting description of OS emulation.

You typically need four things to emulate an old computer:
An operating system. Once you have the emulator and the ROM it’s like you actually own a new, old, computer—but it lacks for an operating system. Want to experience System 6.08 for your Mac? Workbench 2 for the Amiga? Microsoft DOS 6.22? You’ll likely make a fake hard drive. Then you actually install the real, authentic operating system onto the fake hard drive. Sometimes you will need to “insert” fake “floppy disks” into the fake “floppy drive” in order to install the real operating system onto the fake “hard drive” on the fake “computer.” (This is accomplished by clicking buttons.) Then you’ll “reboot.” It’s all very weird.

The word “fake” is used six times. The word “real”, two times. The word “fake” is used in reference to hardware (hard drive, floppies, computer), “real” for software (operating system). Paul Ford knew what he was writing, and this usage of the two terms reflects more about the nature of emulation than about our perceptions of them.
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2015 thawing

I’ve had a nice long break from writing now, and would very much like to get back into it. It’s almost shameful to think that in the past ten months I’ve only written two études, less than a thousand words in total, but rather dense, layered writing, which I found a delightful challenge. But the mind needs other things to scratch its itch.

The truth is, that after Readmill’s demise I haven’t found any suitable replacement for my notetaking yet. What Readmill provided was not only a place to highlight and annotate, but to have conversations with other readers on those highlights and annotations, and that sparked a lot of the writing that followed at the end of 2013. Twingl, a browser extension for highlighting and annotating the web, was also invaluable at that stage for helping make connections, especially more so when they had Readmill integration. But now most of my reading takes place in iBooks and Pocket, and the friction of syncing and exporting my notes from service to service, coupled with the lack of a notetaking service that enables note-linking, dampens the whole otherwise-delightful experience of building idea-webs in the mind.

Regardless, I will do my best to write what I can, and look forward to the better integration of various reading, highlighting, and notetaking services.

Some things that I have been up to since the last post:

  1. I’ve upgraded WordPress, updated the theme to Twenty Fifteen, removed most of my customisations. I am increasingly finding the work of customising and shaping my blog to be a tedium, even as I find it more and more important. but I’ve decided to focus these shaping efforts on narrative rather than design, and you will (hopefully soon) see that I’ve directed my writing toward a few consistent narrative themes.
  2. I’ve activated Markdown support for comments and posts, and have ported my posts mostly to Markdown as well. An unillustrious writing history enabled me to complete this in an afternoon.
  3. I’ve been gaming as always, and have a couple more insights that I hope to integrate into my revisiting the ghost’s shell narrative.
  4. I bought a 3D printer, a printrbot Simple Metal, and it has made me revisit quite a few ideas, particularly Bruce Sterling’s ideas on futurism. Maybe another narrative theme on this sometime in the future.

If all goes well, I should have the next post out this weekend. See you then.

Étude #2

On the NoPhone.


(351 words)

The hallmark of great user experience is not a presence, but an absence—of anxiety. Anxiety is a mark of sub-optimal micro-interactions; with things, with people, with environments. How could I have done it better?

An enlightened mind faces a different anxiety, a mark of sub-optimal choice of micro-interactions; with things, with people, with environments. What could I have done instead?

Is it okay to use my information-device when I could be talking to a fellow complex sentient? Is it okay to talk to a fellow sentient when the occasion is blessed with great weather and that rare breeze, the fruits of a complex space-ball of mass-energy hurtling through space? Is it okay to be enjoying the sensuous fruits of said space ball when my complex information device, by my instruction, is trying to get my attention with something that could be urgent?

Our weapon against anxiety is irony. Irony defuses our self-expectations, shorts the circuits that process this complexity. Turns a complex sentient into a stereotype, a complex space-ball into a nostalgic image, a complex information device into mere moulded plastic. A NoPerson, a NoEarth, a NoPhone. A NoThing cannot feel envy, or engender jealousy.

But juxtaposed faces cannot be highlighted only on one side. As irony slaps the cheek of our sub-optimal choices, we unwittingly turn the other cheek, raising our unexamined envy for sacrifice.

Our weapon against irony is empathy. Where irony seeks to compress and summarise, empathy seeks to experience and individualise. Envy is arrested, stopped dead in its tracks by complexity, by the full magnitude of unanxious engagement with information-devices, with sentients, with space-balls.

Let us cling to our NoPhones, NoPersons, and NoEarths for those moments when the cross of empathy wears us thin. And when our souls, recharged from the great inexhaustible source of life, are filled again with the fire of vocation, let us leave our NoThings to bear our enlightened anxieties, the NoPerson interacting anxiously with the NoPhone to gather more information on the NoEarth, and be free. To engage fully in our interactions, and to let others be engaged fully in theirs.