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I’ve moved!

May 30, 2011

You can see the new improved version at–check out The Half-Life of Data.

The price of data

March 8, 2011

There seems to be a standard belief that keeping data is free. And I’m not talking about the so-called “big data” such as Google’s web caching activities, Walmart’s RFID warehousing activities, or NASA’s meteorological and astronomical surveys. I’m talking about  keeping old, poorly named excel files. Or a database of leads from 1995. Or unread email in your inbox. Or a gob of unfiled receipts on your desk. I’m talking about signing up for blog feeds you never read. Or newsletters to organizations that you’ve never actually attended. Or an subscription that you never catch up on. I’m talking about categorizing and itemizing and tracking every part and piece and component of everything in your life, only to stick it, unused, in the files with the previous year’s records. I’m talking about the old phone number for your best friend that you KNOW isn’t correct, but you can’t bring yourself to erase.

Data is not free. Clutter costs head space.

I’ve worked in many organizations that had a shared file system. The standard MO is this: everybody dumps their files in shared folder. At some point, users can’t find the stuff they dumped there, so they create a folder of their own (“John’s folder”) and instruct other people to never touch it unless asked. Soon everybody and every department has a folder. Some people have one folder under their department’s folder, and another one under in the main folder. Soon somebody get’s sick of it, and reorganizes it themselves (making everybody mad) or calls a general meeting in which everybody disagrees about the correct way to organize it.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) programs are some of the worst offenders. Each contact (or company, or lead)  in the program represents a possible or past sale. Which means that everybody is valuable, right? Nope! If you can’t find them, what good are they? Databases of leads that are 10 years old are worse then useless–if they weren’t there, you wouldn’t have to spend a second thinking about them. But since they are there, and there might be a spec of gold you could sift out, you keep them.

Data storage is nearly free–you can get massive amounts of storage for very little money. And this compounds the issue. “I might want to look at those pictures sometime.” “I really don’t know if I’ll ever listen to those audio books, but I’ll keep them in my library just in case.” “So what if we lost the prospect? Let’s hold on to the proposal files. We might need em’ again someday.” And none of this is bad–if well organized.

Don’t fall into the trap of associating data with value. Organized data can be valuable, if relevant. Data on its own is not.

You know the packrat whose garage is so full of stuff that you can’t walk in? I’ll let you in on a secret–the technology revolution has enabled thousands, tens of thousands, of secret packrats. People who keep their desk clean, but their computer desktop cluttered. Deleting old information is surprisingly liberating. Try it. You’ll like it.


January 31, 2011

Warning: Wikipedia rehash alert: the following post relies heavily on this article.

The QWERTY keyboard was invented in 1873 by Christopher Latham Sholes for his typewriter, which subsequently sold to Remington. Sholes developed the layout into a similar design as is common today, through a series of renditions that were aided by an acquaintance’s work on letter-pair frequencies. Though other alternatives were available, Sholes found that to avoid physical clashes in the works of the machine, he could space the commonly used letters far apart. Further, he spaced the rows of keys so one was not directly over another for the same reason. Remington made QWERTY popular with the commercial success of their Remington 2 (the first typewriter with a shift key) sold first in 1878. Typists quickly became so familiar with the layout that competitors had to follow suit to sell their product.

Today, 137 years after its introduction, I am typing this blog post on an iPhone’s QWERTY keyboard, complete with the upper row staggered from the middle. Even though I am using two thumbs to type, I find it comfortable and natural to find the keys in their “proper” positions.

For many years I have gone through Dvorak phases, where I’ll attempt to teach myself to use the keyboard invented by Dr. August Dvorak. The Dvorak layout has led to new speed typing records, lower cases of repetitive stress syndrome and carpal tunnel, and in some circles, no doubt, a cure for cancer. With a Dvorak keyboard, 70% of the keystrokes used in typing (such as vowels) are kept within the home row, or that row that your fingers rest on naturally. With the QWERTY, it drops to 32%. Further, far fewer words are typed with only one hand on the Dvorak, which increases normal typing speed. So why don’t we all use Dvorak?

A personal note–I’ve never broken 17 words per minute on the Dvorak, which even my 80-year-old grandma would be ashamed of. The finger-moving part of my brain doesn’t like it when I try to keep my fingers on the home row for so much of the time. And the rational, logical (and some say greedy) part of my brain tells me to learn it in the alleged “spare time” that some claim to have, and to just get on with my work.

But the fact that a bad system is implicitly accepted by all the keyboard manufacturers, operating system developers, and elementary school typing teachers makes me take pause. Even though as far back as 1873 there existed other ways to type, still the QWERTY has persevered.

Successful systems and standards follow a normal life cycle: introduction, acceptance, dependency, stagnation, and replacement. Due to a host of human factors, a system as seemingly simple as a keyboard to a system as complex as a space shuttle seem to follow these steps. In the case of QWERTY, the network effect (the exponential reinforcement of ever larger groups of people) made users dependent on the standard early on. Since then, the same network effect has held even relatively innovative companies hostage–witnessed by the loud debate not on the layout of the keys, but whether the familiar layout is better as a soft keyboard or a tactile one.

We have long since entered the stagnation phase of our keyboards. And we are just now entering the long and drawn out replacement phase, driven by dedicated individuals and new technology.

What systems do you find yourself dependent to? Why? When, do you suppose, is it better to ignore the others and make your own standards? When is “good enough” holding you back?

2010 in review

January 3, 2011

The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A helper monkey made this abstract painting, inspired by your stats.

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,100 times in 2010. That’s about 5 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 19 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 4 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 57kb.

The busiest day of the year was October 30th with 156 views. The most popular post that day was Success is in the eye of the beholder.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were,, Google Reader,, and

Some visitors came searching, mostly for silvertrek systems, silvertrek battle ground, michael on systems wordpress silvertrek systems, and silvertrek systems 98604.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Success is in the eye of the beholder October 2010


When do you quit? July 2010


Where are your people at? November 2010


Details September 2010


Quote August 2010

Federal express measures how fast every package gets from every shipper to every receiver. McDonalds measures how fast every customer receives their Big Mac and Coke. Disney measures how long
every guest stands in each line at Disneyland. And most small businesses don’t know if they were profitable until just before April 15th, proclaimed National IRS Day. Are they lazy? Nope. Stupid? Rarely. Can’t use computers? Maybe, but it shouldn’t matter. They have no system.

Fritjof Capra wrote that a system is an integrated whole whose properties cannot be reduced to those of its parts. Without a system, the individual players act randomly, coming into contact with one another by chance, and reactively responding to each other. The companies mentioned above are able to measure their businesses only because they have a repeating, dependable system in place. FedEx loses packages. McDonald’s employees are often uninspired, plodding sullenly through their task serving 38-second french fries. Of 40-ish total rides, the average Disneyland rider manages 10 per day, due to obscenely long lines. All, in some eyes, have a bad system. But they have a system against which they can measure, allowing them to make positive change.

In the absence of a system, you could only make component-level changes and hope for the best. You could use your gut to understand an employee’s performance and replace or promote on that measure. But the success of your change could again be measured only on gut feel. It is therefore better to make a system sooner and changes later. Measure first and change second. And, of course, have a system for measurement and a system for change. Do not be afraid of mistakes. And do not be afraid of change.

Know your people

December 2, 2010

If your people want direction, give ’em direction.
If your people want freedom, give ’em freedom.
If your people are overly conscientious, make ’em step a bit out of their comfort zone.
If your people aren’t conscientious, and it’s important, nudge ’em to be a bit more so.
If your people don’t like to change, encourage ’em to change.
If your people think what they’re using works, so why change, listen. They might be right.
If your people think what they’re using works, so why change, explore further options, then sell the best one to them.
If your people are all novices and you’re expecting them to be experts, change your attitude.
If your people are all experts and you’re treating them like novices, change your attitude.
If your people are fine but their interactions aren’t, don’t think firing and hiring will help.
If your people can’t get their work done, don’t assume new software will be a silver bullet.
If your people are clamoring for a new product, listen. It won’t be long before they switch to your competitor.
If your people are experts, don’t hesitate to ask them what to do. Humility can lead to good solutions.

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