Information Zen

Trying to keep up with Google Reader, and watching my inbox fill up faster than I could read, I realized that access to this wealth of information has consumed my soul! Don’t get me wrong, I love information, and lots of it; like when you’re walking in a library through seemingly endless knowledge and ideas. There’s a welcoming solace between the stacks of books I may never get a chance to read. The vastness of information is humbling; knowing that there’s more great ideas than I’ll ever have a chance to experience.

But unlike the library, my inbox, calendar, and growing list of tasks is not something I can easily ignore. It’s not uncommon that we spend an entire day just catching up and reading about the work we are supposed to be doing.

Think about it, how much of your day do you actually work? I don’t mean thinking about or planning your work, but actually doing something with a net result of work being accomplished. How often are you talking and thinking about some new idea versus implementing? Unless your work is incredibly boring and stupid, you probably spend a majority of your time thinking and planning. Thinking about new ideas is incredibly taxing. We often find ourselves overworked without having done any work.

This is the bane of our brave new information world. We have become more reactive and less focused. We bow to our inbox trying desperately to prioritize the enormous list of inquiries, tasks, complaints, and male enhancement spam. I’ve occasionally adopted triage techniques as a way to get through the massive volume of work collecting in my inbox. This is a valid organizational approach to handling an overactive inbox, but “triage” speaks of a crisis: not enough doctors to treat injuries from battle. This is a wartime solution applied to what should be a calming moment in my office.

So what do we do about it? Maybe we throw our computers away and learn to live off the land the way our agrarian ancestors intended?

Since I don’t know how to hunt or gather, at least not well enough to sustain my interest let alone survival, I’m stuck in front of the computer. In order to survive I sit in front of my inbox.

You have either to abandon it completely, or bow down and hope not to be overwhelmed. For survival, we learn new ways to manage, we learn not to assert control but to let it flow. There is an art to managing information, but it comes at a price.

Personally, I’ve become so good at managing information that I can quickly empty my inbox, updating my list of projects and actions, and scheduling appointments and travel. The key is to let the information flow, it is an ocean outside of your control.

Managing information is like surfing. Imagine a surfer trying to force the waves to behave, the surfer would most likely drown. The information in front of you is no different, you are just surfing and hoping not to drown.

Panoramia!

Recently, my work was gracious enough to purchase additional monitors for my workstation. I guess all my ranting about increasing productivity with multiple monitors payed off! Now I feel obligated to get more work done, but first I have to waste time by looking for panoramic wallpaper!

You’d think there’d be lots of tri-monitor wallpapers out there, something 4800×1200, but after an extensive search the results were entirely disappointing. It turns out I wasn’t searching with the right keywords. Don’t bother searching for anything with the word “wallpaper” or “multi-monitor”, instead just simply google “autostitch”.

That’s right, autostitch. Autostitch is a small program created by Mathew Brown, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. Autostitch is based on research by Brown and his supervisor Professor David Lowe. The program automatically recognizes similar images and “stitches” them together to form a seamless panoramic. Despite the stigma of being “academic software”, autostitch is a revolution in creating panoramic images.

I have always avoided the desire to take dozens of pictures in a wide panoramic. Think of those idiots on top of the Eiffel Tower taking a series of photos in a slow rotation. I never thought there was a point to that activity, not without expensive cameras capable of capturing a real panoramic image. Autostitch proves that even cheap digital cameras can produce amazing panaormic images, perfect for my multi-monitor display!

Here is my first attempt with Autostitch:

Solana Beach – near my house

What’s more, I even managed to produce a great image of a simple street corner:

I’ve linked to the full-size images for those of you with tri-monitor displays looking for a 4800×1200 pixel wallpaper!

Overall, I am in awe of the quality of autostitch. Photography often fails to capture the simple beauty of an ocean, or a mountain, or even a street corner. Beauty is often found in the full breadth of view, the vastness of contrast between a simple street and an ethereal sky. Autostitch enables anyone with a camera to better capture the experience of a breathtaking ocean, or even a breathtaking walk around the neighborhood.

And now back to my multi-monitors!

Walking in the Foreign Lands of Web 2.0

You ever wonder how to monetize the long tail? Or how to realize cyberinfrastructure? Hopefully you have no idea what I’m talking about, which means you’re thankfully naive to the politics of academic supercomputing and the hyper-fluff of over-paid business leaders “revving the web” at this years Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco.

I realized from day one I was out of my element, talk of business models and ad placement left me wondering whether academic politics aren’t such a bad thing after all. But are these worlds really that far apart?

Amidst the pretenders and the venture capital monkeys the Web 2.0 conference brought together a collection of like-minded individuals with one cohesive idea: the web as an application platform.

Academics have been pushing this idea for years, albeit in a backwards and borderline retarded method of grid portals and high-latency web services. User experience is an almost alien concept in academia, leaving would-be web portals in a state of chaos and such poor usability that they’re… well… unusable.

Based on my completely unscientific and haphazard estimate, the private sector has been pushing further and faster than academia that it’s at least a few years ahead of academic research projects (especially when it comes to deploying web services and web applications). The idea of REST, RSS, ATOM, AJAX or even CSS are strangely missing from academic projects who are currently pushing such hot new technologies such as SOAP, WSDL, and the ever successful JSR-168.

Hopefully, you’re spending your thoughts on more important topics such as the flying spaghetti monster, but I’ve been up at night wondering why academic web applications are so disparate from their private sector counterparts.

The industry leaders at Web 2.0 may be motivated by money, but they’re inventing their way to successful business models based on technological innovation; building and integrating web services in novel applications creating new levels of connectedness and information sharing; something sorely lacking in mainstream academia.

So what do we do about it? We do what everyone (including Microsoft) is doing: we watch Google and copy everything they do!

Revenge of the Nerds

A dry, sunny San Diego day, and brisk ocean chilled breeze – but only on the outside. Inside the San Diego convention center the sweltering wet warmth of unbathed bodies left you feeling, well, sticky. It was a dank, humid, swampy affair of nerds, Klingons, cellulite super-heroines and some kind of Japanese goth renaissance space fantasy.

That humidity to be sure, is that special kind of trapped-in human sweat streaming from heavy, fluffy costumes. I overhead a teenage girl exclaim “stop touching me geeks!”

I think that best sums up the San Diego Comic Convention International: nubile young women shrieking in fear of the wet touchy palms of hungry geeks.

Various “television and movie personalities” were about, most charging exorbitant fees for an autograph or a photo (Ernie Hudson, how could you?). Fortunately, there were plenty of other astonishing photo opportunities walking about. Not everyone was charging. This lovely young girl was even flirting with me!

We bumped into Ray Bradbury in the main convention area, that’s right, the Ray Bradury! Not to say Ernie Hudson wasn’t exciting, but Ray Bradbury taking time to meet people and chat without asking for money was quite the thing. Definitely a true gentleman, and one of the few speakers at the convention that was memorable for all the right reasons. My girlfriend, on the other hand, missed the entire Ray Bradbury discussion forum because she wanted Starbucks. The aspiring writer passing on the opportunity to hear one of the most influential writers of all time, instead opting for overpriced carmel caffeine. I wish I could tell her she didn’t miss a thing, that there wasn’t several young writers watching in tears listening to Ray Bradbury speak of the inspiration and passion he has for his craft.

I also listened to the Simpsons’ creators as well as the Adult Swim panel. In both cases, I realized I’m not as much of a fan as I thought. Don’t read me wrong, I love Adult Swim and I love the Simpsons and Futurama. But really, they’re just shows! If watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force changed your life, I don’t think I want to hear about your life. Maybe I’m not as much of a nerd as I thought.

Please check out the photos!