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January 14 2011

Open question: What's the point of inbox zero?

Open QuestionI have 10,021 unread messages in my inbox. Ignored newsletters and various bits of nearly-useless information make up most of that unread count (I think). That's why 10k+ unaddressed messages don't concern me.

But is my ease misplaced? There seems to be an awful lot of people -- or a few vocal people, I can't tell which -- that pursue "inbox zero" with evangelistic zeal.

To be clear, I don't fault anyone who pursues the tidiness of an empty inbox. If that's what you want to do, so be it. Rather, I just don't understand the motivations and intentions behind inbox zero (nor do I understand why so many feel it necessary to publicize their inbox successes and failures through Twitter ... but that's another matter).

So, because I find the whole "inbox zero" thing curious, I figured I'd toss out a few open questions:

  • Do you try to get your inbox down to zero unread messages? If so, why?
  • Is inbox zero something you try to achieve every day? Every month? Every quarter?
  • What does inbox zero represent to you? Does it have deeper meaning?
  • Does inbox zero lead to better overall organization?

Please share your thoughts in the comments area.


June 27 2010

A New Era of Post-Productivity Computing?

Glenn Fisher recently posted on software that disables bits of the computer to make us more productive and to minimize distractions. Programs like Freedom, Isolator, RescueTime, LeechBlock, Turn Off the Lights and others were mentioned, with more coverage going to Freedom, a tool that blocks distractions. Freedom users can choose to disable Internet access and/or local network access. Users claim that software like Freedom makes them more productive by blocking tempting distractions.

I’m not opposed to using technologies to support us in reclaiming our attention. But I prefer passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies over parental ones. Consider the Toyota Prius. The Prius doesn’t stop in the middle of a highway and say, “Listen to me, Mr. Irresponsible Driver, you’re using too much gas and this car isn’t going to move another inch until you commit to fix that.” Instead, a display engages us in a playful way and our body implicitly learns to shift to use less gas.

Glenn was kind enough to call me for a comment as he prepared his post. We talked about email apnea, continuous partial attention, and how, while software that locks out distractions is a great first step, our ultimate opportunity is to evolve our relationship with personal technologies.

Personal technologies today are prosthetics for our minds.

In our current relationship with technology, we bring our bodies, but our minds rule. “Don’t stop now, you’re on a roll. Yes, pick up that phone call, you can still answer these six emails. Follow Twitter while working on PowerPoint, why not?” Our minds push, demand, coax, and cajole. “No break yet, we’re not done. No dinner until this draft is done.” Our tyrannical minds conspire with enabling technologies and our bodies do their best to hang on for the wild ride.

With technologies like Freedom, we re-assign the role of tyrant to the technology. The technology dictates to the mind. The mind dictates to the body. Meanwhile, the body that senses and feels, that turns out to offer more wisdom than the finest mind could even imagine, is ignored.

At the heart of compromised attention is compromised breathing. Breathing and attention are commutative. Athletes, dancers, and musicians are among those who don’t have email apnea. Optimal breathing contributes to regulating our autonomic nervous system and it’s in this regulated state that our cognition and memory, social and emotional intelligence, and even innovative thinking can be fueled.

Our opportunity is to create personal technologies that are prosthetics for our beings. Conscious Computing. It’s post-productivity, post-communication era computing. Personal technologies that enhance our lives.

Thirty years ago, personal computing technologies created a revolution in personal productivity, supporting a value on self-expression, output and efficiency. The personal communications technology era that followed the era of personal productivity amplified accessibility and responsiveness. Personal technologies have served us well as prosthetics for the mind, in service of thinking and doing.

Scientists, like Antonion Damasio, Daniel Siegel, and Daniel Goleman, are showing us that aspects of our intelligence come from sensing and feeling and that our bodies offer a kind of wisdom.

Here at #Foo10, Sara has just pointed out that, for the first time she can remember, people are sitting in sessions, taking notes on notepads, laptops closed. Laptops are out of sight. It feels different. That’s another option. We can use technology to help enable Conscious Computing, or we can find it on our own, through attending to how we feel.

How do we usher in an era of Conscious Computing? What tools, technologies, and techniques will it take for personal technologies to become prosthetics of our full human potential?

Sponsored post

January 11 2010

Paul Krugman: Learning From Europe

Europe shows that social democracy does not undermine economic dynamism and growth:

Learning From Europe, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: As health care reform nears the finish line, there is much wailing and rending of garments among conservatives. And I’m not just talking about the tea partiers. Even calmer conservatives have been issuing dire warnings that Obamacare will turn America into a European-style social democracy. And everyone knows that Europe has lost all its economic dynamism.
Strange to say, however, what everyone knows isn’t true. ... The real lesson from Europe is actually the opposite of what conservatives claim...
It’s true that the U.S. economy has grown faster than that of Europe for the past generation. Since 1980 — when our politics took a sharp turn to the right, while Europe’s didn’t — America’s real G.D.P. has grown, on average, 3 percent per year. Meanwhile, the E.U. 15 ... has grown only 2.2 percent a year. America rules!
Or maybe not. All this really says is that we’ve had faster population growth. Since 1980, per capita real G.D.P. — which is what matters for living standards — has risen at about the same rate in America and in the E.U. 15: 1.95 percent a year here; 1.83 percent there.
What about technology? In the late 1990s you could argue that the revolution in information technology was passing Europe by. But Europe has since caught up in many ways. ...
And what about jobs? Here America arguably does better: European unemployment rates are usually substantially higher..., and the employed fraction of the population lower. But if your vision is of millions of prime-working-age adults sitting idle, living on the dole, think again. In 2008, 80 percent of adults aged 25 to 54 in the E.U. 15 were employed... That’s about the same as in the United States. Europeans are less likely than we are to work when young or old, but is that entirely a bad thing?
And Europeans are quite productive, too: they work fewer hours, but output per hour in France and Germany is close to U.S. levels.
The point isn’t that Europe is utopia. Like the United States, it’s having trouble grappling with the current financial crisis. Like the United States, Europe’s big nations face serious long-run fiscal issues... But taking the longer view, the European economy works; it grows; it’s as dynamic, all in all, as our own.
So why do we get such a different picture from many pundits? Because according to the prevailing economic dogma in this country — and I’m talking here about many Democrats as well as essentially all Republicans — European-style social democracy should be an utter disaster. And people tend to see what they want to see.
After all, while reports of Europe’s economic demise are greatly exaggerated, reports of its high taxes and generous benefits aren’t. Taxes in major European nations range from 36 to 44 percent of G.D.P., compared with 28 in the United States. Universal health care is, well, universal. Social expenditure is vastly higher than it is here.
So if there were anything to the economic assumptions that dominate U.S. public discussion — above all, the belief that even modestly higher taxes on the rich and benefits for the less well off would drastically undermine incentives to work, invest and innovate — Europe would be the stagnant, decaying economy of legend. But it isn’t.
Europe is often held up as a cautionary tale, a demonstration that if you try to make the economy less brutal, to take better care of your fellow citizens when they’re down on their luck, you end up killing economic progress. But what European experience actually demonstrates is the opposite: social justice and progress can go hand in hand.

January 10 2010

"A Job-Rich US Recovery is Still Plausible"

An argument that we don't need a "a major new stimulus program" devoted to job creation:

A job-rich US recovery is still plausible, by Robert Barbera and Charles Weise, Commentary, Financial Times: Only one short year ago, the world was staring depression in the face. Now the economy is recovering, but many commentators are warning of a “jobless recovery” of the kind that followed the last two recessions, in 1990-91 and 2001. ...
We believe that these meager expectations will turn out to be wrong, in large part because they mischaracterize how employment has swooned over the past two years. ... Our more optimistic outlook is based on a ... theory of why payrolls were cut so aggressively. Because of the turmoil in financial markets in autumn 2008, companies faced a severe cash crunch. As a result, they attempted to hoard cash in any way they could: they slashed order books, ran down inventories at an unprecedented pace and cut short-term borrowing. And they slashed payrolls. The drastic reduction in inventories and payrolls was not, in other words, a result of restructuring: it was symptomatic of panic, the same panic that caused the massive sell-off in equities, corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities. ...
Nearly all projections for the US economy envision a sharp reversal for inventories in the coming quarters. We argue that the recovery in jobs should mirror the restocking of inventories because the collapse in employment and inventories during the recession had the same source in panic-driven cash hoarding. ...
The same logic can be applied to productivity. Using consensus expectations for current-quarter real GDP we estimate that the last three quarters of 2009 registered an average rate of advance in labor productivity of almost 7 per cent. We estimate that productivity is now above its normal level, so reversion to the mean over the next year implies a productivity growth rate substantially below trend.
The following scenario then appears quite plausible. Real GDP grows at a rate of 3.8 per cent in 2010, with productivity growth of 0.7 per cent and a modest increase in average weekly hours. In such a world, employment growth would average 2.2 per cent. This translates to an average of about 240,000 jobs per month.
This scenario, while wildly optimistic compared with current consensus forecasts, amounts to a weak recovery by historical standards. In the first full year of recovery after the 1981-82 recession, GDP growth was more than 7 per cent. Following the recession of 1974-75, growth was 6 per cent. It is not hard to imagine growth over the next year well in excess of our 3.8 per cent forecast, with jobs growth in the 300,000 per month range. We are not endorsing that as our forecast but we believe it is as likely as the jobless recovery predictions that define the conventional wisdom.
Barack Obama therefore needs to be patient. A modest fiscal stimulus focused on aid to the states would be a helpful insurance policy against a further weakening in the economy. But the trends are in the administration’s favour, and a major new stimulus program should be resisted. ...

They're not even willing to "endorse" their own forecast? They do implicitly define a forecast since they say the optimistic and pessimistic outcomes are equally likely. So why does a 50-50 chance that there will, in fact, be a intolerably slow recovery in the job market mean we should stand by and do nothing while we hope the coin comes up heads rather than tails? The average of the two forecasts - the most likely outcome by their reckoning - is not very rosy for labor and calls for something to be done.

There are lags between policy changes and changes in employment, and that means it's much easier to back off of action initiated now if things turn out to be better than expected than it is to do something later if the optimistic scenario fails to materialize. That is, the risks of failing to do anything and then realizing the pessimistic high unemployment outcome are much larger than doing something now and then having things turn out better than expected. Even on their own terms, I don't think their conclusion that we shouldn't devote any resources to job creation (other than protecting jobs through "modest" help for state and local governments) follows.

In any case, Dean Baker countered the part of the argument related to productivity before it was even made. Here's his response to similar claims about robust job growth:

Silliness on Productivity, by Dean Baker: In discussing the December jobs report the Post repeated some of the silliness about productivity that is currently circulating among people who imagine themselves to be knowledgeable about the economy. It told readers that:
Employers slashed positions more dramatically in the past two years, squeezing more productivity out of remaining workers. That has led many analysts to expect a substantial increase in the number of jobs in the early months of 2010, as companies must hire again just to keep up with demand for their products.
Actually, productivity growth averaged 2.6 percent annually over the last two years. This is somewhat more rapid than the growth rate over the prior two years but it is below the 2.9 percent average annual growth rate in the decade from 1995 to 2005. In other words, there is nothing extraordinary about the recent rates of productivity growth so there is no special reason for believing that a burst of hiring is imminent.

In case you somehow missed it, I'd be happy to be wrong, but I am not anticipating a sudden burst of job growth anytime soon, and this worry is not new by any means.

December 17 2009

"The Great Moderation: What Caused It and Is It Over?"

The paper below says that, contrary to what you might think, the Great Moderation is not over. What is the Great Moderation? From the paper:

The idea of “the Great Moderation” came to widespread public attention in a 2004 speech by then-Federal Reserve Governor Ben Bernanke.1 He began his speech with a statement of empirical fact: “One of the most striking features of the economic landscape over the past twenty years or so has been a substantial decline in macroeconomic volatility.”
This empirical fact was established in two influential academic papers by Kim and Nelson (1999) and McConnell and Perez-Quiros (2000).2 Both papers presented evidence of a large reduction in the volatility of U.S. real GDP growth over the past half-century. Furthermore, both papers found that the reduction was sudden and estimated to have occurred in 1984Q1.
This sudden reduction in volatility is visible to the naked eye in Figure 1, which plots seasonally-adjusted quarterly U.S. real GDP growth for the period of 1947Q2-2009Q3.

Let me repeat a list of factors from a previous post that have been proposed to explain the Great Moderation:

  • Better technology, e.g. information processing allowing better inventory control and management
  • Better policy, e.g. inflation targeting
  • Good luck so that no big shocks hit the economy
  • Financial innovation and deregulation
  • Globalization leading to dispersed risk
  • Better business practices (this is less common, here's the link)
  • Increased rationality of participants in financial markets
  • Demographic shifts (again, since this less commonly offered as an explanation, here's the link)

Much of the literature prior to the crisis found that monetary policy was at least a contributing factor, if not the major factor behind this change (e.g. empirical evidence from Clarida, Gali, and Gertler of a large increase in the coefficient on inflation in the Taylor rule that, in New Keynesian models, would lead to a more stable economy). However, this paper focuses on the "good luck" explanation and finds that "smaller economic shocks related to oil prices, productivity, and inventories explain much of the Great Moderation." In addition, the paper finds that our good fortune may not be over:

The Great Moderation: What Caused It and Is It Over?, by James Morley: In this Macro Focus, our resident time series econometrician, James Morley, tries to rehabilitate the “Great Moderation.” His findings are both surprising and encouraging:
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Great Moderation was not a myth. There has been a very real, broad-based decline in U.S. macroeconomic volatility since the mid-1980s.
The reduction in volatility does not appear to be primarily the result of better policy or changes in the structural response of the economy to shocks.
Instead, the Great Moderation appears to be mostly due to smaller economic shocks (e.g., oil price shocks, productivity shocks, and inventory mistakes).
The technological basis for the smaller shocks means that the prognosis for the continuation of the Great Moderation is much better than you might think.
Given the financial and economic turmoil of the past few years, it would be easy to believe the “Great Moderation” was a myth based on wishful thinking. Many commentators have proclaimed as much and even many of us who study the phenomenon have started to wonder whether it was all too good to be true.
Despite these doubts, a dispassionate examination of the data suggests that the stabilization of economic activity since the mid-1980s was very much a reality. The more legitimate question is whether or not it is now over. This Macro Focus seeks to answer this question through careful analysis of what caused the Great Moderation. The finding that it was largely due to smaller economic shocks for technological reasons implies a surprisingly optimistic prognosis for its continuation. ... [paper]
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