End those digital fasts with these 5 April Fool’s Day pranks

Well, folks, it’s almost that time again: Easter. Also known as the end of Lent. Or what should be known as national coming out day for all the people who’ve just spent the past 40 days doing some kind of digital fasteaster egg on computer key. They inevitably come back with a desire to enlighten us with their Enormous Insight Into The Nature of Digital Existence And Everything, before they return to tweeting their latest random thoughts just like they always have.

This year, however, the calendar has afforded us a delightful opportunity: since Lent ends just before April 1, we can and should play some collective pranks on the newly re-digitized. After all, they’re not online to read what we are planning. Here are some options:

  1. Invent a new YouTube meme that, like the Harlem Shake, requires you to dance like a crazy person: but this time, solo, unmasked and in your underwear. Pay for targeted online ads that tell people about the latest must-join meme as soon as they blog, tweet or Facebook the words “digital fast”.
  2. Pretend that Facebook changed its privacy settings at the beginning of Lent, and all their ultra-private content has been publicly displayed on their wall for forty days without them knowing it.
  3. Send them a link to the new app that everybody is using and which is going to leave them friendless and alone unless they immediately sign up, too. The sign-up form should be a web page with a sign-up form that goes exactly nowhere; clicking “submit” should tell them that they have been added to the beta wait list and will be informed when it’s their turn to join.
  4. Tell them that Twitter has now extended its post length to 200 characters. Let them write their verbose tweets, and we can all mock them when their tweets get awkwardly truncated. What could be more humiliating?
  5. Convince them that while they were offline, Google Reader shut down, and they will have to find some other way to access online news. This one is particularly hilarious if your digital faster accesses the Internet from within an authoritarian regime, and relies on Reader to get news from beyond the firewall. Tell them they’re now going to be limited to the same censored content as all their neighbors, and ROTFL!

The 23 stages of the task management software lifecycle

  1. Totally on top of all pending tasks
  2. Moderate slippage of select tasks leads to mild anxiety
  3. Catastrophic failure to complete one or more mission-critical tasks leads to wholesale re-evaluation of career choice, self-worth and why are we even on this earth anyhow?
  4. Application of medication, coaching and/or psychotherapy scales existential crisis back to actionable item: adopt new task management system
  5. All tasks put on hold for 3-14 days while documenting software requirements and researching available options
  6. Software selection creates brief window for completion of most-urgent tasks
  7. Installation of software across all desktop and mobile devices
  8. Optional: acquisition of any additional hardware devices or accessories that are revealed to be vitally necessary [read: nifty] in light of new task management software choice
  9. Troubleshooting of cloud-based cross-device task synchronization
  10. Capture of top-of-mind tasks
  11. Blissful peace of knowing all crucial tasks are captured
  12. Hey! all this blissful peace helped me remember the 27 other tasks I keep forgetting about
  13. Contact high from daily experience of checking off task checkboxes
  14. Evangelization of preferred task management solution to foolish friends and colleagues with their hopelessly antiquated systems
  15. Significant financial and/or temporal investment in software, workflows or custom hacks on the Best. Task. Management. System. Ever.
  16. Religious daily capture and review of all current tasks
  17. Religious daily capture of all potential tasks
  18. Gosh there sure are a lot of tasks in there
  19. Minor failure of task completion due to task management software avoidance
  20. Capture of project or event-specific task list in a separate app or document, where it won’t get lost in that big, overwhelming, depressing list of tasks
  21. Important tasks captured in emails to self so that they won’t get lost in the morass of recorded tasks
  22. Realization that completion of task list will require 8,918 hours worth of work leads to total avoidance of task management application
  23. Moderate task slippage (repeat from step #2 above)

Which Facebook updates could you live without?

The beauty of being married to a man with absolutely no interest in sports is that I would remain blissfully unaware of the start of hockey season, at least until I get to the office Monday, were it not for Facebook and Twitter, which are suddenly overflowing with Canucks-related blah blah blah. That’s a problem that can be easily rectified in Twitter, simply by using a client that lets you filter out tweets containing certain keywords. But how to make Facebook a hockey-free zone?

The solution could be as close as the show/hide stories dropdown…if Facebook would just customize its news feed categories a little:
facebook hide news dropdown if it allowed you to hide hockey news

Which categories of news would you like to be able to hide with one click?

More jobs of the future: essential staff for your tech lifestyle

A while ago I blogged a list of anticipated jobs of the future: new categories of employment that will be necessitated by our increasingly plugged-in lives. It’s time to add a few to the list:

Update concierge: 2 laptops + 2 home computers + 1 ipad + 1 iphone + 2 ipod touches = 5,842,102 software updates per week. (I’m sure that’s what it would come out to if I actually stopped to count.) And since those software updates are linked to a bunch of different online accounts and serial numbers, and inevitably run into a different set of obstacles on each machine (“This version of TimeWaster is not compatible with Mac OS 10.7.1.2.b”) it is pretty much a full-time job to notice which updates are available, and then actually download and run them. A full-time job, but God willing, not MY full-time job.

Charging butler: Take the wattage for any device charger, divide it by the number of prongs or pins in its charging cable, and multiply that number by .6: you’ll have the number of minutes of human effort required to keep that device charged.  Based on this math, I calculate that for every 4 devices you own that are powered by a rechargeable battery, you will require two full-time equivalent employees to ensure they are charged when you need them.

Cord wrangler: If someone had told me how many cables I would have to keep track of in order to enjoy the fruits of this here Information Revolution, I would have given serious consideration to sticking with wax tablets. I can pretty much guarantee that whatever cable I have in my purse (and there are usually about 7 of them), it will inevitably be too short, too tangled or too mangled for whatever I need it for — and that is if it is even the right type of cable in the first place. That is why I look forward to hiring a full-time cord wrangler — ideally someone with really extreme piercings that they use to wrap my various cables directly onto their person.

Returner-in-chief: In our household, this has been the Year of Amazon. The combination of a US mailbox, an Amazon Prime account and a couple of iPads (to keep the kids busy during the 45-minute drive to the border) has finally opened our eyes and wallets to the convenience of shopping online. So this would also have been the Year of Amazon Returns — if I were organized enough to actually ship back my failed purchases. That’s why I need a Returner-in-Chief, a role that would pay for itself in Amazon savings.

Conversation bird: As more and more of us yield to our compulsion to check email or play Angry Birds during every vacant moment, we gradually lose our capacity for coping with the boredom of waiting….driving us to spend even more time on screen, and further eroding our capacity for life offline in general. The obvious solution is to short-circuit the choice between boredom vs. screen time by creating the modern equivalent of court jesters: professional conversation partners who exist to provide an amusing, live alternative to angry birds. Coming soon to a line-up near you!

Human keychain: You know those dystopian movies where a future society grows brainless human clones to use as organ donors? They got it backwards. What I actually need is a Brain-In-A-Jar-On-A-Keychain, which I can fully dedicate to remembering all my passwords, so that my primary brain is available to write War and Peace: The Sequel and come up iwth the cure for cancer. But until the BIAJOAK comes along, I will settle for a full-time human staffer who does nothing except remember and enter my passwords. And I will pay her really well, ’cause she will have the power to seriously fuck up my life.

Do any of these jobs of the future sound like a great fit for your skill set, interests or lack of motivation? Please contact me to apply today. In keeping with the Payroll of the Future, the pay is terrible.

For Lent, I’ve decided to give up reading about digital fasts

Gosh, how I love digital fasts. And Lent 2011 has given us a bumper crop of digital fasters who now find 40 days without Facebook (or Twitter) more profound and painful than a month without booze, TV or smokes. Well, if they can live without us for 40 days (sniff!) then we can live without them.

And apparently I’m not the only one who’s ready for a digital fast fast. Jon Acuff of Stuff Christians Like — how did I not know about this incredibly funny, tech-smart blogger? — has a truly awesome post providing the essential steps for digital fasts. He notes it’s an especially tough challenge for Christians, because

The Bible is very thin on the best way to wean yourself off of a Twitter addiction. Not once does Peter say, “Follow me on Twitter, I’m @Rock.” Or better yet for all you old school rap fans out there, “@PeteRock.”

He then goes on to spell ou the 7 steps of fasting, including the pre-fast web overdose and the post-fast triumphant return. But my favorite is step 2:

Write a blog post about taking a digital fast. The irony of writing online about how you are going to take some time from being online is so rich it’s like a delicious sandwich spread made of boysenberry and irony. Technically the Bible says we’re not supposed to tell people when we fast. Maybe posts on your blog don’t count. Maybe.

As you can gather, Acuff’s steps have a Christian spin (a delightfully humorous spin, at that) but they apply to anyone who is trying to unplug, whether for 4 hours or 40 days. Or more particularly, they apply to my feelings about anyone who is trying to unplug: if you think it’s useful, take it for a spin. And do tell us what you’ve learned about your relationship to technology as a result. But please, please, can you keep your revelations from taking up more online space than the fast cleared out?

Mac users, meet your menu bar

Can you recognize the signs of SMBB? Selective Menu Bar Blindness affects millions of Mac users, but has yet to be widely recognized as a chronic and debilitating condition.

Patient X — let’s call her “Shmalexandra” — was treated for a classic presentation of the disorder. SMBB typically presents as occlusion of the left peripheral vision, causing the user to perceive the menu bar at the top of the screen as something like the following:

Default icon set in mac menu bar

In this example, the user perceives the menu bar as comprising a limited selection of icons, largely corresponding to default functionality such as Bluetooth, wireless, volume, battery charge, time, account and search (this user is additionally able to recognize the presence of Tunnelblick, a utility that connects to VPNs).

Upon examination, the user’s menu bar was found to include a much larger set of icons:

Complete menu bar with full set of icons including user-installed utilities

As you can see, the user’s SMBB had obscured perception of a large set of icons, even though the majority of these icons represented utilities that the user had specifically chosen to install:

Close up of icons appearing towards the middle of the menu bar

Interestingly, when the user was directed towards the red “M” envelope in the middle of the menu bar, she was able to both see the icon and identify its likely relationship to the Gmail account, suggesting that SMBB is a cognitive limitation and not an actual gap in the visual field. Once the user perceived and identified the icon, she proceeded to click on it, noting the value that this menu bar dropdown — part of the Mailplane browser for Gmail — would likely provide to her future e-mail processing:

Mailplane dropdown from menu bar shows list of recent messages

Observations and recommended treatment: Once the user has clicked on a single unviewed menu bar icon she is likely to notice additional icons and click on them to, identifying opportunities for improved usability and workflow. In most cases, SMBB can be cured by a single treatment, in which the user is encouraged to look at the damn menu bar already,

The biggest WikiLeaks disclosure yet

The cover story of yesterday’s New York Times Magazine is a must-read piece about the New York Times’ experience covering the stories that emerged from the WikiLeaks source material. Editor Bill Keller talks about how the Times approached this unusual source material, how it collaborated with other news organizations, and how the Obama administration’s measured and respectful approach to these impending disclosures differed from the Bush administration’s efforts to browbeat editorial teams over previous, unwanted stories. Reading Keller’s piece provides a rare level of insight into how news organizations handle the challenges of working with information, people and issues that were unimaginable even five years ago.

But the best part of the story is the closing paragraph, in which Keller describes a Christmas card sent out by one of Julian Assange’s lawyers:

Dear kids,
Santa is Mum & Dad.
Love,
WikiLeaks