Thursday, August 17, 2006


Do you know what makes up your anti-velocity time?  Probably most of it is the context switching between tasks, not the alternative tasks that you do.  Even before moving beyond the limits of 21st century civilization, I have caught myself sitting at my computer waiting for someone to respond to one of my IMs or waiting to see if so and so is actually online and will respond to my recently sent email.  During this time, I have no real physical activity and my mental activity is akin to the processor waiting for the next instruction before swapping in the buffer comprising the instructions for that task.  This is not even context switching time, but rather, I would consider it essentially a vacuum space created by intense thrashing.  I can no longer focus on my real task because I have swapped so many interruptions in and out that the real task is somewhere so far down that my subconscious has concluded that the fetch to dredge it up would take more time than the current open slot has available.  

So I sit and wait for a couple of the simpler tasks to complete so that poor old smithers has enough cycles to figure out how to get re-engaged.  Once a couple of the interrupts can be flushed from the system, then I can do a reset, garbage collect, and refocus on my task at hand.  I would bet, from the outside, I look pretty silly when I am in this condition.  

Upon analysis, most of these tasks are not essential.  They are driven by convenience and ease of use.  If we look at interruptions, we can categorize them:
  1. Someone comes in and taps me on the shoulder and asks me to take them to the park to play (OK, these days it is the Mall, and if we are in a good mood, I can go in and sit at Starbucks rather than wait in the car).  This type of interruption is hard to ignore, as it sits there and repeats its self repeated until it is addressed.  Now clearly there are many ways I can address it and the length and depth of my interruption will be based upon how I address it.

  2. Someone calls me on the phone.  With current technology, even though I am pulled from my reverie or my hyper-focusing state, the interruption can either be short (I look at the caller ID and let it go to voice mail) or long (I answer the phone).  Either way, I need to do a context switch both out of my current activity and then back in.  The initial context switch, processing the call, includes a default prioritization of the interrupt.

  3. Someone sends me an email.  If my system is set up to interrupt me and notify me that the email has come in, it is like a phone call – I am notified and during the context switch, I can prioritize the interrupt.  If it is more important to me, I can process it, otherwise it floats into my mailbox for later.  If the system is set up for no interruptions, everything goes into the file for later review with no indicator to me.  

  4. Someone pings me on IM.  Again, if my system is configured for interruption, then a window pops up infront of my workspace and says “feed me”.  Again, I can prioritize the interrupt and decide whether to ignore it, reply shortly (otp or brb) implying I will address them later, or reply longly (Hey, I was hoping you would be around today, cause I am working on this paper and it just ain’t coming and I have be milking every interruption to kind of kill enough time so I don’t feel bad about gittin nothing done today).
The things all these interruptions have in common are the context switching that needs to accompany them and the ability to prioritize them.  The differences are their persistence nature and their synchrony or asynchrony.  The latter three are similar in that prior to their occurance, you can take steps to minimize or eliminate their impact.

One way is to move beyond the curtain of civilization – here is an even sadder tale of woe.  While we were building out house, we rented a cottage that was part of the town museum.  It was the only space in town available for rent and we really had to beg to get it.  The museum was really an old homestead that was a bit out of town smack dab on 350 acres of farmland and woods at the end of a dirt road.  Because it was town conservation land, except for about 10 acres around the house, you could hunt on the property, in season of course (NH, remember).  We used to get pheasants flying into the yard and wandering around the house and guys (they were always guys) would walk out of the woods in full gear and call over to us asking us to flush them back into the woods so they could shoot them.  BUT, we had cable and high speed internet.  No houses for a mile in any direction, and we had cable.  Now, I can see my neighbor and shout to him and he has cable, but I can’t!  Oh, but at the cottage, we had a cell phone cone of silence for about 500 yards in all direction for both Cingular and Verizon.

What I have found during this past 6 weeks is that my anti-velocity is mostly made up of three things: Context switching, Processing Interrupts, and that eerie silence caused when my swap space is so full, I can no longer cycle between all my interrupts and I have to wait for them to purge themselves.  With me, at least, eventually the interrupts drain away and suddenly, there is space in the old cranium to shift back to the original task and start again!


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