Aaron Swartz is dead. It appears that he took his own life. He was facing prosecution, and the possibility of jail time. I didn’t know him personally, but I am grateful for much of what he accomplished in his too-short life. I knew of him best for his co-founding of Reddit, but obituaries and other accounts of his life show that his energy and achievements went far beyond software development and entrepreneurship.

One of the outcomes of Aaron’s death has been a petition to remove from office Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, “for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz.” The petition is directed to the Obama administration, which appointed Ortiz.

I have signed the petition. I did not do so lightly. It first occurred to me to sign when I read the following quote from Ortiz in a recent Guardian article.

Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.

My reaction was (and is) that if Ortiz said this in the context of the Aaron Swartz case, I don’t want her anywhere near such a case. It is alleged that he copied documents. Copying documents, leaving the originals intact, is not the same sort of taking as stealing money, leaving the victim poorer. To introduce a economic term, copies of documents are not rivalrous goods.

Notice the if in the previous paragraph. It occurred to me that Ortiz may have been misquoted. I didn’t want to jump to the conclusion that she had said something so ridiculous. So I Googled the above quote. One of the many sources I found for it was a web page with the title “USDOJ: US Attorney’s Office – District of Massachusetts”. So the web site of Ortiz’s own organization “credits” her with that exact quote.

My objection to Ortiz as US Attorney is manyfold. First, she is actually responsible for the ridiculous statement quoted above. Second, she sought to have someone convicted of a felony and imprisoned on that ridiculous basis. I’ll stop here, partly because I am in no position to measure Ortiz’s share of the blame for Aaron’s death.

At about the same time I was rereading Getting Things Done, I was reading Reality is Broken for the first time. The full title of Jane McGonigal’s book is Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

Make us better? Does that mean that games can encourage us to get things done? Yes it does: for example, McGonigal and her husband compete in the game Chore Wars, each an adventurer seeking to outdo the other in tasks such as “conjuring the clothes” (doing the laundry).

That raises the question: can Allen’s GTD system be “gamified”? This question has been asked and addressed before (for example, by this fellow WordPress blogger).

Next question: has someone already developed a GTD game? The nearest thing I and Google could find was Epic Win, an ioS app that provides a role-playing interface to the familiar to-do list. Here’s the avatar for my character, which has recently leveled up (but only to 2).

To address first the question that led me to Epic Win: it’s not a close fit with GTD. For example, EW expects actions/quests to be assigned a date, whereas Allen specifically recommends against the daily to-do list. It would be more GTD-ish for quests to have locations on the EW map, just as GTD actions can be assigned contexts.

That said, it would be unfair to judge EW as an implementation of GTD, since it doesn’t claim to be one. So how is it as a to-do list flavored with quests and other role-playing spices?

I’d say that the (RPG) spices are done better than the to-do nutrition. I don’t find the interface to be intuitive. Part of this is due to organization by date, rather than by context, priority, or some other criterion my choice. But there are other things I stumble against.

There is integration with Google Calendar. But as far as I can see, there is no integration with Google Tasks. More seriously, EW made some strange (with respect to time of day) changes to my calendar.

Epic Win feels like a work in progress. To be fair, there is progress, in the form of updates to the app. But, at $2.99, it feels expensive for an iPhone app. Maybe we’re spoiled in terms of app prices, and maybe I’m judging EW as I’m using it, on the iPad, rather than on its native iPhone.

So I’m still looking for an iPad app to gamify GTD. Any suggestions? Or any reactions to my remarks on Epic Win?

Time to get more organized! I decided that a couple of weeks ago. This isn’t the first time I’ve made that decision. Neither is it the first time I’ve turned to David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Here’s how David contrasts his system with other systems.

The big difference between what I do and what others do is that I capture and and organize 100 percent of my “stuff” in and with objective tools at hand, not in my mind.

That quote captures the first of the half-dozen points that struck me as I reread the book. Another basic point is that GTD is a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, approach to personal productivity. Each of those first two points is from the first chapter.

The Workflow DiagramThe second chapter is the most important in the book, and makes each of the remaining points. In particular, it includes The Workflow Diagram (that link is point three). The workflow is the process for filtering stuff, identifying actions (i.e. things that can actually be done) and putting deferred actions in the appropriate place (Next Actions list or calendar.

A couple of explicit contrasts with some time management systems provide points four and five. Such systems recommend that actions be given priorities, and the that highest-priority actions be done first. In GTD, other criteria trump priority. One of these is time available: when do you have to do something else, and what can you fit in before then?

Allen recommends against the daily to-do list. The calendar is for things that have to be done at a particular time, or on a particular day. Other actions, however important, belong on a Next Actions list.

The sixth and final point concerns the weekly review: a look through Next Action lists, Project lists, etc. Like most of the points made in Allen’s first two chapters, this one is revisited later in the book: Friday afternoon is, for many people, a good time for the weekly review.

So those are the half-dozen things about GTD that struck me. If you have encountered GTD and wanted to make a similarly brief set of points about it, how would your list be different?

I’ll follow up soon with some thoughts on tools for GTD.

2012 Q1: iPad

April 8, 2012

2012 is a quarter gone already, and I haven’t been posting here much. It seems like a good time for to review the year so far. I’ll do so with a few brief posts. I was going to make this first one a review of technology in 2012 so far, but that could get long, so we’ll focus here on one of the major tech events of Q1: the launch of the iPad 3.

Is the iPad 3 so good that it makes an iPad 2 owner yearn for it? I have a particular interest in this question, since I’ve had an iPad 2 for about a year. In March 2011, I posted that the iPad 2 overcame some of my objections to all things Apple.

I’ve been very pleased with the iPad 2, as subsequent posts show. Other members of the family have also been pleased with it, although not to the extent that there’s been a lot of tablet-grabbing conflict.

Differences between the new iPad and the iPad 2, as described on Apple’s comparison page, and as prioritized by me, include:

  • Display: twice the pixels per inch (264 vs 132). Most reviewers of the new iPad are very impressed with the difference. I have no problems with the display quality on the iPad 2, so I don’t yearn for this improvement. On the other hand, I haven’t done as much ebook reading as I expected to do on the iPad 2, and it’s possible that I might do more on a new iPad, with its crisper display.
  • 4G rather than 3G, if you have the data plan. I went for Wi-Fi only, to save money on the iPad itself, and to save a lot more money by not paying for a data plan every month, and haven’t had serious regrets.
  • A real (5 megapixel) camera. I suspect that an iPad would feel rather cumbersome and silly as a camera.

So far then, I have no envy of people with the iPad 3 (which is actually just called the iPad). But if I were taking the iPad plunge now, I would spend the extra $100 to get the new model, rather than the iPad 2. For Wi-Fi and 16GB, the new one costs $499 – what the iPad 2 cost a a year ago.

What do you think? Would I quickly wonder how I lived without an iPad 3, where I to spend some time with one? How will the iPad 4 be different?

There’s a big difference between free of charge and any charge, no matter how small. That’s on observation often made about e-business. When it comes to the web, part of the difference arises from difficulties with micropayments. Another part arises from the way we think about costs; this part applies to even to the most tangible and familiar of objects.

Consider, for example, the plastic or paper bags given away by many stores, including supermarkets. They are no longer given away for free in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live.

Montgomery County passed legislation… that places a five-cent charge on each paper or plastic carryout bag provided by retail establishments in the County to customers…

Montgomery County’s legislation, similar to Washington DC’s Bag Law, is designed to create an incentive for the public to reduce use of disposable bags by bringing reusable bags.

Will it work? I have evidence that it does. And by evidence, I mean anecdote: stories of my own behavior, and conversations at cash registers. I have gone back into the house to get shopping bags as I am about to drive to the store, then remembered that I’ll be charged if I get new bags. I am trying to keep a stock of bags in the car for the inevitable occasions on which I forget to grab bags from the house.

This effect isn’t due to the size of the difference: the five-cent difference between free and a nickel is bigger than five cents. Moreover, the directions of the five-cent difference matters. The local Giant supermarkets used to give five cents back for every bag a customer brought in. But the gain of five cents per bag wasn’t enough to make me bring bags to the store.

So there are two five-cent differences involved here. The loss of five cents per bag used affects my behavior, while a gain of five cents per bag rarely did. Those familiar with the concept of loss aversion shouldn’t be surprised. That said, I’ve been familiar with the concept for years, and I am surprised at how effective the five-cent penalty seems to be.

If only there was a good way to keep track of people and organizations. The good news is that there is. The bad news it that there are many such ways.

This post focuses on three web-based services for managing contacts: Highrise, Nimble, and Contactually. To be more specific, the focus is on free web-based services for managing contacts. You may not need such a service to be web-based: indeed, you may find an address book, made from dead trees, to be more than adequate. You may have decided that your email service gives you all the online contact management you need. But the premise of this post is that you want a contact management service other than the service provided by your email.

Each of the three services (again, that’s Highrise, Nimble, and Contactually) is freemium: there’s a free version, and one or more versions for which you pay, and which give you more than the free versions gives you. I focus here on the contrast between the free versions. I’m trying them out for contact management. So I provide here a view from the low end of the target spectrum, since they are mainly services for Customer Relationship Management (CRM), which the respective vendors are selling into businesses.

Highrise is Simple CRM by 37signals: that’s how 37s describes it. I’ve been using the free version for contact management for a while. I haven’t had problems, but will bump against the 250 contact limit for the free version if I use it in earnest. 37signals is keen to upgrade me to a paid option such as Plus (20,000 contacts, $49/month) or its suite, in which Highrise is one of four services.

Nimble proposes that you “Turn Your Social Communities into Customers”. It brings together contacts, calendars, and conversations from services including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. The free version allows up to 3,000 contacts, which will be more than enough for me to be going on with; the paid version is $15 per user per month. Nimble was recently written up at TechCrunch and elsewhere, since it raised $1m in funding from notables including my former colleague Don Dodge.

Contactually (also recently at TechCrunch) is the newest of the three CRM/contact management services. It proposes that you manage relationships “right in your [email] inbox”. I haven’t had time to use it much yet. I should note that I emailed support soon after singing up, and receiving a helpful and friendly reply a few hours later, in the early hours of the morning. That’s not due to a different timezone: Contactually is a local (to me) business, being DC-based.

Now, I should stop writing this, contact some contacts, and look out for any comment you might wish to post here…

In the years I’ve been blogging about social media, even before we thought that Web 2.0 was a cool and cutting-edge term, ReadWriteWeb has been among the feeds I follow. So I knew (or at least emailed and otherwise interacted with) Richard MacManus when he was an ambitious and hardworking blogger. I continued to follow RWW as it became a new media property (whatever that means) and added staff, such as Marshall Kirkpatrick.

I’ll continue to follow RWW as it moves into the third stage. Having been a blog and a media property, it’s now part of a media empire. RWW has been acquired by SAY Media.

Richard, sincere congratulations. I hope that this is a very profitable event financially. I also hope that it is not an exit from RWW for you as a blogger.

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