Tag Archives: Technology

Conservation and Concentration of Energy

I got to thinking about the conservation of one’s personal energy because of a story told by the British historian, Paul Johnson, about his boyhood encounter with the great man, Sir Winston Churchill. The story goes that the precocious young Johnson, in his youthful wisdom, asked Churchill for a piece of advice for life. This in itself shows that Proverbs is right about the fact that wisdom is not an achievement, but an attitude. The boy could hardly be adept in worldly matters, but displayed the right desire—the desire to know, to learn, to be taught. This desire in itself, so it seems, constitutes wisdom. The path to knowledge is wisdom.

A Legend
So much for my panegyrics! On to the story: Apparently Churchill replied to Johnson that “economy of effort” was his most important life principle. Johnson himself recited the 1946 story to the Wall Street Journal a few years ago:

He gave me one of his giant matches he used for lighting cigars. I was emboldened by that into saying, “Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?” and he said without hesitating: “Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” And he then got into his limo.[1]

The story might be apocryphal, or at least colored by the passage of time, but it has stuck with me. Two details stand out to me. First, Churchill’s stated idea is in one way confirmed and in another way belied by his own life story. That is, it is said that he used a standing desk[2]—so he didn’t sit whenever he had the opportunity—which seems to fly in the face of his own example of never standing when you can sit down. But lest we think the great Prime Minister a hypocrite, he is also reputed to have taken regular daily naps.[3] Second, Churchill punctuates his dictum with such a hilariously apt embodiment of his stated principle: getting into a limo, the most effortless way to get around.

Conservation of Energy
“Economy of effort” could also be labeled “conservation of energy,” which is how my memory has preserved Churchill’s idea. I suppose it stuck with me that way because of the First Law of Thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy, which I must have memorized at some point in my schooling. Obviously, there are no physics at work here in Churchill’s idea, only commonsense. That is, a person only has so much energy in a given day, a given workweek, a given lifespan. That energy must be conserved and then deployed at the right time. If you tire yourself out doing the wrong things—say wasting thousands of hours on Facebook—then you have substantially less energy to engage in the right things, like writing the next great American novel or building a treehouse.

Economy of Force
Churchill himself might have borrowed the idea of “economy of effort” from the military strategy idea of “economy of force” proposed by the 19th century Prussian strategist, Carl con Clausewitz.[4] This strategic concept is actually part of U.S. Army doctrine:

Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts.
A-10. Economy of force is the reciprocal of mass. Commanders allocate only the minimum combat power necessary to shaping and sustaining operations so they can mass combat power for the decisive operation. This requires accepting prudent risk. Taking calculated risks is inherent in conflict. Commanders never leave any unit without a purpose. When the time comes to execute, all units should have tasks to perform.[5]

When thinking in military terms, this makes perfect sense. In war, there’s nothing worse than wasting effort and resources on the wrong objectives. If you leave 1000 troops on guard duty and only take 100 into battle, you might be overwhelmed by superior forces. It’s better to spend little and economize in the areas where you can in order to spend the most resources on the most essential task.

Dissolution
Now to my mind one of the greatest evils of our age is dissolution, the opposite of economy of force. You could call it “dithering” or “procrastinating” or something else, but the point is that so many us of us so much of the time simply waste our time. While it is easy to regard one’s own era as worse than previous ones—and most such regarding is off-base—I do believe that we have seen an uptick in dithering for one simple reason: there are so many new ways to waste time! If you wanted to waste time 100 years ago, you might have to read a long novel or write a silly letter in longhand to an old friend, activities which we would consider highly productive. But now, to waste time, all you have to do is reach in your pocket, pull out the smartphone and wile away the hours on Candy Crush or YouTube or Twitter or texting. A new study from dscout just showed that on average, we are touching our phones 2,617 times per day.[6] While it’s true that some useful, efficient business is conducted via smartphone, the largest share of activity in the study was given over to Facebook.

Concentration of Forces
So what should we do to combat our own dissolution and dithering? Well, I think it goes back to another related military doctrine: concentration of forces. You economize your use of forces in order to concentrate them. The Army also adheres to this doctrine:

Concentrate the effects of combat power at the decisive place and time.[7]

This is what I think most of us struggle with a lot of the time. We have a lot of effort, time and attention to give, but it can easily be squandered on ephemeral pixels rather than on what really matters. If you don’t believe me, have you ever found yourself repeatedly clicking the send/receive button in your inbox? There’s something about digital information that makes us twitchy. It is very easy to fall into a pattern of seeking quick hits of information, looking for some sort of stimulus that will prompt us to act—a new email, a new task, a new article—rather than planning out our strategy from the beginning and concentrating our forces on what we are actually trying to accomplish. Why do you think so many people read internet articles under 1000 words and so few people read long books?

Concentration of Energy
While the Army tries to concentrate military assets “at the decisive place and time,” each of us individually must do the same thing in order to be remotely effective in our own lives. Advertisements, for example, are the precision-strike enemy of our ability to concentrate. They deliberately distract us from our purposes and show us information we didn’t need to know or want to know, about products, prices, services and the like, most of which we don’t need, all of which we don’t need now. That’s why people hate watching TV with commercials and instead binge on Netflix. They’d rather concentrate on what they want rather than on what other people want them to concentrate on. But Netflix brings us back to the dissolution problem.
In order to meet our goals, launch our projects, achieve our personal objectives, we need to concentrate our own energies in the right direction. Allowing our attention span, our physical energy or our motivation to be sapped by the forces of distraction, whether they be low-priority, easy tasks like email or time-sucks like Netflix or Facebook, brings us down into a vortex of useless behavior, wasted time, unproductive days. Instead, we could and probably should limit the distracting inputs and focus on concentrating our time and energy in order to bring it to good effect “at the decisive place and time.”

I’m still trying to figure out how to do this in my own life and work, but I don’t think I’ll easily forget Paul Johnson’s encounter with Winston Churchill. If Churchill attributes his success to such a simple principle of “economy of effort,” then there must be ways to implement it now in the digital age. A kind of digital austerity might be a solution—deliberately avoiding unnecessary media stimulation. Some people have tried, in fact, by turning their smartphones to black-and-white,[8] implementing screen color changing software,[9] or adopting typewriter-like digital composition tools.[10] I don’t think any one of these tweaks is a total solution, but perhaps they point in the right direction. They represent efforts to concentrate one’s forces and act according to the economy of effort principle. Only time will tells, perhaps, whether we become incapacitated phone zombies[11] or effective, creative humans.

References

[1] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703558004574583820996589810

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24532996

[3] http://www.artofmanliness.com/2011/03/14/the-napping-habits-of-8-famous-men/

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_force

[5] https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-0.pdf

[6] http://blog.dscout.com/mobile-touches

[7] https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-0.pdf

[8] http://pocketnow.com/2016/06/07/pocketnow-challenge-one-week-with-a-black-and-white-smartphone-screen

[9] https://justgetflux.com/

[10] https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/adamleeb/hemingwrite-a-distraction-free-digital-typewriter

[11] http://www.salon.com/2014/08/08/rise_of_the_smartphone_zombies_what_we_lose_when_technology_gives_us_everything/

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What Did Ezra Read?

Today, the mass reading comes from Nehemiah, which reports the event of the priest-scribe Ezra reading the law of God to the Jews who have returned from the exile to the land. Here’s the report:

And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. (Neh 8:3 ESV)

So the question is what exactly is he reading? Scholars have put in a lot of sweat equity trying to figure out what exactly the “Book of the Law” was–Deuteronomy? The P material? Some early form of the Pentateuch? But of course, being scholars, they resort to bookish ideas to try to solve this problem of the book. I thought I’d lend a hand by introducing modern technology. :) (That would be a rather Catholic Bible Student kind of thing to do anyway.)

So…here’s where mp3 files come in. Back in the 60’s a mellifluous rabbi recorded himself reading the entire Tanak aloud and a very kind webmaster, has turned these recordings into mp3’s for all of us to enjoy for free. If we can grant Ezra about 6 hours from sun-up to noon to read, then how long would it take to read the Pentateuch in its present Hebrew form?

Using the Mechon-Mamre recordings as our baseline:

  • Genesis – 4:31:59 (4 hours, 31 minutes, 59 seconds)
  • Exodus – 3:14:39
  • Leviticus – 2:07:22
  • Numbers – 2:55:12
  • Deuteronomy – 2:43:28

So, if he read the whole Pentateuch, it would take 15 hours, 32 minutes and 40 seconds, with no breaks! So…he didn’t have time to read the whole Torah. But he could have read all of Deuteronomy and all of Numbers. Or he could have read all of Deuteronomy slowly with breaks and stops for moments of explanation. 

How much of the Pentateuch can you read from sunrise to noon?

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E-Readers for Academics

I have made several posts about the Amazon Kindle and my hope that a color version will be offered soon with ability to annotate text. It turns out I’m not alone. Another academic, Kevin Stolarick has the same wish–although, I’d have to say he’s a bit more fanatic about the whole thing considering he’s bought almost every device that came close to our shared desire. What we want is rather simple:

  • An e-ink reader (for long battery life, natural eyestrain-free reading)
  • 8 1/2″ x 11″ size (for reading academic articles that are scanned PDF’s and for reading student papers in Word DOC and DOCX format)
  • Ability to annotate in color (for highlighting and underlining academic articles and for annotating student papers)
  • Annotation must work with a fine point stylus (so it feels like writing with a pen rather than smushing pixels with a finger)
  • Good storage choices (whether SD card, Dropbox, etc.)

It seems like it would be a no-brainer for a tech company to offer a product like this. It would be custom built for the academic market (both students and teachers), but I think a lot of business folks would be interested too–for reports, policy binders, and other documents.

The makers of ereaders (Amazon, Sony, B&N) have focused on the book reader market because there’s money there. But they have missed the market of people who still use paper and would like to upgrade to the digital age. The 8 1/2″ x 11″ format may sound silly, but in a world that uses paper in that format all the time, there must be some level of interoperability between paper and ereaders. We want a paper-like experience without all the mess of paper. We want to read the same documents as our paperphile friends. It seems simple and when a tech company wakes up and provides us with a product like this for a good price, I’ll be first in line to get one.

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My Thoughts on Amazon Kindle 4

Amazon has been pushing its current version of the Kindle–Kindle 3–with lots of price drops and new categories like the “Kindle with Special Offers” which puts a bar of ads across the bottom of the Kindle screen while you’re reading. I’ve been interested in the Kindle for a long time because I love reading and I love ordering books from Amazon. But also, the Kindle uses a really special technology called e-ink. It’s not an LCD screen, but a “bi-polar” ink that changes color from white to black when it receives a tiny electric charge. This technology is amazing. It’s low-power and it’s not backlit, so it doesn’t hurt your eyes. It’s way more like reading a real ink-and-paper book than any other kind of screen. I’ve been impressed by it ever since Popular Science did an article about it more than 10 years ago.

There are a few drawbacks to the Kindle, however:
1. No touch screen. This means you can’t write on the screen like you can on paper,  so making notes in books is impossible. And to be honest, have you really read a book if you haven’t made a mark in it? See Mortimer Adler’s book, How to Read a Book, if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Ok, ok, the Kindle does allow you to make notes, but only typed notes, so how does that help us folks who underline, star and bracket things all the time.

2. No SD card slot. The original Kindle had an SD card slot–just like your camera, phone or other device. This meant that the size of storage was customizable at the user end of things. It also meant you take a huge file, throw it on an SD card using your computer at work or wherever and then read it on your Kindle. But now, no can do. To get something on your Kindle from your computer, you have to transfer it over USB. Boring! This is like 10-year-old technology or more. The reason the Kindle has this limitation is so that you are tempted to get everything you read on your Kindle through the Amazon store. Yuck. Ok, they do have a lot of free public domain books, but there are so many other kinds of things I’d like to read besides them.

3. No Color. The original e-ink technology is just black and white, with a little grayscale thrown in. Not so hot for our full color world. (I mean, when was the last time you saw a black-and-white TV?)

These are the reasons I have not bought a Kindle. But there are rumors out there about Kindle 4, no real information. However, I think we have reason to hope that Amazon Kindle 4 will have a color touchscreen. And that would overcome two of my three objections! But why do I say this? Is it just idle speculation. Nope. It’s based on evidence–very clear evidence in my mind.

The Eink company, which makes the screens for Kindle, is now advertising a new product–color e-ink displays that also act as a touchscreen. The new technology is called “Triton.” They have a PDF brochure which explains the new technology. In the brochure, they describe the new color display like this:

With the E Ink Triton color configuration, a thin transparent colored filter array (CFA) is added in front of the black and white display. Now the display can also reflect color. The CFA consists four sub-pixels – red, green, blue, and white – that are combined to create a full-colorpixel. The result? A low-power, direct-sunlight, readable color ePaper display that is mass manufactured in a practical way.

So the original white pixel hides behind four color subpixels that then combine to produce visible colord. I just want to know how they tell the screen which of the four subpixels to use. Here’s a little commercial from them on how it works:

Ok, but what about the touchscreen capabilities? Will I really be able to draw on the screen of a Kindle 4 with Triton technology?

Well, on the brochure, it says, “Touch-compatible E Ink technology enables pen or finger input which enhances
the user-experience.” Now I’m not entirely sure why it says “touch compatible” instead of just “touch,” but hey, who’s counting.

All this means that we’re likely to see an Amazon Kindle 4 with a color display and touch capability. But when? That’s another important question. I vote we’ll see it in 2012. A recent CNET interview the Vice President of Eink says they don’t plan to release any Triton-based e-reader in 2011. I’m still tempted to get a Kindle 3, but these new features to be released possibly next year, make me want to wait for the Kindle 4. I don’t think I’ll be disappointed if I do.

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