Life hacks

To what extent is your life just a sequence of tricks, shortcuts, and workarounds that you’ve learned over time?

The term “life hacks” is being used these days to describe discrete techniques and heuristics that can make you more productive and (sometimes) happier. As the author of an upcoming book entitled Life Hacks, Danny O’Brien, says, “Hacks are often a way of cutting through an apparently complex system with a really simple, nonobvious fix.” Here’s a favorite of mine that I use fairly often. If you’re afraid you might forget to take some important thing to work tomorrow, put your car keys underneath it.

Various blogs are devoted to this topic. One is even called Lifehacker. I read Lifehacker regularly, and I regularly find something useful to try. The Danny O’Brien quote above comes from an interview on that site (here’s another good interview with O’Brien’s co-author Merlin Mann). Still, I find myself wondering, what is it really that makes some people particularly productive? A pack of clever tricks and what else? O’Brien himself puts it well: “If I’m honest … most of this capability doesn’t come from habits. It just comes from being born insufferably talented.” In other words, super-talented people have learned some useful tricks, and these tricks take them from being merely 8.6 times more effective than you are to 8.95 times more effective. Think of all the people who try to play music more beautifully by buying the most expensive instrument. It only gets you so far.

What I’d really like to see is a blog called LifeDiaries, or something like that, dedicated to how productive people manage large chunks of their time. What is it that you do with discipline day after day? I bet super-productive people are not only more talented than you… they also work much much harder. It’s nice to know things like that. When you’re so obviously outclassed, it becomes easier to relax, drink a beer, and concentrate on something you really enjoy.

Finally, here’s my life hack contribution to you, free of charge: first, have a brilliant idea. Then do a really good job making it happen.

I oughta write a book.

River of news

Give a meme a name and it just might take off. By way of Jon Udell, I discovered that Dave Winer has given a name to my preferred feed reading technique: river of news. The basic idea is this. If you’re going to look at a bunch of little text items like RSS feed snippets, you can go visit them one by one, or you can glue them all together and scan through the whole thing at one go. If you like the one by one approach, your favorite interface will probably be a three-paned affair like a typical newsreader. I hate this. I want to read something that feels like a newspaper column. The first feed aggregator I really went for was called Aggie, and it just mashed everything into one giant HTML page. Dirt simple, but it worked like a charm. Aggie is defunct, but not to worry, because the mighty Bloglines picked up where Aggie left off. Bloglines doesn’t make you clicky-click click on everything to read it. And now I have a name for it.

Terror Alert Bert

I am fairly certain this is the kind of thing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act frowns upon. If the War on Terrorism has got you down, here’s a way to let your furry friends keep you up-to-date without freaking you out. The guy behind geek and proud has created a dandy Terror Alert Level indicator that you can paste directly into a web page.

Today’s Terror Alert Level is

Terror Alert Level

Remember: If you see Elmo, it’s time to duck and cover (just as soon as you put those toys away and give Elmo a big hug).

Dirt vaccines

I knew it would come to this: dirt is officially good for you. The “hygiene hypothesis” has received another shot in the arm in a recent talk by Professor Peter Openshaw of Imperial College, London: How ‘Dirt’ Could Educate The Immune System And Help Treat Asthma.

What is the hygiene hypothesis? It’s the idea that being exposed to filth early in your life strengthens your immune system, whereas being constantly scrubbed clean by anxious parents merely sets you up for a clock-cleaning viral sucker punch. Your wimpy little immune system will never know what hit it. The same hypothesis explains why polio’s awful bloom happened alongside the rise in modern plumbing. As Jane Smith says in her book Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine

Put simply, paralytic polio was an inadvertent by-product of modern sanitary conditions. When people were no longer in contact with the open sewers and privies that had once exposed them to the polio virus in very early infancy when paralysis rarely occurs, the disease changed from an endemic condition so mild that no one knew of its existence to a seemingly new epidemic threat of mysterious origins and terrifyingly unknown scope.

As I’ve mentioned before on this site, drinkable pig parasites (i.e. barnyard filth) are now being used to combat Crohn’s disease. And now, Professor Openshaw is telling us that the alarming rise in asthma may be due to the same cleanliness your mother so cherished. However, “having many older siblings, attending day care at an early age, or growing up on a farm can help in promoting resistance to disease.” Eventually our best vaccines will consist of finely tuned warmed-over sewage.

The fruits that civilization has given us, boons such as high-fructose corn syrup, Wonder Bread, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, and now personal hygiene, we must eventually surrender in the name of robust health. Take two mudpies and call me in the morning.

Fundraising and life with autism

Hey! It’s that time of year again when I ask friends and family to reach for their checkbooks and consider supporting autism research on behalf of my son Jay’s team. Jay’s team will be walking as part of the Walk Far for NAAR fundraising effort.

I’ve written various things about Jay in the past, but this year my wife Wendy put virtual pen to paper and wrote an eloquent update on Jay’s progress and a gentle encouragement to underwrite our adventure. I include her note below, but if you want to cut straight to the chase, you’re welcome to donate online now.

Continue reading “Fundraising and life with autism”

Flares and auroras

I have never seen the aurora borealis, but I want to.

I live in Boston, which is far enough north for this not to be a crazy goal, but still, you have to be looking in the right place at the right time (often at an outrageous time of night) to be rewarded with a view of the famous Northern Lights. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could arrange for someone to let me know exactly when to wake up and run outside?

One thing I know about auroras is that they’re associated with solar flares, and so when I read on that there was some massive solar flares activity, I knew I might have a chance to catch my aurora. Still, when exactly would necessary geomagnetic storm occur on Earth? When you want to know about space weather (like flares and solar wind proton flux density), the place to go is, and these guys actually offer a phone service called SpaceWeatherPhone. They’ll call you and tell you when to wake up, but it’ll cost you.
I’m too cheap to pay someone to wake me up in the middle of the night, but it wasn’t hard to hunt down a free service called Aurora Chasers, which relies on email instead of the phone. I signed up right away.

Now I wait by my Gmail account, painting my fingernails, and waiting for a note from the Northern Lights. But I have my doubts about this free service. The storm is over now, and although I never heard from Aurora Chasers, the folks over at SpaceWeatherPhone have some beautiful pictures to show.

Maybe next time…

URLs and unintended consequences

Several years ago I visited the website for a company called Experts Exchange, a company that brokers information exchange between computer system specialists. As I typed in the URL, I realized something that must have been plaguing their marketing department right about then: one look at the URL, and your brain fishes out the conspicuous “sex” in the middle and completes the sentence. Presto! You can almost hear the ad jingle: “Put your gender in a blender at Expert Sex Change.” Not surprisingly, they changed their domain name to

But it does show how surprisingly easy it is to make a big goof. A site called Domain Rookie just published a funny piece entitled Domain Name Mispronouncings. He leads with ExpertsExchange, but he’s got some other good ones too. Some are more credible than others. TherapistFinder (TheRapistFinder) seems real, but I don’t for one second believe there is a real pen company called Pen Island. The domain name for that last one will be left as an exercise for the reader.

Programming contest comments

I get excited about the MATLAB Programming Contest that we run at The MathWorks because it’s such a cool and compelling window on how groups of humans work together to build complicate things. As such, it’s a sort of greenhouse model for some important trends in the modern infosphere, including open source programming and wikis. I keep telling people about this contest and I keep hoping they’ll get as excited as me. A few years ago I wrote a paper about the contest, which I’ve mentioned here before, but I’m happy to report that the paper recently caught the eye of a gentleman named Ben Hyde, and he was kind enough to say some nice words about it. What’s particularly gratifying about this is that Ben is a key contributor to one of the most successful open source projects around, the Apache HTTP Server project. So when he talks about Open Source, he knows whereof he speaks. He closes his comments with the words “There must be hundreds of places around the edges of open source projects were these techniques could be tried.” Hey, that sounds like fun!

Interview with a car hijacker

When I lived in San Francisco, my car (a sleek white 1979 Chevette) got broken into twice. The second time it happened, all they really got was my overnight bag with all my clothes in it. I was lucky that’s all there was to it, but even so, aside from the nasty sense of violation at being robbed, I was intensely irritated that the thief stole something of no possible value to them (underwear, toothbrush, socks) but which was nevertheless lost to me forever. I remember thinking, as I shopped for new underwear, that I would have gladly paid money to see a video of the thief doing the deed, even if it wouldn’t have identified the criminal. I just wanted the sense of closure at seeing the bastard work. I suppose I would’ve thought to myself: so that’s what it looked like…

My friend Roy recently sent me a link along these lines about Johannesburg, a town that knows a thing or two about car-related theft. The link points to an interview with a former (so we are told) car thief/hijacker in which the interviewee reveals some of the secrets to his erstwhile trade. It provides some of the answers to questions that are generally so damnably difficult to uncover: How do you steal cars? What is your day like? How do you choose your victims? Here for example is a useful tip: “If I was having difficulty with a particular car, sometimes I’d dress up nicely and go to a dealer posing as a customer. I’d ask the salesman how good the anti-theft system was on that car and he would give me all the details.” Good to know. Here’s another moderately reassuring Q and A.

Q. In a hijacking did you normally go for soft targets like women?

A: No, I could take on anyone. I was a professional. I’d stick my gun right in their faces and they wouldn’t give me any trouble. That’s why I never shot or hurt anyone; I was against that. A friend of mine sometimes shot people he hijacked and he used to wake up with nightmares.

Like I said, it’s only moderately reassuring.