Information Distillation

While listening to a podcast in January I was shocked to hear that one of the host’s New Year’s resolutions was to read the articles on his Twitter feed before retweeting them. I honestly didn’t realize people might retweet, favorite, or share articles without having read them first. It would never occur to me to share something that I hadn’t read first or at least skimmed through in its entirety. If I didn’t know what the article was really about, how would I know it was worth sharing?  Some headlines are intentionally sensationalized to get people to read something, or it seems, to share it without even knowing what it was really about.

We’re all inundated with information daily. I understand the temptation to scroll through headlines and tweet-sized summaries to get an overview of what is going on in the world. Or to skim through a succinct list of bullet points, numbered items, or catchy headlines like:

  • “Top 10 ways to…”
  • “Top three habits of…”
  • “Seven things that will…”

These types of information distillations are everywhere. Instead of committing a few minutes to read through anything in its entirety, or to research the source, we’re seduced into thinking a few lines of catchy-sounding highlighted statements provide us with enough information to share something, or talk about it with authority.

When dealing with a never-ending stream of information, each one of us has to devise a strategy to stay current with the things we care about in a way that doesn’t consume our time 24/7. There has to be a balance. I aim for balance with a two-part strategy. The first part is prioritizing quality over quantity. To accomplish this I limit the number of notifications I receive automatically by subscribing to a select number of services. If I’m interested in learning more about something, I can always perform additional searches. Every once in a while, I re-evaluate the automatic notifications. If I find that I’m consistently deleting them without clicking on the content, then I unsubscribe.

The second part of my strategy is allocating time each day to read a few things. I’ve discovered that if I save interesting things to read later, this almost never happens. Instead, I reserve about an hour each day to read news, or articles related to my profession. I fit in the fun, leisure reading around that.

Smart Home Devices: Delightful or Detrimental

Some months ago the motor started dying on my electric toothbrush. It was over 5 years old, a geriatric by today’s technology standards.

As we shopped around for something new, I realized it might be difficult to find a replacement that only meet my basic needs: a sensitive setting (i.e., slower and gentler) and a timer. That’s it. The other fancy features are wasted on me.

Everything available was much fancier and sleeker, fortified with the latest and greatest technology. We wouldn’t be able to replace my simple two-setting model with the same thing. Almost all the new models offered fancy settings to floss or polish your teeth, in addition to regular brushing. The most significant new feature was the capability to connect the toothbrush to your smartphone.

We ended up with a new model that offers 6 specific settings and the smartphone-toothbrush connection.Admittedly, the new travel case with a built in charger will come in handy, but I’ve always been fine on vacation using a regular, manual toothbrush.

As we were setting up the new toothbrush my partner’s reaction was “cool!” He immediately downloaded the app and figured out how the special suction-cup phone holder worked on our walls. I inwardly groaned already thinking that I would never be able to get dental insurance again. It’s just a matter of time before insurance companies will want us to submit our brushing records when applying for dental coverage or before agreeing to pay their share when we do go to the dentist.

When properly connected, the smartphone tracks how often you brush and the duration of each brushing session. Oddly enough, it would only maintained one log for both of us. If you activate all the features, it will provide feedback through sensors on which areas of your mouth are being brushed too rigorously or not getting enough attention. While you’re brushing, you watch what’s happening on your smartphone, which is held tightly to the wall by the suction-cup apparatus.

After the first few trial runs, one of which resulted in the suction-cup failing causing my partner’s phone to crash onto the floor, we haven’t continued to use it. And we never fully set up all the monitors and linkages between the phone and the toothbrush. At least for now I can maintain some privacy about my body and avoid technological surveillance in my mouth.

Productivity Tip: Take Note

I find it useful to have a dedicated place to jot down notes and record things that I want to remember. For example, people are always recommending books to read or movies to watch. Sometimes verbally and sometimes electronically. Prior to developing my system, I would always do my best to remember the recommendation. Inevitably, the information would fly out of my brain the moment I was at the book store, searching the library catalog, or perusing options on Netflix. Or I would save the electronic message for a long time until I could take action on it. If I remembered it was there.

Even if I did write down the recommendation, rather than tricking myself into thinking I would remember it, I could never recall where I had written it down. Was it in the notebook, my paper planner, a tiny scrap of paper tucked away somewhere?

To resolve this challenge, I dedicated a place to record these types of things on my smartphone. One centralized place specifically for taking notes, writing down recommendations, or cool things to look up later. On my phone I have a few different lists in Trello to capture notes while I’m on the go. Or sitting around.

Trello is a web-based task management system. Incidentally, I also use it for my routine and ad-hoc “to-do” lists, plus a few other things. In Trello I dedicated a list for Book and Media recommendations. Every time I hear about an album I want to buy, a good book, or a cool movie, I add it to the list. Then when I’m looking for books at the library, I can consult my list for items to borrow or add to my account wish list for later. I do the same thing with Netflix. Every so often I go through my media recommendation list and see if any of them are in Netflix to add to my account. Then I delete them from my phone.

I also use Trello to jot down ideas and notes for this blog. One never knows where and when inspiration will strike for the next great posting. You don’t have to download Trello to replicate this system. The most important part is to dedicate one place to record things for yourself. It could be a note app, Google Keep, or anything that you already use. Then remember to use it!

Iceland: Troll Harbour Walk and Snaefellsnes Peninsula

The next day started at Yrti Tunga, a beach. (Click here for another picture.) We were surprised to see sheep eating seaweed. Their shaggy coats blended in perfectly with the surroundings.

We left the beach and headed for Arnarstapi, a fishing village. Along the route, we passed a scenic viewpoint of where Iceland’s most famous serial killer, Axlar-Björn, murdered his victims. In the mid-1500’s he hosted travelers passing through in his farm house, but supplemented his income by killing them and stealing their money and horses.

Soon after we arrived at the harbour, for a walk along the coast to see blowholes, basalt cliffs, arches, and lava formations. The beginning of the trail started with a giant statue of Bárdur Snaefellsás, a half-troll/half-man who settled the area and still remains its protector.

This is the top half of the statue. I wasn’t able to get a shot of the statue without people in it.

Everyone posed for pictures with the statue and touched it for good luck. Then we were ready to begin. The lava formations and basalt columns were stunning. It was cold and extremely windy. Almost too gusty to take pictures, but somehow I managed by clutching my camera tightly with two hands.

At the end of the walk we gratefully boarded the bus, appreciative for the protection against the elements and headed to lunch. A short drive later, we arrived at a small restaurant. We crowded in for hot soup and fresh crusty bread smeared generously with butter. Lunch was followed by some kind of creamy, silky skyr, an Icelandic dairy product. It’s like yogurt, but with a light custard-like consistency and not as sour.

After lunch we headed to the Snaefellsness Peninsula. The conditions were terrible. Even so, my family and I decided to hike into the mossy lava fields to see a crater plug. The winds whipped around us, threatening to carry us off by billowing our rain pants out.

The crater plug in the distance. The strong winds prevented us from getting closer.

We were supposed to walk around a volcanic crater on the way back. However, the winds were so strong that the bus almost had to stop driving. Our outdoor excursion was cut short and we headed straight to the last stop on the tour, a Shark Farm.

Except for the exquisite scenery surrounding the shark farm, the photo opps were limited to drying racks strung with liver-colored hunks of fermented shark meat. Since sharks are one of my favorite animals, I did not try the hárkarl (pronounced kind of like how-karlk).

Read more about the trip to Iceland here.

Grocery Apps Part II

I’ve been using Out of Milk, a grocery app, for close to two years. I first blogged about using a Grocery List App (read here) in 2017. Overall, I’m still satisfied with the app. It’s fairly basic as far as functions go, but that also makes it easy to use.

My favorite thing about the app is having a centralized place to immediately capture whatever I need, no matter where I am. Prior to having the app, I would scribble down my grocery lists on random scraps of paper, post-it notes, or even in the margins of my notes. The paper system worked okay, but I find it much handier to keep a running list. Now, as soon as I notice or remember I’m running low on something, I can add it to the app so it’s there the next time I go shopping. If I just wanted a centralized place to write down my grocery list, any note-taking app would do. Or I could use a white or chalk board in my kitchen, which is useful but limited in some ways. The difference is Out of Milk is designed specifically to enhance the process and offers some features to that make it more efficient.

The “Pantry List” is convenient for adding frequently used, or routine items, to the grocery list. From the “Pantry List,” they can be added to the grocery list. Items deleted from the grocery list, remain in the “Pantry List,” available for reuse the next time I go shopping without having to write them again.

I’ve also found it’s pretty useful for creating customized lists. The Out of Milk app is fairly versatile so it’s pretty easy to create and maintain lists for specialized stores or non-food items. For example, I created a separate list for a specialty grocery store I shop at for certain items. I also have separate lists, or categories, for drugstore or hardware store items. Again, super useful to have a centralized place to record all of my shopping needs when I think of them so they are captured and ready for when I go out.

The thing I was most frustrated about with the app, namely that it allows me to add the same item more than once to the same grocery list, is still there. Aside from that, it’s a keeper.

The Rules of Global Language

A few months ago, I blogged about tech companies “Controlling Global Language.” With billions of people using social media platforms and producing billions of posts daily, things are bound to get complicated. Language is nuanced and context counts for a lot when evaluating content. This factor is further exacerbated when considering that social media platforms now exist globally and work across cultures. Something that is permissible or not offensive in one culture could be interpreted differently halfway across the globe.

To deal with this some companies, like Facebook, create “rules” and hire thousands of humans to review content (e.g., posts, images, comments, etc.) and make snap decisions on whether or not it is deemed “harmful.” Recently the New York Times published an article titled “Inside Facebook’s Secret Rulebook for Global Political Speech” by Max Fisher. The article describes in some detail how humans around the world are supposed to evaluate billions of posts each day according to rules created by Facebook on what is, or is not, deemed acceptable content for their platform. The rules even include guidance on how to interpret emoji in certain contexts when they could be considered offensive or indicate something more serious than a smiley face.

One of the many challenges about opening up platforms for anyone and everyone to post content is that it’s difficult to regulate. And then you have to ask yourself, should it be regulated? And by whom? How could rules be created to monitor posts and content without being subjective? Or largely influenced by who’s in power in a particular country?

Facebook will remove content and ban users that are considered offensive, threatening, or dangerous, according to its rulebook. Then I wonder, where do these people go to post content? Banning or eliminating content from one social media site doesn’t get rid of it. Most likely the content owner simply moves to another platform where s/he can get support for his/her viewpoints. This is also a danger because then this content grows in the deep, murky areas of the internet unnoticed, sometimes until it’s too late.

The problem is complex, perhaps one that wasn’t fully anticipated or considered when social media platforms first appeared over a decade ago. Or one that was pushed aside to focus on growth, content production, collecting data, and sharing. The solution, it seems, will have to be equally complex to have any impact.