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

第二天的重點節目的參觀酒莊和試酒,我們參加了當地導遊公司的品酒團,小巴從酒店接送來往各個酒莊。每個酒莊也設有展銷中心,介紹他們莊園釀製的酒,因為直接從酒莊購買,售價比城市的酒舖便宜。我們的品酒團已包括試酒費用,但自已去也不過是三數元試四五種酒,若果試飲後覺得喜歡決定購買,試酒費還從賬單扣回。其實拿著旅遊地圖,也可以自已按圖索驥,逐一拜訪各個酒莊,但是試酒雖然每次只是一小杯,可是加起來喝下去的份量也不少,醉酒駕駛犯法兼危險,所以還是參加品酒團由專車接送安全。

品酒團的小巴

一望無際的葡萄園

一行行的葡萄樹

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

在山頂上看Okanagan湖

火山岩建的地下酒窖

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。

看著湖光山色,在葡萄園進午餐

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。

相關資料:

  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

上星期終於從印度充軍回來,早前答應了老婆回來後要放假陪她去渡假輕鬆一下。剛好這個週末老婆的同學在卑詩內陸小城市Kelowna結婚,於是我們便自已駕車旅行,去參加結禮並順道遊覽以卑詩酒莊馳名的Okanagan地區。Kelowna人口只有十一萬,是卑詩省內陸地區的最大的城市。從溫哥華開車向西出發,大約需要四至五小時車程,高速公路穿越了無人煙的森林河谷,沿途只有希落的農業小鎮。在公路離開小鎮前,會有路牌提醒駕車人仕檢查汽油,因為下一個油站在百多公里外,如果在高速公路上沒有汽車,可便叫天不應叫地不聞了。

在Kelowna住的酒店

卑詩大學Okanagan校園

在市中心柏文的私家遊艇碼頭,行出屋就可以上船。

Kelowna市建立於Okanagan湖邊,一條跨湖大橋連接城東和城西。城市坐落被群山環抱的山谷盤地中,有山有水風景十分怡人。Okanagan湖道貫通卑詩內陸幾個主要城市,四週的河流更是鈎魚勝地。在湖伴的房子大部份也有私人碼頭,湖上看見不少人在玩滑水板或風帆。可惜我沒有船牌不能租船玩,下次再去Kelowna前,一定要上BOATSmart!Canada的網站考試申請船牌。雖然與溫哥華相比Kelowna只是個小城市,但市內主要品牌的商店和餐廳一應俱全,連卑詩大學在Kelowna也有個校園,購物吃喝玩樂讀書生活也很方便。除了沿著湖伴無數的酒莊葡萄園外,市郊有十多個高爾夫球場,附近山上還有三個大滑雪場,生活悠閒是退休人仕的理想定居地。

停泊在碼頭的遊艇,這隻船大約十萬加元,比一輛車還貴。

鬼佬龍舟

超級快艇,水上的法拉利

快艇的駕駛室

第一天我們下午才從溫哥華出發,到達Kelowna已經入夜,晚上一對新人約了來參加婚禮的朋友相敘,加上駕長途車後十分累,吃過晚餐便早點回酒店睡覺,留待明天才四處遊覽。新娘自少在Kelowna長大,讀大學時結識了來自更偏遠小鎮來的新郎,決定回到相識的地方舉行婚禮。他們的婚禮十分簡單,只邀請雙方親屬和幾個好朋友,不像港式婚禮要大排筵席請一大幫人。婚禮在酒莊的花園舉行,白色的小禮堂坐落在葡萄園當中,像看浪漫電影的婚禮。新人均不是教徒,婚禮沒有任何宗教儀式,只是在證婚人前宣讀誓詞。新娘的祖先來自愛爾蘭,沒有如一般結婚在宣誓後會交換戒指,取而代之是愛爾蘭的婚禮傳統,新娘新郎拖著雙手舉起,親人和朋友逐一上前把布帶綁上,並送上祝福的說話,喻意他們永遠也連繫一起。婚禮後的招待設在湖畔酒店,在從湖上吹來清涼的微風中,看著酒店碼頭遊艇駛進駛出,享受了一頓豐富的婚宴。

 

葡萄園的婚禮場地

花園中的小禮堂

愛爾蘭婚禮的綁手儀式

湖畔酒店

相關資料:

  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

通天神探狄仁傑

去年在香港電影金像獎中,「通天神探狄仁傑」獲得六項大獎。其中四項是技術獎,在當今香港影壇缺乏大製作下,由這套豪華陣容製作鉅資的電影奪取,完全是意料中事。徐克獲得最佳導演也實至名歸,從他初出道拍的「蝶變」開始,這類武俠科幻片是他的拿手好戲。借用古代的武俠設定,揉合懷舊復古科幻風格的發明,構成一個虛幻充滿創意的世界。至於劉嘉玲當上影后實在有點莫名其妙,戲中武則天戲份不多根本不是女主角,若她拿最佳女配角倒沒有問題,大慨這只是個豬肉獎分給陪跑了這麼多年的劉嘉玲。

徐克的電影如果沒有走火入魔,拍到觀眾不知道他想講什麼,只要他能兼顧商業元素,其實是很刺激的視覺娛樂。看徐克的電影,不要追問戲中世界的合理性,不要問為什麼古代會有機闤槍,也不要問為什麼唐代會有自由神像,只要欣賞他精彩的影像畫面便好了。故事完全天馬行空,其實看見那座超越現代建築科技的神像,已知道電影不會有多少歷史真確性。電影除了借用武則天和狄仁傑的名字,所有劇情全屬自行創作。劇本的最大敗筆,是通天神探所謂的查案,只不過是按指示一步步走下去,走到最後卻是很老土古龍式的身邊朋友才是敵人。狄仁傑如果一早聽拍檔的話,把梁家輝拉去嚴刑拷問,便不用兜一大個圈,死一大堆人可破案。還有一點想不明白,梁家輝不過是個監工,橫看豎看也不像最終壞蛋,還有他的壞蛋手下不知從那兒走出來。如果有能隊夠在京城來去無蹤,行兇殺人如入無人之境的殺手組織,便不用大費周章去讓神像倒塌,直接攻入宮中行刺武則天豈不更快捷。

歷史中的狄仁傑,也是個文武兼備的奇才,他替武則天當過宰相,也領兵打過突厥。電影中狄仁傑因謀反被判入焚字獄,歷史上他可是忠於武則天,被人誣告謀反查明是冤案後,也只是被貶去當地方官數年。電影中唯一與歷史相乎的情節,大慨只有狄仁傑勸武則天,要把帝位傳回唐室太子一事矣。