The Information Diet & National Security

January 18, 2011

Hi everyone. I still have lots to say, but I’ve been focusing on job and fellowship applications and the like lately. Still, I had to stop to share this really interesting article that relates to what I’ve been talking about here: Military Struggles to Harness a Flood of Data, from the January 16 New York Times.

They’re talking about the same problems I’m talking about here, but with even more overload and far worse consequences of scattered brains. And they can’t always just choose to take in less information. So in that case, what do you do? Here’s one clip from the article:

The military is trying novel approaches to helping soldiers focus. At an Army base on Oahu, Hawaii, researchers are training soldiers’ brains with a program called “mindfulness-based mind fitness training.” It asks soldiers to concentrate on a part of their body, the feeling of a foot on the floor or of sitting on a chair, and then move to another focus, like listening to the hum of the air-conditioner or passing cars.

I do know that as I work in about sixteen different applications and class projects at once, stopping to sense that my foot in fact exists might actually be useful.

You think I’m being tongue-in-cheek but I’m actually serious.


Comcast failed me

December 6, 2010

This End of Semester Update is brought to you by Comcast, which has compelled me to share tonight, even though I should be studying econ, that if I had paid for a text copy of my economics textbook, I would not be suffering tonight. I had planned my week all responsibly and everything, with a time-sensitive job application and my econ homework scheduled for Monday night after work.

However, Comcast’s DNS server failed for pretty much the entire Midwest, from Minnesota to Chicago to Detroit from around 8 until sometime between 11 pm and 12:45 am, when I checked it right before bed and found it working again. I was too sleepy by that point to study or do the job application.

Which means that I had to do them tonight, as well as practice for a presentation that’s at 8:30 tomorrow morning and make slides for a presentation that’s on Wednesday. If I get tired and want to stop (as is happening right now), too bad, I can’t, because I don’t have the extra time padding. I sacrificed that because I didn’t want to pay for the textbook this time. I would have, but in this case — unlike with game theory during the first half of the semester — the two textbooks our class uses were available for free right there on-line in a e-book format. Paying was not made convenient, so I didn’t do it.

Now, as I struggle to stay awake and hope to solve these problems tonight before I do my presentation for tomorrow, I wish I had paid for the paper text.

Failing that, I wish there were more choices for Internet service.

We now return to my regularly scheduled econ homework.


New York Times and my comment

November 21, 2010

The New York Times has a great article on the very subject matter of this blog. I managed to get at comment in there before they stopped accepting them.

Check out my comment if you’re so inclined!

Oh, and here’s the original article, too. :)


The Information Diet: Introduction

November 3, 2010

I can not keep up with all the information that is out there that I want to consume. There are so many important news articles and stories to read; there are so many e-mails appearing in my inbox; there is the ever-present Facebook feed on which I keep finding myself; there are responses I want to write to all of these things. And this is just in the digital realm. Don’t even get me started on books I want to read, and it’s probably better not even to bring up movies. I don’t go to the movies much these days. (Except tomorrow I want to go see Waiting For Superman because I’m not sure it will be at the theater within walking distance of my apartment after tomorrow!)

We think that having more information at our fingertips is a good thing — and it is. In that way, it’s a lot like having more food available. Of course we want enough food; and once we’ve secured that, we want more delicious and nutritious food.

Or, as it turns out, we want more convenient food with high sugar content that sustains our cravings but doesn’t necessarily do much for us.

Lately I have been thinking that this is how my information consumption works, too. I sit down at the computer and mean to do something significant, but I find myself on Facebook.

But even when I’m not at the “sugary” sites, there’s just too much. It’s all good stuff, but I can’t keep up with it. I’m letting people down by not responding to their e-mails; I’m piling stuff up in the Firefox plug-in “Read It Later” much faster than I’m taking things off the pile.

It’s gotten to the point where this isn’t adding to my quality of life; it’s detracting from it.

For this reason, I’ve decided to actively monitor my information diet; and then, based on what I find, I’m going to go on a diet. We’ll see how it goes: I’ll keep you updated. Naturally, I’m deeming this blog “nutritious information” that I’m still allowed to consume (production in this sense being lumped in with consumption of time and energy). Of course, as with any diet, the idea is not to cease eating entirely as that would be highly unhealthy; the idea is to control what one eats and in doing so gain some kind of control over one’s life circumstances.

I’m curious whether any of you have “information diet” practices (whether you’ve ever called them that of not). If so, I’d love to hear about them: please share them in the comments!


My external brain is plugged in again

October 21, 2010

My Lemur is here! Look how sleek it is. I now feel like the part of my brain that was disconnected for the past two weeks can properly function today. I have been synthesizing information for school (on Chinese Internet/info policy) and about local politics and water on the moon and about guns in America.

Wow, there really is a lot of information out there.

I do want to focus, most of the time. But I have to admit there is a certain kind of thrill to having all this brain stimulation right here at my fingertips.

Oh, and I downloaded an RSS feed reader (Liferea, if anyone’s curious) so I can properly follow all of your blogs. Which means I’ll comment on them more now

In the screencap I linked above, you can see how Ubuntu 10.10 (my operating system) has all the communication-networking stuff right there in that drop-down panel I opened. I think I am going to like this, but I’m not activating the Broadcast stuff — that’s things like Twitter and Facebook. I have enough to keep me busy without that, and I like the RSS feeds better.

I have deeper posts to write later on, but for now, I’ll share something that freaked me out a bit until I realized it was a false alarm. I’m subscribed to the Google Public Policy Blog, where I saw this headline:

“This Internet is Your Internet: Digital Citizenship from California to Washtenaw County”

I know that Google knows where I live, but I thought they’d stepped it up a notch to put my location right there into their headline.

Then I realized that, no, Google actually came to Washtenaw County and that even people in New York, Florida, France, or Timbuktu got that headline.

Whew. That was close.

And now I’m off to chip away some more at the homework and communication backlog.


Things that are easier than being a computerless grad student

October 11, 2010

If you haven’t heard yet, my laptop died a week and a half ago. What I was doing when it seized up, actually, was writing one post in this blog and reviewing an article for a second, so those were some of the casualties of Lappy’s demise.

Another casualty is my schoolwork.

I’m now waiting for my System 76 Lemur UltraThin to arrive. They said it would take 8 business days to build my computer, and then there’s the shipping time.1 So that’ll be about two weeks. Two weeks! Two weeks without a computer?!?! In grad school?!?!! I have PAPERS DUE! WHAT AM I GONNA DO?!?!!?!

Well, for starters (after taking quite a few deep breaths), I’ve borrowed my sister’s old iBook G4, which means the crisis has largely been averted. The iBook doesn’t, however, have my stuff on it. This feeling is surprisingly similar to what I experienced last summer when I went back to visit my friends in Japan. Though I enjoyed visiting them all, being a guest using someone’s spare futon is nevertheless draining. This is like that, only a lot worse. (Since, you know, I’m missing the “see friends and Japan” part of the bargain.)

And I have a confession: I broke my No Computers In Class rule this past week for the first time this semester. I did so because I hadn’t been able to print out my reading materials (being too busy scrambling to find computers to write papers on), so I just had to open the PDFs in class. But of course, I ended up doing not-class-related stuff. This was partially due to a failure of willpower, but it wasn’t wholly such a failure: it was also due to desperation. What I was doing, you see, was computer shopping. Panic was overwhelming me and I had to take urgent action. I needed a new machine and I needed it ASAP. Never having been addicted to drugs, I can not say this with accuracy, but this feeling is much like what I imagine drug addicts experience if their supply is cut off.

I did, at least, manage to pay attention at some points. One was in SI 633 (History of Books and Printing), when we were discussing the transition from manuscripts to printed books. This was oddly appropriate considering what was playing out in my mind, which is this: I can not imagine what it must have been like to be a college student before computers.

Honestly, I can much more easily imagine life before indoor plumbing. The concept of chamber pots and outhouses is easy enough to grasp. Heck, when I volunteered in India last year, we had to use an outhouse, but they still provided us with an Internet connection right there in the Dalit village where we were helping to build houses. They clearly know what their young adult volunteers can handle and what constitutes an unacceptable degree of “roughing it.” (Okay, so it’s harder to build flush toilets than it is to set up a laptop, but this still strikes me as significant.)

It is also easier to be on crutches than it is to be without a computer. I say this with some authority because I sprained my ankle and had to use crutches last year while I lived in Japan. With crutches, everyone can see that your mobility is limited, so you get more immediate understanding. (I got to sit on the priority seat on the train!) Sure, it was a major inconvenience because I normally got around by bike, so I had to get people to give me rides to work and the grocery store; but the worst case scenario, if no one could drive me, was that I’d use the Internet to order pizza delivery. At no point was I at risk of (ahhhhhhhh!!!) turning papers in late.

So as far as I can tell, having temporarily limited use of computers is more of a burden than having temporarily limited use of one’s right leg.2 I’ve been having trouble keeping up with everything that’s going on via e-mail, with getting my reading done, with applying to programs via the Web (fortunately my resumé was backed-up on my external hard drive!), and let’s not even talk about writing papers. Lemur UltraThin, please get here soon! I have a policy report due October 21!

And that’s what it’s like to be a grad student without a computer in 2010. I’m all for getting a priority seat implemented for temporarily computerless students.

Anyone else have a similar experience to share?

  1. Some people suggested that I could just go to Best Buy and pick a computer right off the shelf, thereby having it immediately and avoiding two weeks of suffering. That, however, would require me to pay the Windows Tax, which would cause a more prolonged and profound kind of suffering. I’ll manage to hold out for two weeks somehow.
  2. I make no such claims regarding permanent physical disabilities, but I do think this experience drives home the point that the Digital Divide is real and it is deep. I will support efforts to bring broadband access to underprivileged communities even more enthusiastically now.

Another student feels this way, too

October 10, 2010

Hey, look. I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Today I would like to disconnect from the Internet.

Yet this seems like an impossibility in today’s world. My phone beeps constantly from all my email.

The entry isn’t very long, but Cara has more to say in her blog. And I happen to know she’s far from being a technophobe, too. Check it out!


Follow-up on laptops in class, and comments on comments

October 8, 2010

I was happy to read all your comments on my recent post about why I don’t bring my laptop to class this year. Those who are interested might want to go and take a look at the comments there; at the very least, I want to highlight what Ben said because I wholeheartedly agree:

There’s something that gets lost in making the Internet less of a “gee whiz, I can go online and get anything!” type of thing and more of a necessity to make it through day-to-day life.

Hear, hear. The Internet used to be this Cool Fun Thing that I was excited to have, and that made life easier because it empowered you beyond what was expected of you. But now if you don’t have a computer, you’re behind what’s expected. (Much more on that in a post that will follow this one tomorrow.)

Oh, and for those of you who e-mail me your comments privately, I would like to thank you for sharing your insights, which are always high-quality; therefore I encourage you to post them publicly. Your thoughts add value to my blog!

Anyway. I have some follow-up observations on computers in class.

As you may know, I’m a student not just at the School of Information, but also at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. I’m taking a super-interesting class over there right now (PubPol 673: International Security Affairs, for the record). In the midst of notes about US soft power, Sunnis, Shi’a, and what the Muslim world thinks of us, I jotted this down:

5 computers / 17 people in class

With SI as my home school, this was truly striking to me—and by that I mean that the ratio was that low! I also noticed that, far from feeling like a freak with my printed-out readings and my hand-written notes, at the Ford School, I’m totally normal. So, it might be that SI is just full of zealots, as I was saying. This is encouraging to me. At the very least, maybe the people in charge of our national security will be a little better at focusing than we librarians and iPhone app designers are. (Then again, they’re not as good at sharing information with each other as we are, as I just read in the 9/11 Comission Report. If only the NSA and CIA and FBI had all friended each other on Facebook.1)

Actually, though, we SI kids might not be as hopeless as this suggests, either. Since I posted about why I don’t bring my computer to class, I actually have had it come up twice in class—without me bringing it up—that some people who use sites like Facebook and Twitter during class are making efforts to not to do so—or even to open their laptops—because they know they aren’t getting anything out of class when they do. These conversations were both of a laughing-but-serious tone.

And hey, recent column in the New York Times, entitled “Ditch Your Laptop, Dump Your Boyfriend” had this to say:

Devices have become security blankets. Take the time to wean yourself. Start by scheduling a few Internet-free hours each day, with your phone turned off. It’s the only way you’ll be able to read anything seriously, whether it’s Plato or Derrida on Plato.

Yup. I’m encouraged to see I’m not crazy in thinking the world has gone slightly crazy!

You’ll note that I didn’t link the article. I didn’t want you feel the momentary brain-lag that Nicholas Carr2 suggests (or cites studies that suggest) follows the reading of a hypertext link. But now that you’re done with my blog post, you might want to go there, so here it is. But don’t get too distracted now. I don’t want you to burn the cookies in the oven or forget to call Grandma back or anything.

  1. Not that it existed in 2001. Too bad. Hey, given Facebook’s privacy loopholes, the Feds could just watch Osama’s status updates and forget having to talk to each other in the first place.
  2. Author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, the book that made me finally get started on this blog idea I’d been kicking around for a while. I just found out he has a blog which I am going to link in my blogroll now.

China doesn’t want its kids to be like us

October 7, 2010

I’m doing research for a group project on the Chinese information policy for one of my courses (SI 507: Information Policy Analysis and Design). This led me to a Chinese government white paper on their Internet policy as a whole, from which this quote caught my attention:

The Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Minors stipulates that the state shall take measures to prevent minors from overindulging in the Internet[.]

(That’s from this page.)

I’m not sure how I feel about that, but it seemed well worth sharing here.


Is a computer always the most efficient tool?

October 7, 2010

Speaking of Game Theory, I’ve got another story from that class that is relevant to this blog.

Two of the problems on a recent homework assignment asked us to draw out the extended form of some games, which involves drawing lots of lines one way and some dotted lines the other way. It looks something like a system of roots growing sideways.

Each week, we’re required both to turn in a paper copy of the homework and to submit a digital file through CTools, the course management website. Our professor likes to have the digital copy just so there’s a record that we submitted it on time. He was, however, sporting enough to say that for problems that required drawings, we could simply write “See paper version” or the like on the digital submission and that would suffice.

Nevertheless, before class, some students were showing off their computer print-outs of extended form games which they had gone to elaborate lengths (by their own description) to create in the likes of Microsoft Paint.

I found myself thinking far too much about this as we all handed in our homework. Wouldn’t it have saved a lot of time and effort just to draw them with a pencil? I love finding new ways to use my computer1, but just because computers can do a lot of things faster doesn’t mean they can do everything faster.

I think what iSchools should be teaching is that different technologies have different benefits. Oh, wait, that’s what they are teaching. The idea that each technology has different affordances was a key concept in our core class, SI500, which we all had to take first semester. But it seems there is a cohort here that consists of a certain type of student who thinks everything can and should be done on a computer. Is that really “connecting people, information, and technology in more valuable ways” as our school’s motto suggests?

As other of my classmates said with a laugh, only in the School of Information would anyone go to that length of trouble. Which makes me think some of my classmates are missing the point.2

(I must note that I did think of one possible logical explanation here: it may be that these students wanted a digital archive of absolutely all of their work, in which case, they have no choice but to spend extra time figuring out how to duplicate their pencil-sketched efforts in Microsoft Paint. I can’t imagine the benefits of such an archive are worth the trade-offs of time, but then, that’s a matter for my classmates specializing in Archives and Records Management and Preservation of Information to pick up and run with, should they choose to do so. This doesn’t change the fact that the computer was not an efficient way to solve and submit the homework problem.)

  1. Like, most recently, teaching myself how to sing a harmony part by downloading MIDI music software and plugging the notes to two parts into the digital staff.
  2. Or, if they were really determined to use a computer, there’s always looking to see what’s already out there that, with the help of a screencap, could make their lives easier.