Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Zero-Tolerance Inbox

Along the lines of The 501 Method is another simple technique I use to keep myself organize. This one actually does have a name: it's the Zero-Tolerance Inbox.

The basic idea is really part of the fundamental principles of Getting Things Done, but I find GTD a little "heavy" for my daily use. I just try to focus on a couple of very basic techniques and implement them with as much discipline as I can muster.

The Zero-Tolerance Inbox is primary among these.

By Zero-Tolerance I mean that I allow nothing to remain in my inbox. I am not happy unless my inbox is empty, and I do whatever I can responsibly do to get everything that arrives in my inbox out of my inbox as quickly as possible.

Most emails that arrive are signals of some sort -- telling me that an action has been completed. For the most part, these emails can be immediately deleted. Once I know the action has been completed, there's usually no call for me to be involved anymore, so I scan these emails, look for anything out of place, and delete. Simple.

Some emails are requests for action. These have to be either done immediately or moved to whatever the action management system is.

(I sure like the idea of an Action Management System. It sounds like something that organizes car chases or something. Anyway.)

Most software shops have an issue management system, or a bug tracking system, or whatever. Emails asking me to get something like that done (bug reports, requests for data, angry denunciations of our interface design) need to get put into that system and tracked there. Again, simple and quick to do.

For my personal life, I have a very simple To-Do list using 37 Signals' awesome Backpack tool. So if I get an email from someone that describes a thing I decide I need to do, I add an item to my to-do list and delete the email.

Some emails are requests for information. These are often the most effort, but often the truth is that somebody else is better-informed than I (actually, that's pretty much ALWAYS the truth), and so I can dispatch the request to them and again, delete. Sometimes the better-informed person is not quite so available and in these cases I actually have to do some work. You'll note all the previous examples mostly allow me to avoid doing any work whatsoever. Not doing any work is key to getting lots done. Be lazy!

That covers probably 99% of the emails I receive. The remaining 1% are weird things like "I was thinking we should reorganize the company so that we can start selling soft-serve ice cream from the QA department. What do you think about that?"

Or, in other words, emails from the executives. For the most part, these can be safely ignored.

The key, like that of the 501 Method, is to avoid making things easy for yourself in the short term. Embrace the short-term pain of dealing with each and every item the moment it arrives. The Zero-Tolerance Inbox is a way of refusing to allow work to pile up just because you don't know what to do with it. If you don't know, this method forces you to find out. Enjoy it. Make a game out of it.

I mean, not Grand Theft Auto or anything. More like pinochle.

Photo: Dan Mulligan

Friday, May 23, 2008

Robert Lynn Asprin: 1946-2008

Wow, the past few months have been alarmingly full of significant losses. I guess I'm getting to the age where the folks who were my heroes in my youth are hitting that black wall at the end of the race.

Man, I'm so not prepared for Bobby Orr passing on. There'd better be angels and trumpets, is all I can say.

But today it's Robert Asprin, at 62, the creator of the Thieves' World books (which laid the foundation for the Bordertown books which I know you've never heard of, maybe I need to do another in my "Ones Nobody Knows" series) and the writer of the Myth Adventures books, both of which started off so well I can't help but be indulgent towards how they ended up.

Mr. Asprin was able to communicate a love of the absurd, the zany, and the unrepentantly sentimental. The first couple of Thieves' World books contained some great stories, and the whole idea of a "shared world" anthology was part of the cultural shift that Gary Gygax also contributed to.

In the 80's, fantasy culture began embracing the ideas of world-building, ideas that perhaps had been first developed by early pulp writers like Howard and Lovecraft (working as they did upon speculative writers like Verne and even More), and then suddenly Tolkien put a level of detail into it that went beyond what anyone had seen. Gygax and his cohorts, not content with just doing their own world-building, turned that activity into something with social worth -- if you were willing to put some effort into it, and had the requisite skills, you could gather a social group ("Demented and sad, but social,") and work together to generate stories in that world.

Authors continued to work in that style, and Asprin had the genius idea to bring together a number of well-known (and not so much) authors in a single setting. I remember reading his foreword (or possibly somebody else's, talking about him) to the original volume, and how at first the idea was to bring all the famous characters of fantasy together -- so that you could have Conan confront Elric, or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser slit purses in Minas Tirith. But that turned out to be impossible -- probably my first encounter with the idea of "Intellectual Property" -- and so a new world and new characters were created.

It was a grand vision. It was a Good Thing To Do. The Sanctuary stories were part of the "gritty" trend in fantasy writing -- more Leiber than Tolkien, and better suited to short stories than to novels.

Sanctuary gave rise to numerous other shared projects, none of which ever carried the same cachet as the original. But the idea has stuck around, and moved into different media, and even for myself, has influenced much of what I think about IP ownership and creativity.

DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is going to be a shared setting. It will be open for folks to contribute to, and to take from. I'm still working on how exactly the presentation will happen, but when it rolls out, I think it will be quite unlike any fantasy setting ever seen before -- at least in terms of HOW it gets created and fleshed out. It will be an exciting project, and given that I've spent several years of my life just getting it this far, I think it's fair to say that Mr. Asprin has had an immense impact on my life.

Thank you for Sanctuary, for Skeeve and Aahz, and for the lofty idea that creativity is better when it's shared. I believe you were right.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Novelty Lunchboxes!

I can't refrain from noting that somebody recently came to this site after searching Google for "novelty lunchboxes".

I am NUMBER TWO. Number two on Google for "novelty lunchboxes".

In Canada. If you include the quotes.

But still! Number Two!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Infinity of Data

Reading Mr. Tony Judt's lovely elegy for history in the New York Review of Books, I was struck by this phrase: "Most people in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa have access to a near infinity of data.".

Particularly the use of the word "near".

Is the amount of data to which we have access to best described as "near-infinite"? Or is "infinite" itself a better descriptor?

There are now well over 2 million articles on Wikipedia. There are 24,000 texts on Project Gutenberg. Little Canada published 20,000 new books last year; the United Kingdom published over 200,000.

Even assuming a great deal of overlap, there's a phenomenal amount of data being created on a daily basis in our world. If data is being created faster than anyone can ingest it, doesn't that mean that there actually is an infinite amount of data available to us?

What does that mean? What does it mean to say that nobody can grasp human knowledge? Or even keep up? How do we keep track of where we are if none of us can take in enough of the new data to maintain a "50,000-foot view" of the human race's progress?

I think it partly means abandoning the idea of progress in the first place. How can anything so unsupervisable be referred to as "progress"?

Mr. Judt's axes are sharpening in a different direction; he is taking on the idea that torture could ever be acceptable in a republic devoted to freedom. But I think part of what makes Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib possible is the "infinity of data" that he tosses off -- in a world where we accept that we can never acquire ALL the information, aren't we in danger of being unable to ever trust that we have all the RELEVANT information?

And without all the relevant information, how does each one of us find our way? Step by step, through the fog, always uncertain of our path? It's strange to think that an infinity of data requires us to shrink our horizons, to minimize our worlds. But maybe stepping smaller and lighter isn't such a bad thing.

Bridge photo: Utpal Deka

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The NewPulp Manifesto!

The man declared "The Mad Pulp Bastard" by none other than the original Kung-Fu Monkey has written a Declaration of Intent that describes the emerging idea of NewPulp.

It's a document that captures many of the ideas Scratch Factory tries to embody, and so I'm excited to see other folks sharing similar goals and aspirations to mine. I'm struck by how well the Story Hour fits the NewPulp mode: it's generated quickly, it embraces rather than parodies genre, and it involves its audience often very directly.

Telling stories is fun. It is its own reward. I'm not suggesting that folks who do it really really well oughtn't to be paid for it; hells no. But we all love to tell stories and many of us do so without any notion of ever getting paid for it. Some professional writers get uppity about that but I don't think amateur storytellers present any great danger to the pros; on the contrary, I think a healthy culture of storytelling generates more GOOD storytellers, and if you've ever listened to a publisher you'll hear them lament how hard it is to find a good storyteller.

DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is likewise firmly in the NewPulp camp, and RPG gaming makes for a natural delivery mechanism. There are going to be some exciting developments in this regard over the course of 2008, so watch this space!

And carry the NewPulp banner proud.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Astonishing Adventures Number Three!



Published by the good Mr. John Donald Carlucci (who also did the very suitable cover illustration), Astonishing Adventures is 70 pages of pulp story-telling full of verve and style. Hard-bitten mugs and swanky dames fill these pages, influenced by all sorts of crazy stuff -- there's some pretty cool science-fiction in here, some economic theory, and plenty of two-fisted action.



It's free, and it's cool. It's what I call good. Read, and be better than you are.
http://issuu.com/astonishing/docs/aam3/3