I made myself a rule for email a couple of weeks ago:
The inbox will be smaller each time I check my mail.
I eventually agreed that the rule doesn’t apply when I’m sending a new message out; this keeps my workflow productive and simple. I’m checking email less often and my inbox is now at 16 messages. Win.
I’m not at rock bottom, because a few of the messages are important but hard to move (things that will take concerted effort over time to finish), but I’ll get there eventually.
On Tuesday when I started this little experiment, I had 359 messages in my inbox. This morning I have 45. I’m calling that a ‘win’.
I have, with one or two exceptions, made sure that each time I checked my mail that there was at least one fewer message in the inbox than before I checked it.
The messages left in my inbox are mostly reminders of important (but non-urgent) things I need to do. I’ll find another way to deal with those in the next few days.
I did make myself an exception that if I was sending a message, that I didn’t have to shrink the inbox. That helped me stay productive with my work.
Have I checked my email less? It could be that I’m just hyped up on the idea of a small inbox and eager to file away my messages. Here are the numbers:
A little better… but that still looks like the pattern of an email-checking addict to me. Maybe once my inbox gets small enough (I’m shooting for zero… or smaller!) I can deal with the craving better.
Here are my two happy things from yesterday:
I have new windshield wipers on my car. If you haven’t replaced your windshield wipers in the past year, do so now.
As I was driving down a rain-soaked backroad, I drove through a deep puddle, making a fantastic spray. An oncoming car hit the same puddle from the other side just after I drove through it. I watched in my rear-view mirror as the other car made a U-turn to have another go at it from my lane. I now resolve to swerve—without jeopardizing my or others’ safety—and hit every puddle I possibly can.
In a recent lecture, Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel prize in economics in 2008, argued that much of the past 30 years of macroeconomics was “spectacularly useless at best, and positively harmful at worst.”
But precisely what was useless and harmful turns out to be Krugman’s own espoused Keynsian beliefs. John Cochrane explains:
Most of all, Krugman likes fiscal stimulus. In this quest, he accuses us and the rest of the economics profession of “mistaking beauty for truth.” He’s not clear on what the “beauty” is that we all fell in love with, and why one should shun it, for good reason. The first siren of beauty is simple logical consistency. Paul’s Keynesian economics requires that people make logically inconsistent plans to consume more, invest more, and pay more taxes with the same income. The second siren is plausible assumptions about how people behave. Keynesian economics requires that the government is able to systematically fool people again and again. It presumes that people don’t think about the future in making decisions today. Logical consistency and plausible foundations are indeed “beautiful” but to me they are also basic preconditions for “truth.”
Cochrane’s short paper is a really beautiful response to Krugman and his archaic, causality-reversing Keynsian answers to everything.
Paul, there was a financial crisis, a classic near-run on banks. The centerpiece of our crash was not the relatively free stock or real estate markets, it was the highly regulated commercial banks.
Certainly, texting while driving is one of the stupidest things a motorist can do. A study published in July by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute showed that drivers who text while driving increase their risk of a crash or near-crash 23-fold compared with those who do not. Reaching out for something moving inside the car represents a ninefold increase in risk; dialling, a sixfold increase; combing hair or putting on make-up raises the risk almost fivefold.
In a previous study, Virginia Tech found that 80% of crashes and 65% of near-crashes involved some form of distraction within three seconds of the incident. The most common distraction by far was using a hand-held phone.
I’ve been saying it for a while: students learn better with qualified, caring teachers and quality teaching materials than anything else, and One-Laptop-Per-Child is an expensive distraction from real education.
I think everyone who has been educated knows this instinctively. We can all point to a mentor (a teacher, a parent, a caring friend) who guided us, encouraged us, and cared enough about us to help us learn what is worth learning and what is not worth learning.
Giving a child a laptop does neither of these things. Some argue that simply having access to information will be the child’s ticket to a bright future, but now that the results are in, we can finally stop beating this dead horse.
You will always find exceptions: highly motivated students will learn no matter what you do to them, and giving them access to a computer will certainly give them an opportunity to get the information they want faster; but for the majority of students, giving them a computer will do little good, and will often do much harm, to their education.
The Internet is not a discriminator of information, and this is its chief problem. A classically-based education, as an example, imposes a hierarchy on knowledge. It says, “These things are more important than those things.” And when I say “it” I really mean a classically trained teacher guiding a student through a classical curriculum.
The Internet can’t do that for you by itself. You still need a guide, a mentor of some kind to help you know what’s worth learning. Autodidacts learn this early on and quickly learn which voices in life they want to trust (generally by way of books and other reading material), but the rest of us simply don’t know where to go.
And while we’re on the topic of online learning, did you hear of the recent meta-study by the US Department of Education? Everybody in the tech world is feeling validated, but they shouldn’t. It claims:
The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.
Read the study and notice that it’s a meta-study, largely sampling the results of self-selecting, uncontrolled learning experiements. Highly-motivated students, the kind who opt to take online courses, will always perform better than unmotivated students, no matter what medium they’re using.
The abstract concludes:
Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se. An unexpected finding was the small number of rigorous published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K–12 students. In light of this small corpus, caution is required in generalizing to the K–12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education).
So don’t take this as a validation for K-12 computer learning. Additional studies over OLPC and K-12 computer learning aren’t encouraging:
Under the auspices of the No Child Left Behind Act, the U.S. Department of Education and Mathematica Policy Research recently completed a rigorous, two-year test of reading and math software (using programs that had at least some nonexperimental evidence that they “worked”) in dozens of school districts nationwide. With one minor exception, the studies found that children using the software scored no better than peers who did not have access to the software.
Economists Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches studied a program in Romania that distributed discount vouchers for the purchase of home computers to low-income families. When they compared the families that used the vouchers to acquire computers with families that were just above the income cut-off to receive the vouchers, they found that computers had a negative effect on students’ grades and educational goals.
(Leigh) Linden (an economist at Columbia University) also led one of the few experimental studies to show a positive impact from the use of computers — a project in India that provided computers and education software to schools and randomly assigned some schools to use the software during school hours and others to encourage computer use after hours. This study found that using computers during school hours-—essentially substituting computers for teachers—actually hurt learning, while using them after hours as a supplement to traditional classroom teaching had dramatic positive effects on the weakest students. Even this outcome doesn’t really support the OLPC mission, though; the software evaluated is very much in the “drill and practice” model that Negroponte has explicitly derided.
I won’t spoil all the fun of this article, but there are far, far better and less expensive ways to improve education than giving a child a laptop. In developing countries the list includes deworming children, providing tutors, and creating more private schools.
In the United States, computers in classrooms and schools should be removed and with the money not spent on technology, hire additional teachers or give the existing teachers a raise. I’m certain we’d get more of what we’re really looking for.
Another good one from Jessica Hagy.
Remember a few weeks ago when I griped about global warming? What bothered me wasn’t that we have fringe groups, conspiracy theorists, and “deniers.” These folks will always be with us in everything (sometimes they’re even right).
What bothered me was that there seems to be a legitimate case against the predominant view and few scientists in the mainstream are addressing it directly and scientifically. Almost nobody from the scientific “consensus” community are taking these people on, rather they’re using name-calling and ostracism to maintain their position. It also bothers me that scientists feel they have to stoop to “consensus” and PR smear campaigns to make their point.
Consensus is fine—great—for some things, but not in science:
If the brightest minds on Wall Street got suckered by group-think into believing house prices would never fall, what other policies founded on consensus wisdom could be waiting to come unraveled? Global warming, you say? You mean it might be harder to model climate change 20 years ahead than house prices 5 years ahead? Surely not—how could so many climatologists be wrong?
What’s wrong with consensuses is not the establishment of a majority view, which is necessary and legitimate, but the silencing of skeptics. “We still have whole domains we can’t talk about,” Dr. Bouchard said, referring to the psychology of differences between races and sexes.
I would argue that there are even more things than psychology that aren’t being talked about, including climate change, because of this fear of consensus. Politicians and business-types are the kinds of people who look for consensus of opinion—that’s because they don’t actually know or do anything. They mobilize opinion to get other people to actually think or do. But scientists are different—they’re doers. Science is for observing, gathering, analyzing and interpreting data with confidence intervals. Maybe come up with a theory. Scientific disagreements should be about the data and its interpretation, not posturing and raspberry-blowing.
Scientists are of course entitled to have opinions as much as the next op-ed writer, but a scientist is expected to have some rigor and discipline when engaging in and refuting arguments. More importantly, a scientist is expected to be a thinker capable of ignoring the ridicule of his or her peers to get to the truth of a matter.
An article in the New York Times recently wrote about how Groupthink might be the culprit of our financial crisis (read: “collapse”):
In his classic 1972 book, Groupthink, Irving L. Janis, the Yale psychologist, explained how panels of experts could make colossal mistakes. People on these panels, he said, are forever worrying about their personal relevance and effectiveness, and feel that if they deviate too far from the consensus, they will not be given a serious role. They self-censor personal doubts about the emerging group consensus if they cannot express these doubts in a formal way that conforms with apparent assumptions held by the group.
When scientists bond together and form a consensus, science itself is imperiled. Because scientists are human and care about what their peers think, they take a big risk of stifling creative, scientific thought. Science is, at its core, the opposite of what we achieve by consensus. Science needs naysayers and village idiots every bit as much as the respectable, well-groomed, mainstream thinkers.
Paul Graham wrote an essay called “What you can’t say” that puts it even better:
Of course, we’re not just looking for things we can’t say. We’re looking for things we can’t say that are true, or at least have enough chance of being true that the question should remain open. But many of the things people get in trouble for saying probably do make it over this second, lower threshold. No one gets in trouble for saying that 2 + 2 is 5, or that people in Pittsburgh are ten feet tall. Such obviously false statements might be treated as jokes, or at worst as evidence of insanity, but they are not likely to make anyone mad. The statements that make people mad are the ones they worry might be believed. I suspect the statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true.
Another way of putting it is Bob Sutton’s “strong opinions, weakly held.” Whatever we call it, it’s something more scientists need to learn apparently. We’re not in high school anymore, and any scientist who puts popularity and peer acceptance ahead of their scientific rigor, even in their spare time, is doing more harm than good.
[Note: You can skip the next 6 paragraphs or so to the mildly amusing anecdote if you don’t like my seemingly endless diatribes. If you don’t like my mildly amusing anecdotes either, you can jump right to the final 4 or 5 paragraphs and enjoy my grandiose moralizing.]
When I bought my scooter last March, a lot of people asked about it. What kind is it? Is it fast? What kind of mileage do you get? Where’s the clutch? Can I ride it? (answers: “a Genuine Buddy”, “60-65 mph on a straightaway”, “90-ish mpg”, “it’s a continuous clutch—just twist and go”, and “no.”).
(a photograph of my erstwhile office)
But the best question has been, “Why did you buy that scooter and not some other kind?” I’ve mostly handwaved my way through that question with something like “I researched it for two years” yadda, yadda, yadda. It’s true that other people who have owned multiple scooters really like it, and that influenced me. There’s also the great support group and local service shop. But every major brand has its loyal following: these reasons are not completely unique to my scooter.
In reality, you’re fairly safe with any scooter from not-China: Kymco, Honda, Yamaha, Genuine, Sym, Lambretta, Bajaj, etc. These are all good brands that have been around for a long time. The Chinese scooters you see for sale on every other corner of major thoroughfares are what the cognoscenti call “disposable scooters.” They usually offer 90 day warranties, which I’m told you’re lucky to make it through without incident. If you go to any scooter shop that’s been around for more than a year or two, you’ll find dozens of these sub-$1000 disposables in the junkyard behind the shop and none for sale in the shop itself.
The owners and mechanics of good scooter shops will tell you what the Chinese scooters are made of: $%*#@! In layman’s terms, this means they’re made of inexpensive plastic parts and poor quality, brittle metals that are not designed to last long under heat or stress. They’re the scooter equivalent pressboard furniture: it may do just fine for you if you don’t move it far or often. And keep it out of the rain.
[I’m not bagging on China. I love China (sometimes). Most of the nice things I own were assembled in or have parts from China. But Chinese-made scooters are terrible. Ride a few of them and then ride something from the list above and you’ll see what I mean. Talk to scooter mechanics, ask around. There’s a reason they’re so cheap.]
Another reason I bought a Buddy was the 2 year warranty and roadside assistance (at no extra cost). I always thought roadside assistance was for sissies. I’d never needed it for my car (I somehow always managed to find a phone and call someone), but today I was proven wrong. I am proud to say that roadside assistance is awesome.
I’m cruising north on Geneva Road this afternoon. A dump truck in the left lane and an 18-wheeler ahead of me in the right lane. The truck in my lane is drifting occasionally into the shoulder and stirring up a lot of dust and gravel. My face is being pelted with little objects, so I start to slow a little and BAM and then rat-tat-tat-tat-tat over and over. Something is making a terrible noise in my rear wheel. I slow down and pull off the road. The rat-tat-tat stops, but I dismount to see what’s going on.
Protruding from the rear tire is about a half-inch of a rusty nail. Crud. Air is already hissing from the tire, so I pull the whole thing out. Three-freaking-inches of nail. It was nearly all the way in. Crud. I think I can make it another quarter mile—maybe.
I turn on the hazard blinkers and creep along the shoulder until I get to the next gas station. I can feel the rear tire is completely flat before I get there, so I walk it from the curb to the building and park it on the sidewalk in front of the store. A nice guy on a skateboard mentions a scooter shop nearby (which isn’t there anymore actually, but he didn’t know that, so I just thanked him). We chat a little bit. Then I remember a month or so ago getting my roadside assistance card in the mail:
I call the number, and a pleasant voice asks, “Are you in a safe location?” Sweet. “You bet I am.”
In another minute she’s asked for my policy number and verified all of my information. She asks for my location and where I want it towed. I walk into the air-conditioned convenience store to get out of the 90°+ heat. The guy with the skateboard is charging his cell phone from an outlet behind the garbage can. “Things ok?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “I remembered I have roadside assistance.”
“Awesome!” he says. Then he turns away to make a call now that he’s got some juice in his phone.
15 minutes later and the tow truck is there. I sign a paper saying that Larry’s Towing has my scooter. In 30 minutes the truck is on its way to The Scooter Lounge (“the best scooter shop in the universe!”). No charge for any of this—it’s all part of the package. For 2 years. It also covers car rental, but I don’t need that today (I’m hanging out at the gas station’s convenience store writing this until my wife picks me up).
But this essay isn’t really about scooters and flat tires. It’s about quality. There are companies that care first about what they do, and there are companies that care first about making money. Some folks think that you can do the latter without doing the former, and I think in the short term they’re often right: you can fool some of the people some of the time.
While most people care about quality in something, whether it’s the TV shows they watch or the beer they drink, many people don’t seem to care about quality in most things. They’re going to buy the cheapest things over and over, rather than wait and save up for something better. It just doesn’t matter to them.
I don’t know if there’s any correlation between people who don’t care about using quality things and people who don’t care about creating quality things (or doing quality work) but I know that people who care about making quality almost universally appreciate it in the things they use themselves: their cars, homes, food, clothing, music, furniture, plumbing, computers, software, tools, and even scooters.
This is not to say that everything we have must be the best. We make do with many things and budget constraints often force us to temper what’s important to us. But the things that are important should be of adequate quality to give satisfaction.
It’s also important to keep in mind that tastes change over time, often for the better: what was satisfying to you at one time may not satisfy you later on (e.g., making dough by hand used to be great, but a Bosch makes making bread oh-so-much more fun). Having quality nearby makes making more quality enjoyable.
Now get to it.