Information Capture and Geek Dinners

Information Capture and Geek Dinners

Friday is my last day in San Jose, which was pleasantly sunny but chilly–chillier than I expected, actually. I shouldn’t complain since I have been hearing that New England is getting hammered with snow. Here’s hoping that I don’t end up camping out in the Chicago Midway airport Food Court tomorrow. On the plus side, Midway has a pretty decent food court, as airports go. But I digress! Here’s what’s going on:

Geek Dinner

We had a small gathering of five productivity nerds on Thursday night, meeting at an open air mall called The Pruneyard in Campbell, California. My fellow productivity enthusiasts informed me that The Pruneyard is a popular meeting place for events in Silicon Valley, particularly because there are several good restaurants right there. After convening at The Coffee Society, we moved on to a diner-like place called Hobee’s, where I had a club sandwich served with TORTILLA CHIPS on the side instead of fries. It’s these regional differences (or perhaps it is just a Hobee’s thing) that I find fascinating about new places.

The conversation opened up with an inquiry into The Great Big Mess that all the information capturing we do seems to create. After a great deal of inquiry about job text, performance metrics, and the tossing around of the word “orthogonal” more than a few times, we came to a tentative conclusion that the ideal system would have the following characteristics:

  • minimal overhead in note taking and information capture
  • not necessary to do a structuring pass to make the notes useful
  • available everywhere and anywhere

This is the DREAM SYSTEM, and on first glance it seems untenable. Note taking is essentially the entire scope of information capture; anything we think we should be able to recall later is fair game. This includes conversations in the hallway, planning meetings, things on the Internet, email email email, and pieces of documents scattered across dozens of computer systems. A great deal of our time is spent processing all this raw input into useful resources (or it should be); the seminal information system designer Douglas Engelbart had observed that much of our time is spent just doing clerical work. TThe percentage of time spent being CREATIVE (like, actually making something) is pretty small. Once you have your nuggets all in a row, you naturally want to have them accessible. This is a form of magic. I think the reason devices like smart phones, PDAs, and even Moleskines and Hipsters are so popular is because they are arcane artifacts in a mundane world filled with ordinary information. At least they would be, if they actually worked. Right now, these systems function because we spend a lot of energy maintaining them with methodologies like Getting Things Done and 7 Habits. That isn’t quite magic, though…what we want is something we DON’T have to work at constantly, because we’re lazy and believe we have better things to do. Even if we force ourselves to do them, we don’t enjoy it.

I’ve written about productivity systems in the past in terms of the importance of context, but lately my emphasis has shifted to continuity as being even more fundamental when it comes to doing stuff.

  1. If you are just doing without thinking, you’ll make progress, but maybe not the right progress.
  2. If you are doing within an understood context, you have an idea of how your work will be applied; therefore your work is theoretically better.
  3. If you are maintaining continuity in doing, you have a form of momentum that tells you what to do next, because it follows from what you just did.

The better user interfaces I’ve seen have addressed context through intelligent screen layout and functional grouping, but I haven’t seen anything that really pays attention to continuity. My paper-based tools tend to enforce continuity probably because I need it; I don’t have a manager who’s job would be to direct my energies along fruitful paths. The modern knowledge worker has so many things going on that it’s impossible to maintain continuity of everything, so you’re forced to do it very badly or learn to shut things out. For people who want to do more, they turn to a methodology that ensures that they ARE maintaining continuity; this is one of the strengths of GTD, though it doesn’t help you with WHAT you should be doing to achieve your desires. That’s a different system.

After realizing that we were chasing a system spec that was basically asking for the moon, our brainstorming became more animated. Some of the suggestions (that I think I can share):

  • Maintaining several distinct information data streams, based on “beautiful filters”, that create themselves without you having to be involved. Instead, you use days of the week as continuity. When you need information from a particular area, you go and dip back into it.
  • Creation of a universal work/life filtering language that imposes a standard continuity description language on different information sources.

  • Capture metadata about the day by recording what you see throughout the day with Tivo-like camera glasses; when something important happens, you press a button to timestamp that moment and say something about what it is. Since a lot of interesting information is recognized only after it has been observed, the digital rewind capability ensures you don’t miss anything.

  • Get email programs to re-implement really excellent conversational threading, and provide a visual overlay tool that you can use to create a continuity of relevance and context. In other words, methods of organizing who conversations, not just tagging individual items. Nerd analogy: Sort of like using Ethereal to isolate HTTP packet traffic, filter out the non-http stuff, and reconstruct the actual back-and-forth between client and server.

  • Create “Project Manager ELIZA“, a chatterbot that can be used as a tool for continuity reflection and conversational memory storage. The theory is that maybe all we need is someone to talk to about what we’re doing, constantly, to maintain our own continuity. ELIZA is known for taking the user’s text input, extracting nouns and ideas it recognizes through simple pattern matching, and then spitting back a canned reply using those words. The results can sometimes be very insightful, and certainly they are just as good as the average “bad project manager” :-) Combine this with conversation logging, and the ability to just tell the chatterbot to remember things for you, and you might have a pretty decent personal assistant that doesn’t cost you anything.


p>There were various products mentioned throughout the night in this context: OmniFocus, OmniGraffle, Microsoft OneNote, 37Signals Basecamp / HighRise / Backpack, That Mac Program That Keeps Track Of What You Are Looking (name?), Tablet PCs, and Moleskines are what I remember.

RSS Feeds

Some readers have had problems with the RSS feed updating multiple times for the same article. I’ve started seeing this too in the email subscriptions, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why certain posts kept reappearing. I finally dipped into Expression Engine’s RSS template and looked around to see what actually goes in there, and after some reading have tried changing:

<guid>{title_permalink=blog}#When:{gmt_entry_date format="%H:%i:%sZ"}</guid>



From what I can tell about RSS feeds, the “globally unique identifier” (GUID) is supposed to be unique but is otherwise just a string. I don’t know if there are strange inconsistencies happening in the way {gmt_entry_date} is producing its output as a HH:MM:SS…maybe my server is wobbling slightly on the way seconds are being reported. And wouldn’t the date of the post be a more stable GUID string? Anyway, I just nuked that whole part and I hope the RSS problem fixes itself.

Hot Sauces and Yummy Tacos

Two culinary food finds on this trip. First, this is an excellent spicy hot sauce:

Hot Sauce My cousin Ben, who tries every hot sauce he comes across, turned me on to this. He warned me to use only a little bit. I spooned on just a bit more than he suggested, and my mouth was scorched in the most loving yet alarming way. The entire top of my scalp started to sweat profusely and my eyes filled with tears of joy and consternation. At the same time, it was more than just heat…there was flavor and warmth and a feeling of some accomplishment. The heat lingers too, becoming stronger over the next 5-10 minutes, so be careful. Really yummy.

We also had lunch at a place called Plaza Garibaldi in San Jose, which had these tacos:

Tacos They were good in a way I didn’t expect: as an ensemble cast of ingredients, each offering its own contribution to the overall taste. For me, my reference point for tacos are Taco Bell and the numerous so-so Mexican restaurants scattered around New England. The tacos were not intensely flavored, and because of that there was a much more interesting flavor arc. It was subtle like a quiet passage in a piece of classical music, requiring you to listen carefully so you can catch what is going on. I liked them quite a bit, but in a reflective way.


  1. Harold Lee 17 years ago

    Omni Outliner was also mentioned, and mind mapping (a la the open source Java program FreeMind) came up on the way to the car.

    WRT to the need for arcane planning/productivity tools, the trade of for spending time planning (and maybe documenting the process) has always seemed to be that planning costs are justified when they (a) show you a more efficient path to your goal, thus saving time versus just charging ahead, (b) you need to coordinate with a largish group, and (c) you need to show someone that you’re actually doing something so that they’ll give you money.

    The idea of planning to accommodate a deluge of incoming information and to keep oneself on-task is yet more reason for finding a lightweight planning process that works (for you).

    One main theme was the common problem that paper and digital based organization have different strengths and weaknesses, and it is hard to move information between formats.

  2. Matt McKnight 17 years ago

    Cool concept 1: Digital/Analog Pen. Take notes in a special notebook, download the writing via USB into OneNote, get full text search.

    Cool concept 2: Put emails in context- view your sending history of communication with a person, look at other people connected to you, etc. Nice Outlook plugin.

  3. lynnoc 17 years ago

    Thanks for the summary of your meeting. Reading it I felt sorry that I didn’t drive down to Silicon Valley to meet you all. As a pseudo-geek I might not have understood all the geek talk, as a productivity junky you seemed to have hit upon all the major problems I face, dealing with my own system that I change too much. I settled on Vitalist for next actions almost a year ago, GCal keeps my hard edge appointments, and the ETP is my daily what is happening/what happened tracker—most days. But I am having a miserable time maintaining anything with all those “notes:” E-mail posts, blog posts, bits of academic/research articles, my own notes on things, etc. I might have discovered some new ideas, just listening. And it is comforting knowing that at least some of you out there are having the same kinds of problems; I’m not alone in this.

    Yes, we spend a huge amount of time being clerical workers. But years ago I figured out that being a high-paid clerical worker is what it means to be a “professional” in any field. I’m a psychologist, so I’m a clerical worker for my clients, for insurance companies, for clients’ families. When I worked in an agency (which I don’t do anymore), I’m a clerical worker for agency clients and for the agency. Attorneys are mainly clerical workers for their clients and for the courts. I’m also a professor, meaning I’m a clerical worker for students interfacing with the academic institution. This is the name of the game of professionalization. We are expert writers, readers, and filers, mainly the latter.

    Sometimes I think the amount of time I spend doing my clerical worker thing has gone out of control since implementing my GTD system. But I forget less, and I’m a bit more on top of the information overload I deal with. Is it worth it? When it ends up leaving me with no time for writing articles, even blog posts, that’s a problem. When responding to profession related emails takes over two hours a day (a common event), that’s a problem. I guess this is all part of being pioneer knowledge workers. We’re on uncharted territory, no system knows all the ins and outs of our unique, case-specific, situations.

    I have to go follow up on the leads in your report, to a few things I haven’t checked out yet.


  4. Amanda Himelein 17 years ago

    I’ve found gmail to be fairly good at retention.  Unfortunately, Google doesn’t search my files quite as well as it searches the internet (or maybe my thoughts are just less organized than the internet – a scary thought), but it does pretty well at pulling up all my thoughts on (say) productivity.  The label system helps, too.

    @lynnoc: so perhaps the qualification of “professional” is simply the ability to recognize and organize important information, ie I couldn’t tell you what notes need to be taken or how to file a patient’s psych profile, but you couldn’t tell me how to list up financial accounts for trade at TD Waterhouse.  Knowing HOW to file information is what defines the profession.

    Don’t discount the clerical work, though.  As boring as it is, it serves an important purpose: exposing those bits of information to your brain in orders they might not have originally occured.  Issac Asimov (who can probably be trusted on this matter) once wrote an essay on what it takes to be creative, and he determined several requirements.  Since “creativity” mostly consists of taking 2 or more “bits” of information and putting them together in ways others haven’t, the creative man must:
      *have many “bits” to put together (be educated)
      *have some way to recombine them so as to get interesting new sets of “bits”
      *have an intuition for recognizing which “sets of bits” are worth following up on.

    So sitting around with your cohorts is a great way of generating new ideas … but if your dinners are anything like mine, ideas are flying around everywhere and have very little organization.  When you take notes, transfer notes to trusted systems, or alphabetize them by keyword – when you do the clerical work – is when you have a chance to see how all those ideas fit together, which ones have connections you didn’t see before, and (hopefully) start to feed that “intuition” about which of these connections will lead to a worthwhile creation.

    So the clerical work sucks.  But I think it’s still part of the “creative” process.

  5. Brad Jakobs 17 years ago

    It seems like you’d be interested to read these two posts: and I’ve been using the tool for amlost 6 months now and I really like the guys, who develop it. They know what users need.