Too much information

Applying the concept of a sprint in Agile development can help me cope with information overload. I block off a period of time, 2-3 hours, to concentration on my work. I will hide myself, disconnect from email and instant messages to avoid any interruption. I also learn that nothing cannot wait for a few hours or a day or two. You just have to set the expectation right that people cannot demand instance response from you all the time.

Jun 30th 2011, The Economist
How to cope with data overload

GOOGLE “information overload” and you are immediately overloaded with information: more than 7m hits in 0.05 seconds. Some of this information is interesting: for example, that the phrase “information overload” was popularised by Alvin Toffler in 1970. Some of it is mere noise: obscure companies promoting their services and even more obscure bloggers sounding off. The overall impression is at once overwhelming and confusing.

“Information overload” is one of the biggest irritations in modern life. There are e-mails to answer, virtual friends to pester, YouTube videos to watch and, back in the physical world, meetings to attend, papers to shuffle and spouses to appease. A survey by Reuters once found that two-thirds of managers believe that the data deluge has made their jobs less satisfying or hurt their personal relationships. One-third think that it has damaged their health. Another survey suggests that most managers think most of the information they receive is useless.

Commentators have coined a profusion of phrases to describe the anxiety and anomie caused by too much information: “data asphyxiation” (William van Winkle), “data smog” (David Shenk), “information fatigue syndrome” (David Lewis), “cognitive overload” (Eric Schmidt) and “time famine” (Leslie Perlow). Johann Hari, a British journalist, notes that there is a good reason why “wired” means both “connected to the internet” and “high, frantic, unable to concentrate”.

These worries are exaggerated. Stick-in-the-muds have always complained about new technologies: the Victorians fussed that the telegraph meant that “the businessman of the present day must be continually on the jump.” And businesspeople have always had to deal with constant pressure and interruptions—hence the word “business”. In his classic study of managerial work in 1973 Henry Mintzberg compared managers to jugglers: they keep 50 balls in the air and periodically check on each one before sending it aloft once more.

Yet clearly there is a problem. It is not merely the dizzying increase in the volume of information (the amount of data being stored doubles every 18 months). It is also the combination of omnipresence and fragmentation. Many professionals are welded to their smartphones. They are also constantly bombarded with unrelated bits and pieces—a poke from a friend one moment, the latest Greek financial tragedy the next.

The data fog is thickening at a time when companies are trying to squeeze ever more out of their workers. A survey in America by Spherion Staffing discovered that 53% of workers had been compelled to take on extra tasks since the recession started. This dismal trend may well continue—many companies remain reluctant to hire new people even as business picks up. So there will be little respite from the dense data smog, which some researchers fear may be poisonous.

They raise three big worries. First, information overload can make people feel anxious and powerless: scientists have discovered that multitaskers produce more stress hormones. Second, overload can reduce creativity. Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School has spent more than a decade studying the work habits of more than 9,000 people. She finds that focus and creativity are connected. People are more likely to be creative if they are allowed to focus on something for some time without interruptions. If constantly interrupted or forced to attend meetings, they are less likely to be creative. Third, overload can also make workers less productive. David Meyer, of the University of Michigan, has shown that people who complete certain tasks in parallel take much longer and make many more errors than people who complete the same tasks in sequence.

What can be done about information overload? One answer is technological: rely on the people who created the fog to invent filters that will clean it up. Xerox promises to restore “information sanity” by developing better filtering and managing devices. Google is trying to improve its online searches by taking into account more personal information. (Some people fret that this will breach their privacy, but it will probably deliver quicker, more accurate searches.) A popular computer program called “Freedom” disconnects you from the web at preset times.

A second answer involves willpower. Ration your intake. Turn off your mobile phone and internet from time to time.

But such ruses are not enough. Smarter filters cannot stop people from obsessively checking their BlackBerrys. Some do so because it makes them feel important; others because they may be addicted to the “dopamine squirt” they get from receiving messages, as Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, two academics, have argued. And self-discipline can be counter-productive if your company doesn’t embrace it. Some bosses get shirty if their underlings are unreachable even for a few minutes.

Most companies are better at giving employees access to the information superhighway than at teaching them how to drive. This is starting to change. Management consultants have spotted an opportunity. Derek Dean and Caroline Webb of McKinsey urge businesses to embrace three principles to deal with data overload: find time to focus, filter out noise and forget about work when you can. Business leaders are chipping in. David Novak of Yum! Brands urges people to ask themselves whether what they are doing is constructive or a mere “activity”. John Doerr, a venture capitalist, urges people to focus on a narrow range of objectives and filter out everything else. Cristobal Conde of SunGard, an IT firm, preserves “thinking time” in his schedule when he cannot be disturbed. This might sound like common sense. But common sense is rare amid the cacophony of corporate life.

卑詩內陸酒鄉遊(中)- 參觀酒莊





行程包括暢遊四個酒莊試酒,每個酒莊也各有特色。第一站是Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery,不過我們要趕去Mission Hill參觀釀酒過程,只在這個酒莊逗留了十數分鐘。第二站Mission Hill是卑詩出產的酒中的名牌,它釀製的紅酒榮獲法國紅酒大獎,證明新世界的酒也可以比媲歐洲的酒。酒莊坐落湖畔的小山丘上,最具特色是酒樽招紙上鐘樓,模仿古代修道院的建築設計。我們參觀了釀酒過程,可能去的時候還早沒有其他人,於是我們便成了私人參觀團。

先從酒莊的歷史說起,再介紹不同品種酒的釀製方法,原來用不銹鋼桶和木桶釀出來的品道有很大分別,木桶用什麼木也很講究,最高級的酒是用法國紅木,讓紅木的道味滲進酒香之中。另外我也學懂了不是所有酒也可以耐久存放,一般市面上買的酒只有五至十年期,放得太久味道會變得難喝。加拿大著名盛產的冰酒,要待入冬初霜葡萄結冰時立即收割,葡萄內的水份結成冰粒去掉,每顆葡萄只剩下的一滴汁才用來釀酒,葡萄汁精華令冰酒味道十分甜。但因此釀冰酒比一般酒要多用十倍葡萄,所以冰酒的價錢比貴普通酒價許多。然後我們參觀Mission Hill的地下酒窖,酒窖挖空火山岩洞建成,不需要空調也很自然清涼,適合存放釀酒的木桶。最後當然會品嘗酒莊出產的美酒,我們領到一個私家試酒室,導遊還教我們一些試酒的基本常識。

Mission Hill的招牌鐘樓



下午到Quail’s Gate酒莊的餐廳午膳,一邊看著葡萄園和湖光山色,一邊享受美食,休哉遊哉十分寫意。最後一站到Little Straw Vineyards,這是一個小酒莊,特別之處是酒莊附設有藝術館,展覽Okanagan當地藝術家的作品。


大慨一天下來喝了不少酒,回程時我們在車上睡著了。這天收獲很豐富,在每個酒莊也有買酒,還買了幾枝冰酒給朋友作手信。我們的行程只參觀了West Kelowna地區的酒莊,Okanagan地區有大大小小超過六十個酒莊,下次可以參加不同地區的試酒團。在南部Summer Land和Osoyoos地區,比北部每年有更多陽光照射,那兒才是酒莊的集中地。


  1. Okanagan Wine Country Tours
  2. Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery
  3. Mission Hills Winery
  4. Quail’s Gate Winery Restaurant
  5. Little Straw Vineyards

卑詩內陸酒鄉遊(上)- 酒莊婚禮

















  1. Kelowna旅遊局 
  2. 酒莊禮堂 Belgo Wedding Chapel
  3. 湖畔酒店 Hotel Eldorado

When the Problem Is the Problem

This is the only thing I learned from my master degree. Asking the right question is half way done to get the right answer. In fact asking the right question probably more important than getting the right answer. Once you stated the question correctly, things magically fall into place and you can outsource the work to someone else.

Finding the right problem is half the solution
By Robert W. Lucky, July 2011, IEEE Spectrum

A problem well stated is a problem half solved.
– Inventor Charles Franklin Kettering (1876–1958)

We’re all fairly good at problem solving. That’s the skill we were taught and endlessly drilled on at school. Once we have a problem, we know how to turn the crank and get a solution. Ah, but finding a problem—there’s the rub.

Everyone knows that finding a good problem is the key to research, yet no one teaches us how to do that. Engineering education is based on the presumption that there exists a predefined problem worthy of a solution. If only it were so!

After many years of managing research, I’m still not sure how to find good problems. Often I discovered that good problems were obvious only in retrospect, and even then I was sometimes proved wrong years later. Nonetheless, I did observe that there were some people who regularly found good problems, while others never seemed to be working along fruitful paths. So there must be something to be said about ways to go about this.

Internet pioneer Craig Partridge recently sent around a list of open research problems in communications and networking, as well as a set of criteria for what constitutes a good problem. He offers some sensible guidelines for choosing research problems, such as having a reasonable expectation of results, believing that someone will care about your results and that others will be able to build upon them, and ensuring that the problem is indeed open and underexplored.

All of this is easier said than done, however. Given any prospective problem, a search may reveal a plethora of previous work, but much of it will be hard to retrieve. On the other hand, if there is little or no previous work, maybe there’s a reason no one is interested in this problem. You need something in between. Moreover, even in defining the problem you need to see a way in, the germ of some solution, and a possible escape path to a lesser result, like the runaway truck ramps on steep downhill highways.

Timing is critical. If a good problem area is opened up, everyone rushes in, and soon there are diminishing returns. On unimportant problems, this same herd behavior leads to a self-approving circle of papers on a subject of little practical significance. Real progress usually comes from a succession of incremental and progressive results, as opposed to those that feature only variations on a problem’s theme.

At Bell Labs, the mathematician Richard Hamming used to divide his fellow researchers into two groups: those who worked behind closed doors and those whose doors were always open. The closed-door people were more focused and worked harder to produce good immediate results, but they failed in the long term.

Today I think we can take the open or closed door as a metaphor for researchers who are actively connected and those who are not. And just as there may be a right amount of networking, there may also be a right amount of reading, as opposed to writing. Hamming observed that some people spent all their time in the library but never produced any original results, while others wrote furiously but were relatively ignorant of the relevant literature.

Hamming, who shared an office with Claude Shannon and knew many famous scientists and engineers, also remarked on what he saw as a “Nobel Prize effect,” where once having achieved a famous result, a researcher felt that he or she could work only on great problems, consequently never doing great work again. From small-problem acorns, great trees of research grow.

Like a lot of things in life, it helps to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes all the good and well-intentioned advice in the world won’t help you avoid working on a dead-end problem. I know—I’ve been there, done that