» Archive for the 'Jonathan B. Spira' Category

The End of One Era… and Start of Another

Friday, November 16th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

Last one to leave, turn out the lights

Since 1998, Basex:TechWatch has been a weekly communiqué from the desks of our analysts directly to you.  Without our loyal subscribers, it would have never had the run that it has.  Now we have decided to complete this chapter and start a new one.

Basex:TechWatch was created to keep readers on the leading edge of new ideas and new technology in an easy-to-read digest format.  Since 1998, we’ve written well over 20,000 articles and never missed a single issue.  What we wrote about in our analyst opinions resulted in thousands of e-mail messages from readers asking questions and commenting.  The topics we covered in the areas of knowledge sharing, information management, and collaboration were both exciting and a substantial learning experience.

Of course, no swan song would be complete without a mention of the problem of Information Overload.  When we first started talking about this problem, in the mid 1990s, most people thought we were crazy.  After all, there could never be too much information.  Once we started publishing numbers that described the incredibly high cost of Information Overload the tune changed.  We were gratified that so many thousands of companies and the media came to rely on what our research revealed, which included the fact that the cost of Information Overload to the U.S. economy was one trillion dollars for the year 2010.

The sheer quantity of it all was unprecedented, and many of the new offerings were also somewhat alien, but our 20,000+ loyal readers told us that they relied on Basex:TechWatch so we never strayed from our mission.

In recent years, however, we found ourselves approaching what would become a critical turning point as what had once been new and foreign was now at the point of becoming mainstream.

Approximately three years ago, we started an experiment that has gained momentum at the same time that we saw collaboration and knowledge-sharing technology mature into what it is now.

Our research in content management systems led us to start several online magazines, Frequent Business Traveler (née Executive Road Warrior) and The Diesel Driver.  They took off beyond our wildest expectations.  We recently passed the two million mark in terms of page views and have formed a new entity, Accura Media Group (borrowing the Accura corporate name from a company my father founded).

Starting on January 1, 2013, we will be officially ending operations here at Basex to devote our full efforts to Accura.

Our work at Accura is, in many ways, an evolution of Basex, bringing our high-level research and communication to an editorial setting, and like Basex, Accura’s brands are already considered an authority in their respective areas of expertise.

Looking back on the years that we have invested into Basex, and forward to what we will be doing at Accura, not only are we humbled by the magnitude of support we have received, but we eagerly await the challenges ahead.

Thank you for reading and subscribing, for your comments and for your support.  This is the final issue of Basex:TechWatch and, starting in December, we will share Frequent Business Traveler Weekly with you.  I hope you will like it as much as we do.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

After Sandy: A Slow Return to Normalcy

Friday, November 2nd, 2012 by Jonathan Spira
Delta Terminal 3 at JFK early Thursday morning

Delta Terminal 3 at JFK early Thursday morning

Airports Open, Some Power Restored, Subways and Buses Running

For some, a sense of normalcy has begun to return to the Northeast. The cleanup continues, more people have power, and operations are starting resume at both John F. Kennedy International Airport as well as at LaGuardia.

The two airports were literally underwater after Hurricane Sandy struck earlier in the week. New York Governor Cuomo had previously gone on record saying that LaGuardia Airport would be closed indefinitely.  While almost 20,000 flights had been cancelled since the weekend, and 2,899 flights had been cancelled just yesterday, only 572 flights had been reported as cancelled on Thursday as of 9 a.m.

In the early hours of Thursday, I arrived at JFK for a flight to Los Angeles on Delta expecting mass chaos.  I had been unable to print my boarding pass at home so I expected lines out the door both at the check-in desks, kiosks, and security checkpoints.  What I found as I entered the former Pan Am Worldport was a calm, almost serene scene.  There was no one on line at the business-class check-in desk and the agent, who told me she still didn’t have power at home, was nonetheless cheerful.

With a boarding pass in hand, I wished the agent well and headed to the security checkpoint.  There was one person in line and no wait time.  The TSA agents were cheerful and friendly and greeting passengers, asking about how they had fared.

My flight was departing from Terminal 2 so I headed to the walkway and towards the Delta SkyClub near my gate.  Two agents were on duty as I entered and one whom I recognized welcomed me and checked me in.  She told me she hadn’t had power since the storm but she was doing all right and she clearly was happy to be at work instead of at home without power.

The club was quiet.  On previous early morning flights, I’ve found it packed, but today there was just a sprinkling of travelers enjoying a bagel or muffin.  Everyone seemed in a good mood to be travelling, based on what I overheard.

At the gate, my flight, which was oversold, had started to board.  Everything was calm and orderly despite a full flight.  Incredibly enough, we pushed back on time at 7 a.m. and there were only a few aircraft ahead of us for takeoff.

My experience, however, contrasts greatly with what my colleague Cody Burke reported after riding his bicycle through Red Hook in Brooklyn yesterday evening.   Red Hook is one of the most impacted areas in New York City. The blocks were lined with shoulder high piles of trash, soggy mattresses, ruined clothing, and building debris. On one corner, a group of people stood around a campfire lit in an old oil drum. The hum of water pumps was everywhere, and huge hoses emerging from the front doors of the houses were spilling flood water out into the street.

In addition, traffic in Manhattan yesterday was pretty much gridlocked at every turn and, as contributing editor Henry Feintuch reported after driving in, there was simply no place to park.  After 90 minutes of looking for a parking spot, he turned around and drove back to Westchester.

Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, where an administrator described third-world like conditions following the failure of its backup power, was evacuated as was NYU Medical Center the day before for the same reason.

Driving Alone: How Technology is Reducing Distractions on the Road

Friday, October 26th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira
Lane departure warning in Mercedes-Benz E350 BlueTec

Lane departure warning in Mercedes-Benz E350

Recently I have been giving some thought to practical uses of technology with respect to one of the most highly-publicized dangers, namely distracted driving. While distractions at the knowledge worker’s desk can cost a lot of time and money, distractions on the road can be deadly.

One application that comes to mind is the Google self-driving car. While I haven’t ridden in it (since no one drives it really), I have been driving a car for the past year or so that has some features that approach the Google self-driving car’s functionality. My car’s features include active cruise control, which uses radar to adjust the car’s speed in order to maintain a preset distance between the vehicle and the one ahead.

First, a disclaimer. I like to drive and I enjoy high-performance cars, especially on the unrestricted sections of German Autobahns. I don’t like the idea of the car driving for me, either. I didn’t even like the idea of cruise control, primarily because I felt that it would lead to a lack of attention on my part, until I started using the active version.

Another feature, lane departure warning, which is triggered by optical sensors detecting pavement lane markings, informs the driver if the car strays out of lane. Should the warning be ignored, the system will guide the car back into the lane by braking the wheels on the side of the vehicle away from the line.

Blind spot detection uses radar sensors in the rear bumper to monitor the space to the right and left of the car, focusing in on the blind spot. If a car is nearby, a warning triangle in the respective rear view mirror turns yellow. If a car is more or less next to yours, the arrow glows red. If you activate your turn signal, indicating an intention to move in the direction of said vehicle, the arrow blinks red and an alert sounds. If you continue in the direction of said vehicle, the car’s Electronic Stability Program uses rear-wheel braking, specifically applying the brake on one side, to nudge the car back into its lane.

If that isn’t enough, the car also monitors the driver (usually me) to make sure he is awake enough to drive. In the first 20 minutes of each drive, the car establishes a profile for the driver based on steering input and other factors. If a driver deviates from the profile as established, it may mean that he is sleepy. If this is determined to be the case – and the system is operative at speeds over 50 mph (80 km/h) – the car beeps and flashes an Attention Assist message (“Time for a Rest?”) on the dashboard.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Knowledge Work Kills

Friday, October 19th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira
Use it or lose it...

Use it or lose it...

I’ve often wondered about the impact of the change in how we work, from manual and active labor to knowledge work at our desks, with respect to our health. After all, while our life expectancies are significantly longer than even 50 years ago, we suffer more knowledge-age ills, including back problems and neck and shoulder injuries. What I didn’t realize, however, was how frightening the reality was.

Let’s look at the rise of the boob tube. While the term “couch potato” has been the subject of much derision for several decades, the combined effect of long-term television watching with our propensity towards knowledge work has become a matter of great concern, and not just to me. Simply put, the more time we spend sitting in front of a computer screen, be it a laptop or desktop, the shorter our lives will be.

In an article in the October 2012 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine entitled “Television viewing time and reduced life expectancy: a life table analysis,” J. Lennert Veerman of the Centre for Burden of Disease and Cost-Effectiveness, School of Population Health, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, and his colleagues examined data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Diabetes, Obesity, and Lifestyle Study, the latter an ongoing project studying the health habits of almost 12,000 Australian adults.

Along with questions about general health, disease status, exercise regimens, smoking, diet and so on, the survey asked respondents how many hours per day in the previous week they had spent sitting in front of the television.This was significant in that researchers found it easier to get respondents to quantify the length of time they spent watching television (and sitting) than simply sitting by itself.

What the researchers found was striking, to say the least. Compared to subjects who watch no television at all, those who watch an average of six hours per day have a life expectancy of 4.8 years less. Each hour viewed reduces that person’s life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.

The numbers here are staggering – indeed, the researchers compared the loss of life from TV viewing to that associated with major chronic disease risk factors including physical inactivity and obesity.

I’ve become all too aware of my own sedentary knowledge-worker lifestyle and have made several major changes that get me out from behind the computer screen (the TV was less of a concern as I am happy to report that my television viewing habits are minimal, very happy indeed). In the past six weeks I’ve flown over 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) and, while I wasn’t exactly flapping my arms in order to keep the aircraft aloft, the combination of walking through foreign cities and airports (and I find I am more apt to walk around the city when I am not home) as well as the convenience of a hotel gym and pool (while I seemingly ignore the gym and pool on home turf) make it easy to remain active and keep fit. I’ve also just started doing Crossfit, a community-based training program that combines several types of cardiovascular and resistance trainings into a benchmarked sport.

Just as with cigarette smoking, a habit I never acquired a taste for, it’s never too late to stop smoking and it’s never too late to stop sitting in front of the computer or TV. Now that you’ve finished this column, why not go out for a bike ride or walk and become active?

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Why Can’t We Just All Get Along (Online) and Pay Attention?

Friday, October 5th, 2012 by Cody Burke

Safety first! Padded pole by UK company 118 118.

Sitting on the ANA Boeing Dreamliner inaugural flight from Seattle to Tokyo, Japan, I brought up some reading material on my iPad and first turned to the Wall Street Journal.

In the German-language edition, I found the headline: “Sind iPhone-Nutzer schlechtere Eltern?” (Are iPhone Users Worse Parents?). The lede looked at a hapless father, Phil Tirapelle, who lost track of his 18-month-old son while he was busy texting during a walk outside. The toddler was “almost trampled” but rescued just in time. Regular readers of this space know that the number of emergency-room admissions for pedestrians who walk into lampposts while texting has doubled every year for the past five years.

Clearly, not paying attention can be a problem and sometimes a matter of life or death. Indeed, I just saw an article in the New York Times in which New York City’s transportation commissioner was quoted as having stopped people from walking mindlessly into traffic while texting (half of them were grateful, she reported; the other half were irritated).

We are absorbed and are unable to distinguish between that which is urgent, that which is important, and that which is none of the above (that would be most everything). Yet we cannot disconnect for fear of missing the mundane. And it could cost someone his life or result in great injury.

Later in the flight, I found an article in the U.S. edition of the Wall Street Journal positing the question: “Why We Are So Rude Online,” a topic also near and dear to my heart. Over the years I have noticed that people’s personalities become completely different once seated behind what they believe to be the anonymity of the computer.

But back to the WSJ article on rudeness, in which a TV announcer, Chip Bolcik, is quoted as knowingly posting “provocative” political questions on his Facebook page. He bemoans the fact that he has lost two friends over Facebook spats, but Bolcik is hardly innocent. He fans the flames and encourages dissent, even using “attack dog” friends to further fuel a fire.

Stepping back for a moment, one has to wonder if this is how Bolcik would conduct himself at a gathering of friends. He seems to feel that one’s behavior in the online world can be different, but he is quickly learning that there are no free passes and, as he commented after losing a particularly close friend, “I was pretty upset.”

The problem here is that the entire idea of how one comports oneself in society has been tossed aside. The online world isn’t isolated. What happens online can have repercussions both online and off. Saying anything that comes to mind isn’t any more acceptable online than it is to scream “fire” in a crowded theater.

It’s the newness of it all that allows this to happen. There are no rules, or so people seem to think, yet the very rules that govern life in general are still in force. The thought bubbles that float above cartoon characters, thinking things that should not be said, hold thoughts that we too should not air online.

I wrote about which medium one should use over a decade ago, calling it What Works Better When. The prime impetus behind this was that many people seemed not to understand how saying the same thing, but across different media, could result in different interpretations and understanding of what was being communicated. I never considered, until now, that I would have to contemplate expanding this to include when not to use technology (while crossing the street, for example) or that saying things without thinking (“I hate you”) might come across as more than a bit severe in an online environment where the tone cannot be transmitted along with the words.

Our lives have been so swept up by our infatuation with all things online that we cannot disconnect and are most likely typing something we probably shouldn’t while we mindlessly cross the street looking down at the smartphone. Perhaps New York City needs to update its Walk/Don’t Walk signs: they could say “Text/Don’t Text” instead.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

All the News That’s Fit to View

Friday, September 21st, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

So much news, so little time...

The volume of news we create, and by news I mean news reporting, not newsworthy events, is mind-boggling. As someone who studies this as a form of Information Overload, the sheer quantity of reporting never ceases to amaze me – and it is this quantity that makes it difficult to search and find items of interest.

Starting with early news programs such as the Camel News Caravan with John Cameron Swayze and You Are There with Edward R. Murrow, and moving into the current 24-hour news cycle that started with the advent of CNN, a good part of the population has come to depend on television to keep current.

This is all well and good but, unlike newspapers, which today are easily searchable online and previously somewhat searchable using microfiche and microfilm, it was not possible to easily go back and find TV news spots on a particular topic.

Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, wants to change that. For the past few years, the archive has been digitizing news broadcasts from twenty outlets and over 1,000 programs. This means every last second of every CNN broadcast as well as all sixty minutes of 60 Minutes.

Currently the archive has collected over 350,000 news programs that are fully text searchable, thanks to the archive’s using the closed-captioned text that accompanies the videos.

To use the system, I clicked through to TV News on the Internet Archive’s website. There I found a dedicated page with a cloud tag showing recently accessed topics. One can search all sources or narrow the search down by network (e.g. CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, etc.) or program name (e.g. BBC World News, ABC World News Tonight, Meet the Press, Nightline, and more).

I searched on (fasten your seatbelts here) “Information Overload.” The system returned 98 results, displayed horizontally (out of 248), with a video above and the relevant text excerpt below. The video was almost always queued to start at the right place, i.e. where the person was starting to mention “Information Overload” and I was generally satisfied with the choice.

The interface itself is easy to use and features a handy timeline for moving quickly to a specific spot in time, for example, looking at a spike in coverage in December 2011.

The Internet Archive has already digitized almost every Web page known to man as well as millions of books, much in the style of the ancient Library of Alexandria. Thankfully, the archive has not resorted to stopping travelers at Egypt’s borders to confiscate their books so they could be copied to the library (anecdotally, the travelers sometimes received the copies back, not the originals). All that the Internet Archive has really needed were very large hard drives and a mission to preserve our history as told to us by newscasters.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Are You Sleeping Well?

Friday, September 14th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

All that is missing is darkness...

Look around your bedroom. Are there tiny beams of light, maybe blue ones and/or green ones? Or a red one? Is there a glow emanating from a digital clock or clock radio?

According to both common sense and the National Sleep Foundation, one’s bedroom should be dark, but in the past decade that sanctuary has been infiltrated more and more by electronic devices. In addition to a clock or clock radio (which should automatically dim when the lights are out), there’s the settop box (did you know you can turn the clock off on most of them?). Then there are the tiny beams of light generated by your mobile phone when it’s charging, your laptop if it’s in the bedroom, and perhaps even your high-tech desk phone (for those still with landlines).

There may be more such devices in the bedroom these days because, increasingly, more people find it difficult to disconnect and they bring their smartphones and tablets into bed with them before going to sleep. Seeing these, perhaps as a substitute for reading a good book, many are unaware that studies, including one from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, have shown that exposure to light from a computer tablet could lower the level of melatonin in the body, and therefore impact one’s sleep cycle adversely. (Melatonin levels are regulated by the pineal gland, which responds to darkness by releasing the hormone, triggering drowsiness and sleep; any increase in light impacts the release and thus limits one’s ability to sleep soundly.)

The Rensselaer study, published over the summer in the journal Applied Economics, examined the impact of self-luminous tablets on 13 individuals. “Our study shows that a two-hour exposure to light from self-luminous electronic displays can suppress melatonin by about 22 percent,” stated Mariana Figueiro, the study’s director.

Last November, Cody Burke wrote about the findings from the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 “Sleep in America” survey. They bear repeating:

- 39% of Americans bring their mobile phone into bed with them and end up using it in the hour before they go to sleep. The number is even higher for younger Americans, 67% of 19-29 year olds. 21% of Americans end up texting during this time.

- Those individuals that end up texting in the hour before sleep are more likely to report bad sleep and not feeling refreshed.

- 1 in 10 Americans is awakened by mobile phone alerts from texts, calls, and e-mail. The number rises to nearly 1 in 5 for 19-29 year olds.

- 36% of Americans use their laptop in bed before they go to sleep, and this group reports that it is less likely to get a good night’s sleep.

Since a lack of sleep can impact one’s productivity and feeling of well-being, take steps to improve your sleep hygiene. Well before going to sleep, stop looking at (and thinking about) e-mail, stop texting, and turn off and tune out. You’ll be surprised at how much better you sleep.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Gone Fishin’ – For Information

Friday, August 24th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira
E-mail free: the Lake Neusiedl, Burgenland, Austria

E-mail free: the Lake Neusiedl, Burgenland, Austria

It’s August. The end of August. A Friday at the end of August, specifically.

The number of e-mails has declined dramatically as the number of people away from the office increases.

I practically shake my laptop to see if there are any new e-mails as so few are arriving this morning.

If nothing else, my experience, which I am told is not uncommon, does show that we do know how to disconnect.

And that’s what I am going to do right now…

(Picture: Jonathan Spira)

Limits on Recording Everything: Is the Genie Already Out of the Bottle?

Friday, August 17th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

Ted Nelson, the inventor of hypertext, famously recorded numerous moments of his life on tape recordings, video, notepads, and the like.  Nelson, whose work in hypertext dates back to the early 1960s and coined the term, was not only ahead of his time in this respect but also in terms of documenting his own life (he claimed that his reason for doing so was his poor memory).

An article in the New York Times this past week called my attention to a white paper by John Villasenor, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and electrical engineer by trade, entitled Recording Everything: Digital Storage as an Enabler of Authoritarian Governments.

While Mr. Villasenor’s point-of-departure relates to the potential for governmental abuse, I was far more interested in the fact that he quantified what I had long suspected, namely that the cost of storage has dropped to the point where anything and everything can be recorded.

The fact that we can is interesting.  But this begs the question, should we?

Today, most individuals generate a vast amount of information each day.  Starting with our conversations and meetings, we move onto e-mail, text messages, social networks, website visits, and cameras.  Our activities, using a credit card, placing a phone call, or sending a text, create additional information (and record our location) on an ongoing basis.

Imagine if all of this were recorded centrally.

Mr. Villasenor estimates that merely storing the audio from a typical knowledge worker’s phone calls throughout a year would require 3.3 gigabytes and cost a mere 17 cents.  That figure, he points out, will drop to two cents by 2015.

Given his focus on authoritarian regimes, he points out that it would cost just $2.5 million to store one year’s worth of phone calls from every person above the age of 14 in Syria (which has a population of 15 million people over the age of 14).  While most of our readers are not planning to record the conversations of their fellow citizens, the $2.5 million figure is mind-numbingly low.

Clearly, things will not end with simply storing the data.  The question is what happens to the data afterwards.  We need to think of all the ramifications that will be the outcome of gathering it, including security and privacy.  Despite their limitations, today’s search tools are more than capable of finding multiple needles in haystacks of recordings.  The question that intrigues me, however, is, what will the impact on an already overloaded society be if and when we start to record our every movement.

Right now, doing so is a curiosity, something an eccentric such as Ted Nelson or a researcher at MIT can do but most mainstream knowledge workers couldn’t and wouldn’t.

There are numerous other issues here besides Information Overload, most prominent among them privacy and government overreach.  At the moment, since we’re at the very beginnings of gathering information on such a massive scale, society does not yet perceive this as a problem.  However, once we really start the ball rolling, we’ll most likely find that it’s impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

(Photo: Hannes Grobe)

Tweeting Away Your Vacation

Friday, August 3rd, 2012 by Jonathan Spira
cows in field

Even THEY get a vacation.

A vacation – at least as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary – is “a period of time devoted to pleasure, rest, or relaxation, especially one with pay granted to an employee.”

That means that, during a vacation, one takes a break from what is considered to be work the other 48-50 weeks a year.

A few years ago, people blogged – sometimes incessantly – about their vacations, typically after the fact. Now, people take their fans and followers along on the journey, a point somewhat driven home by a recent Wall Street Journal piece that focused on how those actively engaged in social media could not – in many cases – take a break.

As the article put it, “the chatter keeps flowing.”

There are two reasons for this, at least as far as the author of the piece was concerned:

  • Fans and followers won’t accept substitute tweeters and posters
  • So-called “power tweeters” risk losing traction with their readers

The problem is that, just as with information in general, the number of Facebook posts and tweets is growing by leaps and bounds. One or two posts may simply be the equivalent of a needle in a haystack and will simply go unnoticed.

Douglas Quint, a co-founder of Big Gay Ice Cream, has over 37,500 followers, many of whom want to know where his ice cream truck is on a given day. “We need to appear active,” Mr. Quint says. “We want to appear in people’s Twitter feeds once or twice a day.”

Soon, that may not be enough. As quantity increases, social media posters fight to be noticed. That may mean that, where once just a few posts per day sufficed, following that practice now might not even get one noticed.

Andrew Zimmern, who hosts a Travel Channel program called Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, tweets as often as 50 times a day to his 410,800 followers. But these numbers should give one pause: Using these figures as an example, Zimmern generates what amounts to 20.5 million discrete messages in a single day.

Who has time to follow someone who can post 50 messages a day? For that matter, who has time to post 50 messages a day? This article reminded me of one thing – why I’ve stayed away from Twitter. The temptation is great. It would be easy to get sucked in. But once that happens, I suspect it’s the opposite of a Roach Motel: messages go out but nothing meaningful comes in.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.